CLEVELAND — It’s the start of a trip that will turn miserable in a few hours.
But right now it’s lunchtime, Dwight Howard seemingly ordering half of the Hard Rock Café's menu before purging himself of all that has gone wrong the last couple of years.
He remains upset because he says he has upset so many.
“I remember making appearances in Orlando and families asking me to stay and sitting there trying not to cry,” he says.
He wants only to please people, so much so that it’s almost crippling. He’s now working with Kobe Bryant to learn how to not care so much what people think.
He has found the master.
“It’s a struggle for me, but I have to find a middle ground,” Howard says. “If I’m going to go to the next level, I have to do it.”
Howard says he won’t shoot the jump shots in games that he routinely makes in practice.
“I hate missing,” he says. “I hate missing so much, I miss. You know why? I’m always thinking I’m going to miss this and then disappoint everyone.”
He’s a head case, I suggest, and he replies, “In a nice way,” his desire to make others happy a lifelong way of life.
He says that when LeBron James won the championship he cried, thrilled for LeBron and upset he wasn’t playing.
When Orlando lost to the Lakers in the 2009 Finals, he says he cried himself to sleep listening to Eminem sing about getting only one shot in “Lose Yourself.”
He says he recently saw the new Tom Cruise movie, “Jack Reacher,” and when some people were killed, he nearly cried.
He cries a lot.
“I’m emotional,” he says.
He smiles a lot too.
“My mother had seven miscarriages before I came along,” he says, his mother calling him the Miracle Baby. “I’m not supposed to be here; I have a reason to be happy.”
He sang in the choir, was co-president of his high school class and comes from a protective family. Mom and dad still offer advice, and a cousin has been traveling with him since he went pro.
He remembers as a kid his dad asking him why he seemed to be the only basketball player smiling. Then his dad started to watch him play more, his teams losing and at the same time lacking energy. He noticed his son taking the losses hard and also lacking energy.
“Keep smiling,” his dad told him, and so Howard does, although it’s often misinterpreted.
“People don’t know what I’m doing behind the scenes to get better,” he says. “They think I’m just a screw-up. But because I smile doesn’t mean I want to win any less than Kobe, who might not smile.”
He says as easygoing as he might appear, there is something else brewing inside that needs to be contained.
“A lot of people don’t know that I used to work out with Kevin Garnett when I first came into the league. Later I would play against him the year we were going to the Finals, and he did everything to get into my head and disrupt my game. And it worked.
“I learned from that; I learned I’m going to get fouled and bumped,” he says. Yet a few days ago in a loss to Utah, it’s as if he needs another lesson.
“I did have bad body language,” he says. “I got a number of texts from my friends saying that’s not me. I was out of it. I missed a couple of shots and let it get to me.”
He thinks about things all the time. He recently shut down his personality when quizzed by an Orlando reporter he believes betrayed him earlier. As tough as he wants to be, he has to overcome his own sensitivity, challenging himself on the ride home for how he handled the reporter.
“People don’t know how hurt I’ve been, and sometimes I allow it to show,” he says.
He wants to talk more about Orlando, but what do we care? He’s a Laker now. But he won’t stop talking.
“People don’t understand,” he says. “Yeah, I’m this big guy, but I also have a big heart. All I wanted to do was put Orlando on the map, but then I see all this stuff being written; I had to stop reading Twitter and doing Facebook. It was bad for my soul.
“I told a friend I was going to come back this year and not fool with anybody, stay to myself and not do anything else. But who am I kidding? That’s not me.”
To remind himself how important it is to keep the game fun, he watched 40 clips of himself going sour in Orlando.
“We’re lucky to do what we do,” he says.
He says he left Orlando because everyone from the owner to the janitor has to believe a team can win a championship. That wasn’t happening in Orlando, he says.
He says he watched LeBron leave Cleveland and knew what was coming. “I saw people burning his jersey and I’m thinking I don’t want to hurt these people like that. But at the same time I had everyone telling me what I should do.
“And here I am shouting for God to help me, knowing the teacher sometimes remains quiet. I guess it was a test.”
Once he made his decision to leave Orlando, it was going to be the best of times. But instead he finds himself parked in hell.
“Maybe somewhere between heaven and hell,” he says. “Purgatory. But it’s going to get better. I know it.”
Howard will be a free agent at the end of this season. I ask him if he knows now where he will be playing next year, and he says, “I know.”
I suggest that means the Lakers because he could not know of any other opportunity at this time. But I still make a pitch for the Clippers, figuring he might want to play for the best team in town.
He laughs, and when I suggest that some opine that if this season falls apart it will persuade him to leave, he says that’s not the case.
He says the Lakers are all about championships, and “what’s not to like about L.A.?”
There is an expectation by some that he cannot coexist with Kobe.
“Why can’t we coexist?” he asks. “Because we’re opposites? I thought opposites attract.
“You know why we can play well together? Kobe knows how hard I work and that I’m all about championships. We’re also entertainers, and for the two hours and 20 minutes that people come to a game they want to be entertained.”
So could you yell a little more at Kobe to really make it entertaining?
“We’ve already had our moments,” he says.
As big a kid as he seems at times, trying to sing in Chinese when requested by a Chinese reporter to do so to everyone’s amusement, he offers this surprise:
“I feel like I was put on this earth to change the world,” he says with conviction. “I wasn’t put on earth just to play basketball. I want to change the world, and this is a great platform to do it.”
He talks about becoming an icon, “someone 200 years from now they will remember,” and I suggest he sounds like Brad Pitt doing Achilles in “Troy.”
“And he’s better-looking, so he might have the edge,” I add.
“I would disagree,” Howard says with a grin, his charisma often as big as his appetite.
He says Lakers fans have yet to see him at his best after he underwent back surgery last spring, his friends wondering, though, if he has taken up smoking.
“I get so tired running,” he says. “I look like I’m in shape, but I’m not. My friends are used to seeing me run for 40 minutes without a problem.”
So far he’s known best as the guy who can’t make free throws, although he’s capable of hitting 90 out of 100 in practice. He says he knows the problem is his own head, everyone filling it with advice, including an attempt to hypnotize him.
As goal-oriented as he is, he says, he will be better. In fact he has a mirror in his bathroom dedicated to reminding him of his lifelong, as well as season-long, goals.
“It’s the first thing I see every morning,” he says.
He has also posted on the mirror negative messages and things he has read about himself. Obviously, it’s a big mirror.
“I pray for the people who say bad things,” he says.
He seems to be staring at me as he says so.
“So what’s the mirror say about your season goal for making free throws?” I ask.
“80%,” he says.
“So we know you’re also a dreamer,” I tell him.
And he grins while devouring yet another chicken wing.
“I dream big,” he says, “and my dreams come true.”