With each hug, autograph and picture that Dwight Howard gave to the athletes of the Seminole County branch of the Special Olympics on Sunday there were dozens of smiles filling the Altamonte Bowling Lanes.
Attending Sunday’s event meant so much to Dwight that he passed up a day at home in Atlanta with his family to be there for his new friend, 19-year-old Charbel “Big Bubba” El-Khoury, who suffers from Down’s Syndrome. The two became fast friends a few weeks back while Dwight was bowling and Dwight promised to attend the function at the request of “Big Bubba.”
“When I first met Bubba he had a full Magic uniform on â€“ from the jersey, the shorts, the arm sleeve and the shoes. He was ready to go. It was good seeing what a fan he was,” Dwight said. “And once I saw him and he asked me, I told him I’d come and I kept that promise. I’m just happy seeing him here with everybody and having lots of fun.”
Fun was had by all at the event as Dwight playfully bowled with several Special Olympics athletes, signed hundreds of autographs and posed for nearly that many pictures. He even held one baby for a photograph, signed a Superman cape and handed out more high fives than he would during a normal game.
Dwight is somewhat of a blossoming bowler. He hits the lanes almost weekly during the offseason, owns seven special balls and has a career-best high score of 274.
But on this day, Dwight was more into having fun than competition. He playfully bowled alongside of “Big Bubba,” challenging him to see who could get more strikes. (For the record, both registered five strikes on the day). And Dwight drew plenty of chuckles when he pretended to roll the ball “Granny style,” by bringing the ball between his legs before heaving it down the lane.
“I just try to come out here and make them smile and have some fun,” Dwight said. “Basketball is not the only thing that makes me who I am. I don’t just play basketball. I just try to do as many things like this away from the court as I can.”
The idea for Dwight to appear at the event came from none other than “Big Bubba” himself. When he spotted Dwight in the Pro Shop recently at the bowling lanes, El-Khoury brazenly approached the Magic’s superstar center.
First, “Big Bubba” asked for a picture. Then, he wanted tickets to a Magic game. Finally, “Big Bubba” asked Dwight about possibly bowling alongside of him in the Bowl-A-Thon for the Seminole County Special Olympics.
“When I sent that e-mail to Dwight, I figured I’d just see what happens. But when he responded and said he was coming, I was floored by it,” said Nin El-Khoury, a Special Olympics coach and outreach specialist. “It’s amazing. Even when my brother first met Dwight and asked for tickets, Dwight said to e-mail him and I was like, `Sure, that’s not happening.’ But it really did happen for us. Dwight just loves my brother and he’s being his friend and that’s all Bubba really wants.”
Dwight, who recently spent a week in Houston working out with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon, said Sunday’s charity event allowed him to take his mind off of the Magic not participating in the NBA Finals. Orlando was beaten 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals by Boston, and Dwight said he purposely hasn’t watched one game between the Celtics and Lakers in the NBA Finals.
“I just started to get back into bowling this summer because I want to keep my mind off The Finals,” Dwight said. “You don’t really ever get over it. I can’t really watch the games. Every time I turn on the TV and I see a Celtic or a Laker I kind of get (ticked) off. It’s been hard for me.”