Whatever happened to Dwight Howard? Not that indecisive, whining, brooding Dwight Howard of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, now shelved for the playoffs because of back surgery. We all should have gotten our fill of that latest version of the league’s premier big man.

Missing for too long now has been the Dwight Howard of 2004, that 18-year-old kid from S.W. Atlanta Christian High School that was appealing in his naivety and inspiring in his humility.

That Dwight Howard claimed he would work to change the NBA’s logo to include a cross, that his religious foundation would prevent him from being stained by the grime of professional sports life.

All these years later, the logo is the same and Howard is not.

He is perhaps the most unlikely case study of how the perpetual spotlight and financial windfall of being a pro sports star can create an oversized spoiled brat. He is that guy because of all the expectations and promise of him not becoming that guy.

Hardly anyone would have expected that Howard would father a child out of wedlock and be embroiled in a nasty, public series of law suits over money and custody with the mother, who happens to be one of the mindless “Basketball Wives” (although neither she nor many of the featured women on the show are actually wives, making the show as much contradictory as it is dumb.)

Having a child while not married happens; it is not a crime or anything to be ashamed of. But when you have claimed God as your foundation and that you would bring religion into the seedy underworld of the NBA, it just comes off as a little more flagrant, you know?

Hardly anyone would have expected that Howard align himself with head-shaking characters like he did in co-hosting an NBA All-Star Weekend party in Orlando with the NFL’s Antonio Cromartie and Willis McGahee, two men who have more than 14 children (that number could be higher) between them by more than a dozen different women. Not good.

In the winter, Howard was a mess, one day saying he wanted to be traded, another saying he wanted to stay in Orlando, the next back to being moved. Finally, just as the team was prepared to deal him, he announced he wanted to stay and see what the Magic could do this post season. Through it all, he came off as a spoiled, selfish kid unable to make up his mind. For sure, deciding on where you will live and work is a big deal, one that requires intense thought. But the back and forth showed little regard for anyone else, especially his teammates.

Then there was the news that he asked Magic management to fire coach Stan Van Gundy. We learned that through none other than Stan Van Gundy. That was an unprecedented—and questionable—move, but it shed more light on Howard and who he has become. He is not the first player to want a coach run – Magic Johnson got Paul Westhead bounced a year after the Los Angeles Lakers won a title in the 1980s, if you recall. But Howard made a mess of the situation by showing up at Van Gundy’s gathering with the media and trying (unsuccessfully) to present a united front between he and the coach.

Now come reports that Howard, after all, does want to be traded before next season. His back surgery may impact his market value now, but his morphing into a sports diva will, too. People around some teams, like the Chicago Bulls, would say they’d rather not have him and what appears to be a “me first” attitude.

His last basket as a high school player was a power dunk to cap off another state championship for SW Atlanta Christian. I wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time that it was a symbolic dunk, representative of what his NBA career would be. I was not wrong.

But I was not talking about who Dwight Howard would become. At the time, that was not even an issue. He signed autographs with “God bless” beside his signature, “to let people know everything I have gotten is because of God,” he said.

In his recently released book for kids, “All You Can Be. Learning and Growing Through Sports,” he wrote: “everything I have achieved is through hard work.”

That’s what eight years in the NBA can do. It can—if you allow it, as he has—morph a fun-loving kid who had a whole campus of elementary, middle and high-schoolers looking up to him (and not because of his height) into a self-centered jock. They adored his “one of us” attitude and his smile and playful nature. That was then. . .

This does not mean it is over for Dwight Howard, that we have seen the best of him. He’s just 26. There is a lot of good in him. He’s been a blessing to the Orlando community and its youths with his foundation. He has an infectious personality, undeniable talent and strong family ties.

Those close to him might even reject the notion that he has changed at all, that money and fame have not swelled his ego. They’d be lying.

Curtis Bunn is a best-selling novelist and national award-winning sports journalist who has worked at The Washington Times, NY Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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