By KRISTIE RIEKEN
AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) _ Dwight Howard knows he’s a polarizing figure. He’s finally learned to be OK with that.
The bad feelings toward Houston’s star center originated when he wanted out of Orlando and intensified amid rumblings that he couldn’t get along with Kobe Bryant in his one season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now in his second season with the Rockets, who host the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday night, Howard sat down with The Associated Press to talk about his image, how he dealt with missing the most games in his career and a new community initiative he’s passionate about.
Howard is a fun-loving guy who almost always wears a huge smile and is quick to crack a joke or make up a silly nickname for everyone in his path. So when he realized that people had started to hate him he wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it.
“Sometimes it hurts,” Howard said. “It used to hurt a lot more as I went from this guy that everybody likes to everybody hated me because I wanted to play basketball on another team. And I’m like: `Hey listen it’s really not that serious. If I stopped playing today, your life is going to be the same, my life is going to be the same, it’s just I’m not going to be playing basketball. So why should it matter what I decide?”’
Childhood friend and Houston teammate Josh Smith knows a thing or two about being hated himself. He was called a cancer and worse when he was released by the Detroit Pistons before signing with the Rockets and has helped Howard deal with the venom.
“Some people are concerned and put energy into stuff that they can’t control, and I always tell him those are things you can’t control,” Smith said. “You just have to be able to let it roll off your back like sweat at practice. You can’t really worry about the comments of others.”
Howard recently began a campaign called “Breathe Again” through his D12 Foundation, which he describes as a social movement to “breathe new life and hope for our future.” He’s focused on spreading his message to as many people as possible and often visits with youth about the project.
“Basketball doesn’t last forever and I would rather be a legend for things I have done away from the game which will most likely surpass whatever I’ve done on the basketball court,” he said. “A greater legacy for me is seeing multitudes of people learn and grow and live longer than what they were expected because their lives were changed.”
Howard, whose father was a police officer, hopes this movement can be a positive alternative to the rioting and other violence that have followed recent police shootings. He’s long wanted to do something like this but the image some people had of him kept him from launching it until this year.
“I’ve built the courage to really just do it instead of worrying about what people are saying or the outcome,” he said. “Just say you know what: `This is on my heart and I’m just going to go with it.’ There are going to be people who don’t like it or don’t agree with it, but this is what I feel.”
Howard’s found his peace on a Rockets team that finished the regular season second in the Western Conference despite his missing half of the team’s games with injuries. He returned late in the regular season and amped things up in the first round of the playoffs to help Houston eliminate the Dallas Mavericks in five games.
Howard’s averaging 17.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 3.3 blocks a game in a postseason where many believe he’s looking better than he has in years.
“There were a lot of times where I thought we had baskets and then Superman showed up,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Howard’s work in L.A.’s win Monday night. “I’ve not seen him this athletic since the Orlando years. Powerful, athletic _ yeah he has it back for sure.”
Howard hoped sitting out to alleviate swelling in his right knee would help him get back to his old self. But in quiet moments of reflection during that long stretch on the bench the 29-year-old wondered what the future would hold.
“There were times during the two months I was out where I just felt like this was it, like I wasn’t going to be able to play no more and it was just kind of hard watching,” Howard said.
Asked if he actually thought his career could be over, he clarified.
“I just thought I wasn’t going to be able to play the way I know how to play … basically ever be Superman. I thought I was going to come back and be like …,” he said before deciding it wouldn’t be wise to compare himself to another player in this instance.
Howard admits to being overly emotional since his return from injury because of his desire to win a title. He helped Orlando to the Finals in 2009 when the Magic lost to the Lakers.
“I’ve tasted it, that feeling of being so close to winning a championship that when I don’t get there it’s like my whole world ends,” he said. “I’ve lost in the playoffs and I just felt like I could have died. Even just watching somebody else hold the trophy or talking about somebody else holding the trophy it just causes me to get emotional.”
Howard shared a story of what he was doing last year when the San Antonio Spurs were close to winning the Finals after he and the Rockets were ousted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.
“I was trying to eat some Cajun crab legs and the Spurs were about to win and I just lost all taste in my mouth,” he said. “I couldn’t stand watching it and I just got up and out of the restaurant and left and I just sat in the car and I just started crying because I was like: `I want to win so bad and it’s so hard to do it.”’
Playing with one of the best players in the league in James Harden, Howard likes his chances this season.
“I feel like this is our time,” he said.