NBA Whiners and Winners: PR Lessons from Dwight Howard’s “Indecision”
By Chris Navalta, Senior Account Executive, Graham & Associates
The year-plus-long drama that was the Dwight Howard “Indecision” was a headache for everyone involved – including Howard himself. Superstar players such as Dwight Howard are considered one-man institutions. But unlike actual institutions, doing PR for NBA players is more challenging because players only answer to themselves when managing their brand.
Dwight was 23 years old when he reached his first NBA Finals in 2009, a remarkable feat for a player that young. Three years later, with no thoughts of the team possibly getting better, he held the Magic hostage for an entire season, very publicly demanding that the team that selected him No. 1 overall in the 2004 draft must trade him. He finally got his wish on August 10, when he was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers (as widely covered everywhere, including here) as part of a four-team trade. And while the Magic can now begin to work on rebuilding their franchise, Howard and his camp must focus on rebuilding his image.
Much of this attention was create by Howard himself. Had he not gone public with his displeasure for the state of the Magic, the media firestorm of “will he stay or will he go” would not have followed him all season. He also had many opportunities to diffuse the situation. As cliché as it is, he could have simply told the media that he was just focusing on playing the game, helping his team get to the playoffs and wanted to leave everything else up to his agents and reps. There have been many disgruntled superstar athletes who kept their feelings to themselves, thus not creating any media firestorms. Everything was kept in-house and those players would ultimately get what they wanted without any bad publicity. What Howard did was what any young person would do. He wasn’t happy about something and he told anyone who would listen to him.
Overall, Dwight is a good person (I’ve met him on several occasions. But at 26 years old, he’s still also very young. He was too young to be ready for manning the ship in Orlando and he was too young to commit to any decisions regarding his future basketball career — hence the back and forth on wanting out. We were all young once and, for the most part, we tend to be good people who sometimes make bad decisions. Dwight shouldn’t be an exception.
Because he is so young, his image has not been completely destroyed forever. Sports fans tend to be very forgiving when it comes to tarnished athletes. Kobe Bryant successfully repaired his image despite serious legal issues and LeBron James is slowly returning to the image he was once known for. Bryant and James were two examples of players who have bounced back after some bad PR. And with a clean slate in Los Angeles, Howard can do the same.
Compared to being in Orlando, Howard will be under a much bigger microscope in star-studded Los Angeles. If he really wants a clean slate, Howard can start by making himself accessible to the media and fans again. He has not tweeted since April and he cancelled an appearance at his own basketball camp, leaving hundreds of kids disappointed. He needs to get back to being himself. Simply being himself and having fun playing the game was infectious to his teammates. But the pressure of possibly leaving/staying in Orlando made him closed off. And before you knew it, neither his coaches or teammates could reach out to him.
Now that the pressure is off him, he can now not only focus on playing basketball again, but be the teammate that everyone loves to play with. Howard is now getting his wish of playing on a team that has a lot of help. He also has to understand that while there are plenty of “guys” on the Lakers, he is no longer “The Guy” on the team. If he plays unselfish basketball, that will bode well for his overall image as well. And the bottom line is, winning cures all. If Howard plays an integral part in leading the Lakers back to another NBA championship, all will be forgiven.
Dwight can also start his clean slate by initiating some newfound goodwill. He was always fan-friendly before this drama even began, so it’s time to reconnect with those who were loyal to him. For example:
- Purchase a one-page ad in the Orlando newspaper, thanking the fans for being the “best in the NBA,”
- buy another ad in the Los Angeles paper and let them know you’re looking forward to the next chapter in your career,
- connect with a distraught youngster, who’s having a hard time dealing with this messy divorce …
- and, of course, establish a new foundation in LA with appearances and basketball camps — and actually show up.
Society loves to tear down NBA players, but they also like to see them rise up and recover. So Dwight’s dilemma will also be his greatest opportunity.
Chris Navalta has 10 years PR experience with NBA and minor league baseball players. Prior to that, he was in sports media for 13 years. He is currently Senior Account Executive with Graham & Associates in San Francisco.