Little big man, or why Dwight Howard annoys everyone

USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard is one of the very best players in the NBA, and about to become a great deal richer. What fans find annoying about him doesn't have much to do with either of those.

It's not quite spam, because the emails arrive in English -- or, more specifically, the unctuous, bullet-pointed amphetamine-English that is the written dialect of public relations -- and because the emails have content beyond a link to bestbonerpillz4u.tv.

But there are a lot of these emails. They take off in great yowling sorties every morning, strafing inboxes with important news about some ex-athlete's endorsement of a daringly YOLO new type of orthotic or energy slurry or online ticket vendor. They announce that John Starks or whoever is available via conference call to answer questions about those x-treme orthotics.

Just as often, these emails carry news of some whimsical would-be viral gambit by various brands out to convince consumers that they are not just human, but the sort of likable, good-humored humans you'd want to hang out and perform your consumer preferences with. It is and has long been the job of Darren Rovell, the sports business reporter who is something like the human version of one of these emails, to expand and repurpose these missives, usually by providing some analysis -- that is, usually some very specific and very opaque numbers preceded by dollar signs -- and a quote. This, presumably, is how Rovell came to talk Skittles with Dwight Howard in 2011.

"In what might be one of the most savvy moves in marketing today," Rovell enthused in what might be one of the most Darren Rovell sentences ever written, "Wrigley executives find its biggest, most high profile Skittles lovers and make custom dispensing machines for them." Howard, who is as fond of and closely identified with Skittles as any human alive, received a pinball machine from The Skittles People, which Rovell reports featured images of both Howard and the candy. Howard also received what Rovell described as "a Skittles branded Superman cape."

Rovell, for his part, received a bunch of quotes from Howard, who had recently been named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year for the third straight season, about his favorite Skittles flavors.

"If we're talking about color blenders," Howard told Rovell, "I like the yellow ones." And then some confused braggadocio concerning Howard's skill at the various arcade games in his house: "I scored so many points on Galactica," Howard said, most likely about Galaga, "that the numbers froze." And then a goofy tweenage curlicue of conspicuous consumption -- "Skittles are so good in China. I don't know why. They taste so much better" -- and then it's all over.

Imagine Rovell hanging up his phone, a little exhausted, at least until he remembers how savvy a marketing move this was. Imagine Dwight charging into his game room and banging away on the pinball machine, or watching an animated children's movie, or pounding a fistful of tropical fruit Skittles and just continuing to talk loudly and excitedly, to no one in particular, about his favorite candy and arcade game expertise and whatever other corn syrup-powered thoughts pop into his head and out of his mouth and into the air-conditioned echo chamber of his palatial suburban home.

***

Which, okay: there is no reason to start getting all poignant about Dwight Howard, whose public persona is defined by an absolute absence of nuance or complication. Howard has been wooed vigorously of late, whisked into the secret VIP sections of Dave & Buster's-es in Atlanta and Houston and Dallas by various GMs and @-messaged on Twitter by various local basketball legends and celebrities and a very practical-minded Houston rapper.

Howard is currently "in the mountains," turning over his options in a rented fortress of solitude. There he will remain until the moment he sends word of his free agent destination, almost certainly via Instagram video, quite possibly one that cuts off abruptly because he spent the first 11 seconds of the video doing a Steve Urkel impersonation. He has doubtless giving the decision a great deal of consideration, and the conclusion he reaches will likely have a major impact on the NBA's balance of power next year and in seasons to come.

To the extent that this matters, we ought to take it seriously.

Howard himself is another story. Dwight entered the NBA as a confident and very young-seeming teenager, and has remained one for nine mostly dominant NBA seasons. Howard is the best center in the NBA even when he is as hobbled and distracted and variously out-of-sorts as he was last season. To the extent that it's possible to forget the plain fact of his dominance -- as Tom Ziller pointed out earlier this week, it's an awfully silly thing to forget -- it's because of everything else about him. Even by the standards that obtain for grown men who consciously court comparisons to Superman -- this is basically Shaquille O'Neal, certain hedge fund managers, and the mentally ill -- Howard is tough to take seriously.

His relentless superheroic goofery seems, on its face, like the sort of thing that should make Howard more appealing. The suggestion-unto-insistence that we take our famous people seriously -- that we quiet down and listen reverently as Jay-Z mumble-chortles platitudes about The New Media Landscape on behalf of Samsung, or Nike's suggestion that we feel not happy awe but some reverent fealty in the presence of LeBron James' Olympian mastery -- is a popular marketing approach at the moment, and mostly a lousy one. The aspiration on the part of the people who allow themselves to be marketed like this, which only gets creepier the more consideration you give it, is to ascend into a sort of godlike mildness -- to slip off the off-message messiness of humanity and merge into complete lucid communion with their various personal brands.

Dwight Howard cannot do this, because Dwight Howard simply cannot stop himself from shouting at you about how good he is at "Galactica." This is sort of to Dwight Howard's credit, and sort of not.

The "sort of not" part owes to how seriously Howard demands that his unseriousness be taken. This is less endearingly childlike than it is gratingly childish. It is a kind of backhanded bullying -- Howard is goofy enough to offer an extended exegesis on garbage food made for children, but vain enough to demand undivided attention all the way through and laughter at the appropriate points. The silly stuff, the candy, the kids' movies and the celebrity impressions, are maybe a little much, but they're made more ridiculous because of Howard's smirking high-handedness. If Howard were simply a grown man earnestly and passionately parsing the different flavor profiles in a bag of Wild Berry Skittles, he would be a goofball, and maybe a beloved one. Because of Howard's insight-resistant grandiosity, though -- his insistence on being not just at the center of attention, but surrounded by grinning supplicants -- there's something ridiculous and half-tragically self-satirizing about him.

In retrospect, what's most embarrassing about Howard's legendary self-clowning in a press conference alongside his former coach Stan Van Gundy is not his failed attempt to put over some not-so-convincing untruths, but the way he uses his lumpy, frazzled, defeated coach as a hapless prop in that doomed, doofy gambit. That, and the way he calls out to his teammate Jameer Nelson to check him out as he does it. He wants an audience, its laughter and respect and mostly its attention. Then he reads a Skittles press release as if it's the Gettysburg Address. He waits for the applause.

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