DALLAS – As Dwight Howard watched the anger boiling over in Ferguson, Mo., and Brooklyn, N.Y., as he felt those frustrations and thought about the pain they caused and the damage they left, it sounded familiar, larger even than the real, complex issues of the day.
This had to stop. He had to stop it, or at least to try.
The goal would sound too great, but he decided not to let that stop him. He was wealthy and famous and he had a chance to do much more than play center for the Rockets. He needed to do more, until his goals grew beyond ambitious to maybe even quixotic. And yet, to him, they are as genuine as the anger that inspired them.
“I want,” he said, “to change the world.”
Howard, 29, and his foundation launched a campaign, called “Breathe Again,” as wide-reaching as his goal to replace hatred, violence and racism with peace. He applies that message to anything from domestic violence to bullying, to attitudes about others that divide rather than unite.
“My purpose is not just play basketball,” Howard said. “My purpose is to use basketball to help other people. That’s what ‘Breathe Again’ is about to me, about new life, about planting the right seeds for kids to grow up and grow out of the mentality they’ve been in for so long. If I can be a positive reinforcement for them, we can make the world around us better. Once people see the change, everybody will want to change.”
The name in some ways grew from “I can’t breathe,” the final words of Eric Garner in New York that became the rallying cry of protests after his chokehold death. But it began several years ago and is about more than responding to that incident.
He began after the movie “Rikers High” motivated him to speak to inmates about attitudes and life choices. Once he started, he could not stop. For every group he visits, he wanted to reach more than those that could fit in those rooms.
“After that, I met with Jesse Jackson in Chicago and told him I wanted to do something much bigger than basketball,” Howard said. “My thought process at that point was me traveling to each city we play in and go to a juvenile center to talk to kids about their purpose in life and how if they can change their minds, they can change their behavior and have better lives. That’s where it all started.
“A couple years later, the Trayvon Martin thing happened and caused a big uproar in Florida and across the nation. I was very upset with what became of our society. It was a society where blacks were hating whites. It became a race thing.”
When Michael Brown died in Ferguson, sparking months of protests, some violent and most pitting protesters against police, Howard could not look away. He found himself understanding both sides and believing both needed “to step back and breathe.”
“With what happened in Ferguson, it became a cops thing,” Howard said. “It was going back and forth, and I was really upset with what I felt our nation was becoming. We have these young kids that hate authority, hate cops and are taught to hate different people.
“I didn’t grow up that way. My dad (Dwight Sr.) was a cop. I’ve been harassed and messed with by cops, but I didn’t grow up to where we hated people of another race or for whatever they did in life.
“I was trying to figure out ways I could help our society and use my platform to help bring awareness to a lot of different situations. I saw people wearing the ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts. I looked at the shirts and said, ‘Man, it seems like we’re talking about all the problems we have and we’re bringing awareness to the problems instead of trying to find solutions.’ I wanted to do something to help find a solution to our problems we face as a society.
“I wasn’t taking that situation lightly. I was very hurt at what happened. I saw the video over and over and over again. It hurt me to see the young man pass, but it also hurt me to see the comments and the shift in where our society has gone. Now, you have people who hate cops. People who hate blacks. People who hate whites. I’m like, ‘We need to change all that. We need to change the way we speak to each other, the way we interact with each other. All that needs to change.'”
At a time that hate has become sport, with social media the Louisville Slugger to make it happen, Howard decided the ignorance that leads some fans to hate him and give voice to their sentiments was related to the attitudes that inspire the greater, more damaging animosity.
“My whole thing with ‘Breathe Again’ is we need to change the way we think,” Howard said. “We need to change how we view people. People hate because they don’t understand. I’ve seen it. People hate me because I left a team or I left another team. They don’t hate me because of the person I am. They hate what they don’t understand. They don’t understand the reasons why I did what I did. That’s where hate comes from.”
“It’s what we see so much. You look at TV or listen to the radio. There’s so much negativity that our minds have gotten accustomed to thinking that way. We can watch something that might be uplifting on TV, but it doesn’t give us that fire like watching a fight or something dramatic. We need to change that. We’ve seen so much negativity; we don’t know what positive is.”
The effort is new, but Howard’s longtime friend and Rockets assistant Josh Powell said the determination is not. As much as Howard has been characterized by his taste for the silly with child-like playfulness, he can be exceedingly serious.
“He’s always had that kind of heart,” said Powell, who has worked extensively with Howard on ‘Breathe Again.’ “I know a lot of times everything is not broadcasted, like a movement like this. But ever since I’ve known him, he’s wanted to help people and make a difference. That’s what makes him so special.
“It’s all about a start. The things we deal with on a daily basis, the list of issues go on and on and on. It’s important to change how we think and problem-solve, instead of focusing on the negativity.”
Even on the court, Howard said he has become determined to stop and breathe. In the season opener, Kobe Bryant called out that Howard was “soft.” Kevin Durant called him something worse. Kevin Garnett escalated a confrontation into an ejection. In each case, Howard resisted an urge to retaliate, knowing he would be criticized for his choice.
Fight ‘the right way’
“In our society, people take not fighting or not fighting the way they want you to fight as being soft or being weak,” Howard said. “It takes a stronger person to fight back the right way, to resist the temptation to want to hurt somebody else.
“There’s a lot of times I want to react on the floor. From the outside looking in, people can say, ‘He doesn’t fight people the way he should. He should knock somebody out. He should hit somebody.’ But what is that going to solve? We have millions of people watching. If I’m talking about ‘Breathe Again,’ if I’m talking about not bullying, if I’m talking about turning the other cheek, that’s more mature, to not fight back.
“I look at a guy like Martin Luther King. He didn’t have to raise a fist or hit anybody. His actions showed he was about standing up for what was right.”
King changed the world. Howard cannot know if a basketball player can have that kind of impact, even with all the tools to communicate available nearly 50 years later. But he knew he had to try. He had to visit schools and prisons, build a foundation and start a mission he hopes to grow into a movement.
Part of a long process
“This is to start that change,” he said. “I know it’s a process that will take a while. There will be a lot of people that won’t like it. They see me and will say ‘what about all the things you have done wrong?’ I’m a human being. We have all done bad things. We’ve all had situations in life we have to learn from.
“I watch how things are put out there. We see negativity and we gravitate towards it. Even with those situations, with ‘Breathe Again,’ if people just took one or two seconds to think about different situations, maybe the outcome will be different. It’s not just about the police situation or Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown; it’s about everyday life. People take their own lives. People bully.
“If they would step back and take a second and realize what they’re doing and just breathe …”
Then perhaps the world can change.