Noted doofus and Stickum enthusiast Dwight Howard appeared on Inside the NBA Tuesday night, which had much of our staff preemptively dreading his appearance. What followed was a surprisingly self-aware and measured assessment of his own reputation and motivations. While we shouldn’t overcorrect and absolve him of any past fuck-ups, this contained more honest revelations than we can reasonably expect from a sports interview, let alone one conducted by Charles Barkley.
Many came away with a slightly rehabilitated image of Howard, but for our broader purposes, it’s worth figuring out why. Let’s set aside the pure enjoyment of watching one knucklehead lob awkward, direct questions—“Why do you think people have a negative perception of you?” and “Are you disinterested at times?”—at another, and try to home in on how good a response to criticism this actually was. Admittedly the standard for success is very, very low, but Howard’s comments did contain some elements of a decent apology.
First, you need some degree of awareness of how others perceive you, even if you think that perception is unfair. Only a Prince-level god can get away with appearing aloof or oblivious to the criticisms they face, so if you want to be seen as sincere you have to concede some ground. Howard got off to a good start by offering this: “People felt as though I’m this bad guy, I’m all about myself, I’m a diva, I’m stuck on being ‘Dwight Howard,’ this famous basketball player.”
That’s incomplete, but it’s a serviceable summary of the situation. Howard indicates that he knows where his critics are coming from, which primes them to be more likely to hear out his side.
Then Howard offered an alternative explanation for why he might seem disengaged on the court. Helping opponents see things from your perspective is a canny move:
As a big, sometimes you want to feel a part of what’s going on. If I could bring the ball up the court, shoot 3s and go in between the legs and all that stuff, that’d be great. But I have to rely on my teammates in certain aspects to get the ball.
Sure, the lazily coded reference to James Harden, which becomes more explicit later in the interview, sort of redirects the blame rather than holding himself accountable. But he later acknowledges that both of them have to “put their egos and pride to the side,” which at least indicates a willingness to address his own flaws.
Howard then gives up a little more ground, placing some of the blame on himself while maintaining that he’s in a no-win situation:
Now there’s been times I’ve been upset and taken myself out of games and situations, and that’s on me, and I have to grow and be a better player at that. I’m always interested in the game. I’ve had the problem of smiling too much, people said I’m smiling too much, or I play too much on the floor. When I’m not smiling and doing all that stuff it looks like I’m not interested in the game, so it’s like a thin line, where I’m like, do I not smile, or do I smile and have fun.
This is not a super-sophisticated account, but it offers a plausible version of what’s going through Howard’s head, enough for me to see him as genuinely conflicted about how to perform, as opposed to just petulant and petty. When your platform is as public as his, and the denizens of Mt. Take are going to overanalyze every bit of body language, it’s valid to offer a defense on those same, armchair-psychology terms.
In a crucial moment, Howard went vulnerable. It’s a powerful move because it can make critics feel guilty about interpreting his behavior in an unflattering way in the first place: You saying I’m bad makes me feel bad! Never forget that pathos is a legitimate tactic. It may have no bearing on the facts—why people hate on him, and whether he’s done anything worth hating—but it works as a purely emotional appeal. Is it from the heart? It doesn’t really matter. Remember, we’re learning how to make an effective rebuttal, not necessarily a sincere one.
“It really hurts me because my heart and my attitude has always been the same,” Howard said, and referred to how Barkley and Magic Johnson both predicted that he would fail to find success in the league. This is the part where I thought, huh, maybe I have been unfair to him. Depending on your persona, following it up with a line as goofy as “If you get to know me, I’m laid back, I like to have fun” won’t hurt your cause. Howard may be corny as hell, but corny is better than uncaring or malicious. Howard is reframing the criticism on his own terms: His true sin, to hear him tell it, is that he’s too sensitive. That’s infinitely more forgivable.
When you review all of Howard’s words carefully, he doesn’t say that much at all, but, again, the bar was low—and the lack of polish and relative honesty help him come across as sympathetic.
Some things to take from this unexpected feat of apology, and to be used in your own life: A bit of self-awareness, some acceptance of blame, some justification for your actions without getting too defensive, and a positive focus making things better. Howard treated this not as an argument to be won—it can’t be—but as a way to calmly offer his side of the story.
Don’t treat your apology as a tower for sniping at your opponents—frankly, how I thought Howard was going to handle this—but as a way to say, hey, I did mess up, but this is why, and this is how I’m working on it. As painful as it may be for your bruised ego, an effective apology is that simple.