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What I Learned from Dwight Howard's Propaganda Documentary

"Dwight Howard: In The Moment" is no better than you would expect an extremely sympathetic documentary about Dwight Howard to be. But we watched it anyway.

by Ben Johnson
Jul 24 2015, 3:00pm

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

We all know a Dwight Howard: the bozo in our lives who will, without fail, say the most cringeworthy thing possible in a given elevator; a nominally grown adult who will nonetheless walk toward, try on, even buy, and sometimes actually wear the novelty flamingo hat. We may wonder how such a person can possible exist, but with age comes the realization that the best response is to not think anything about such a person—simply go about your life as if they were not there, flailing and burping and gamboling about in some stupid hat or other. The Dwight Howards can sense this. It's what causes them to buy those hats in the first place.

The actual Dwight Howard is certainly the world's biggest, wealthiest, and most talented Dwight Howard; because he is one of the most important players on a successful NBA team, it is difficult to tune him out in the way he so clearly deserves. It can be done, it must be done, but I am not strong enough to do it. There is a documentary film about Dwight Howard on Netflix called Dwight Howard: In The Moment, and I watched it on purpose.

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The first words of the documentary are "He was Orlando's most beloved sports hero." They are spoken with deadpan gravitas by Jeffrey Wright, who is somehow both one of the great living actors and the narrator of this film. Deadpan gravitas, especially when directed reverently at clowns such as Dwight Howard, is my favorite style of sports-documentary narration, and has been ever since I saw 16 Days of Glory. It was immediately apparent that I would watch this whole damn movie and probably enjoy it, though not in ways Dwight Howard and his brand-handlers might have intended.

An early scene shows Howard getting off a private jet in Houston after his decision to sign there in 2013. He proceeds, in the airport building, to share some facts he knows about Houston with random strangers. He is possibly waiting for his ride, but there is also the chance that he can leave whenever he wants and has just decided to do this with his time. Neither would be surprising. Howard then riffs with a small boy, asks the kid how old he is, hears "nine", and then with a straight face tells the kid that he, Dwight Howard, is 12. "We might run into each other at a middle-school game. Look out. My team is good," says Dwight Howard. This is actually funny—maybe funnier than Dwight Howard realizes, because Dwight Howard really is 12 years old in a few very obvious ways.

Yeah, he's not listening, dude. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It starts with a terrible and sad fact about Dwight Howard: it turns out that he had seven siblings that died either via miscarriage or shortly after childbirth. It is the sort of deeper-than-memory familial emotional trauma that leaves behind an unfillable hole of sadness, and makes ordinary people into chronic amateur comedians. It explains a lot about Dwight Howard, and is a thing I did not know, or knew and then forgot without first considering the psychic damage wrought by such pain, before watching the documentary.

The film delves into Dwight's beginnings as a basketball player, including the obligatory moment where his father tells him he'll have to sacrifice everything if he is really serious about playing in the NBA. A stated part of this sacrifice is Dwight Howard waking up at 4 A.M. every day, praying, and doing the "Cha Cha Slide" in his bedroom to get himself going. All this before, presumably, doing some basketball-type things, although that part is left unclear by the documentary. They are pretty clear about the Cha Cha Slide. Regardless, that's dedication, the Dwight Howard way: you're going to have to wake up real damn early to Cha Cha Slide before he does.

I did not know much about Dwight Howard's high-school basketball career, how he willed his small Christian school in Georgia to a state championship. Hearing him talk about that experience, and then about his time on the 2009 Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic, a theme emerged: Howard chasing team camaraderie as much as winning basketball games. The armchair psychologist in my brain screams "seven lost siblings," and I do not appreciate it. I preferred a less humanized Dwight Howard, the giant doofus who couldn't hit free throws and shouted along with all the dialogue in Pixar movies.

The documentary follows Dwight as he visits his old K-12 school, walks into a classroom full of kindergartners, and one kid asks him if he's LeBron James. We then flash to his triumphant slam-dunk contest in 2008, and are reminded that his Superman jam was pretty great. I think you're a liar if you saw that and didn't think it was great. Sure, the costume was corny, but the billowing child-pajama cape did serve as a visual frame of reference for how high he jumped. It was an early sign that Dwight Howard was the kind of person who would likely own and wear several capes.

In the Moment presents a "my side of the story" saga of Dwight Howard's time with the Orlando Magic. A key narrative point, which I didn't know or care to know at the time, was Dwight's rude awakening to the adult business of professional basketball when, after that 2009 Finals run, the Magic dealt away Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu. Again, the film suggests, Dwight was robbed of his long-sought sibling-like team cohesiveness, without anyone asking him how he felt about it.

"This next impression is also of SpongeBob SquarePants." Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Multiple minutes of the film are devoted to Dwight's Stan Van Gundy impression, which, while somewhat accurate, is also mean-spirited and petty in the way impressions of people you know always are; it's doubly so for people you've tried to get fired. This is one good thing about the Dwight Howards of our lives: given enough time, they tend to let you off the hook for whatever sudden outcropping of empathy you might extend in their direction, simply by being themselves.

After the documentary's slog through Orlando, its material on the Lakers was something of a letdown. Dwight had a hard time recovering from back surgery but played through it anyway, and spent the whole year getting yelled at by Kobe Bryant, which sucks regardless of your pay grade, even if you are an actual adult with an adult brain. I did like when Kobe insisted that the Lakers "don't have time" for Dwight to have a torn labrum, because that is the kind of thing an insane person would say. This reminder of Kobe's regard for other peoples' bodies as irritating inconveniences was a sly way for In The Moment to suggest that Dwight, for all his faults, is at least a relatively harmless alternative to pure competitive psychosis.

The film refers to Howard as "Rocket Man" multiple times, with clips of official Houston Rocket free-agent introduction ceremonies where the announcer says something like, "He used to be Super Man, now he's ROCKET MAN!" No one calls Dwight Howard this, which makes it that much better. I love nonstarter nicknames like this, and would especially appreciate it if some P.R. department decided to call John Wall "Wizard Man" or Kevin Durant "Thunder Man" or, perhaps more to the point, refer to James Harden and also, say, K.J. McDaniels as "Rocket Man."

By the time Jeffrey Wright brings things to a conclusion by saying, of Dwight, that "his story is only just beginning," it is clear that the film is positioning his signing with the Houston Rockets as a redemption of sorts after his Magic-to-Lakers experience. Dwight in Houston can be 12-year-old Dwight Howard without anybody being too grandly disappointed by it. He can continue to mature at a glacial pace into 13- and then 14-year-old Dwight Howard, and enjoy some warm weather. In the meantime, the people who pay him millions of dollars to play basketball will look at a proprietary spreadsheet that calculates his basketball value and tell him he's doing a good job, and do so without scary yelling like Stan Van Gundy or Kobe Bryant. Houston Rockets Dwight Howard is a Dwight Howard with nothing to prove, in other words, and now he's got the documentary to prove it.

I can't say that I like Dwight Howard any more after watching a whole damn documentary about, gosh, what a super fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, endearingly naïve and trusting guy—with significant subtextual emotional damage you should please ignore—but the film can be considered a success in that I did at least hate Dwight Howard less. Of course, I don't remotely buy this manufactured "Fanfare for the Common Man" narrative. I'll meet him halfway, though, and see him as an extra-large-sized person nonetheless beset by frailties and insecurities like the rest of us. In Dwight's case, these are insecurities that make him irredeemably irritating to those of us who'd prefer to believe we have the self-awareness to harness our own inner Dwight Howards, and maybe pass on the flamingo hat. But he is as human as everyone else in this world, if louder and larger, and that seems like a thing worth remembering.

Oh, I should also mention that Stephen A. Smith says the F-word at one point in the movie, which is fun. He says, "Excuse the language, but fuck." That part was good.