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Published:April 23rd, 2009 12:40 EST
Dwight Howard Wins NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award

Dwight Howard Wins NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award

By Christopher HIllenbrand

Pacing the NBA with 1.093 rebounds and 231 blocks and commanding the respect of sports writers in the process, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard has been recognized as the NBA`s Defensive Player of the Year: an accomplishment Howard credits to the advice from several of his idols.

Earlier this year, the 23-year-old star was encountered by two former NBA legends Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo, that had a pearl of wisdom in the form of a question for the swaggering star.

Howard recalled on Tuesday that Mutombo told him: "What do you want to be remembered as, the great dunker who won the slam dunk contest with a Superman outfit on, or do you want to do something better than that?"

When Howard replied: "I want to be one of the greatest players," Mutombo simply said "It starts with defense."

And what better way could a protegee give back for such a piece of advice than through example?

At 23, Dwight Howard became the youngest player in NBA history to win the award that was presented to him Tuesday. Howard also established another career highlight by being only the fifth player in the NBA to lead the league in rebounds and blocks in the same year. Howard joined such esteemed company as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Walton, and Ben Wallace. The NBA didn`t institute an official statistic for blocking until 1973.

At the awards ceremony, Howard said: "A lot of guys don`t want to go up (for blocks) because they`re afraid of getting dunked on. Dikembe and Patrick told me, `As many times as you`re going to get dunked on you`re going to have more blocks.`"

On the strength of Howard`s performance, the Orlando Magic won 59 games in the regular season, one less than the franchise record set in the 1995-1996 season, to lead the Southeast Division for the second straight year. Orlando lost 100-98 in Game 1 of the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers. They are set to play Game 2 Wednesday night. During Game 1 of postseason play, 76ers` center Samuel Dalembert unintentionally scratched Howard in the eyes.

But as the player known as "Superman", because of his astonishing dunking feats, said on Tuesday amidst the applause, that Dalembert`s hand held kryptonite. But Howard confirmed that he will be ready to play on Wednesday because his one vulnerability now no longer affects him.

And sports fans can readily attest to the fact many players tried their hand at bringing down one of basketball`s finest for the past five seasons.

From the 119 sports writers and broadcasters on the awards panel, Howard gathered 542 points, including 105 first-place votes while Cleveland All-Star Lebron James came in a distant second with 148 points. Miami`s Dwayne Wade rounded out third with 90 points. Fellow Orlando Magic player Hedo Turkoglu even received one third-place vote in the polls.

Howard followed in the footsteps of his idol Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, who won the award last year.

Their resemblance doesn`t end there though.

Just like Garnett, Dwight Howard turned pro immediately after high school and adopted number 12 on his jersey: Kevin Garnett`s jersey number from the Minnesota Timberwolves, just in reverse, as a gesture of reverence toward the player he followed back when he was growing up in Atlanta.

Howard even insisted he didn`t know Garnett received the same prestige a year ago, with the ever-present grin on his face.

Though Howard was the clear-cut shoo-in for the award, Lebron James made a meaningful bid for the trophy in a year featuring the best defensive numbers by 2009`s prime candidate for MVP.

Lebron James hadn`t started his career as a defensive presence and is still prevalently hailed for his offensive highlights. But James amped up his defensive game this year with the help of a more cohesive Cavs squad. His down-court blocks and rebounding have now become as regularly celebrated as his spectacular dunking abilities.

James said: "It just means more to me now at this point in my career than it did in the past. Not saying that I didn`t care about defense, it just means more. I care as much about defense as I do offense. It was just about me wanting to be better."

Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith said: "Probably the most impressive thing about the defensive player of the year award was two things. The fact that Turkoglu finished in the top 16, and probably the fact that Dwight set out at the start of the season with a goal in mind to be the best defensive player in the league. He started with that goal in mind, and he finished it."

The Magic`s head coach Stan Van Gundy said: "To be the defensive player of the year at 23 is remarkable. To be a great defensive player usually comes later in a career. And he still has so much room for improvement."

Howard`s 2009 campaign was marked with many milestones for the 23-year-old phenom. Among his career highs, Howard completely shattered the record held by Wilt Chamberlain as the youngest NBA player to reach the 5,000-rebound plateau at 23 years and 112 days old (Chamberlain achieved the mark at 25 years and 128 days old), and was elected to the All-Star game the third time in his professional career.

He and the rest of the U.S.`s Olympics basketball team won gold at the Beijing games before going into the 2009 NBA season.

And with Tuesday`s accolade, Howard passed Alvin Robertson as the youngest player to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award at 23 years and 4 months. Robertson, who previously held the record, rendered the feat at 23 years and 9 months old as a San Antonio Spur after the 1985-1986 season.

Drafted first overall straight out of high school in 2004, Dwight Howard has steadily grown into one of the preeminent centers in the game today and possesses one of the greatest physiques for any player in any position. He`s 6 feet 11 inches and 265 pounds with a monstrous vertical leap that is rare for someone of his size and stature.

Howard`s imposing figure significantly loomed over Game 1 on Sunday, and 76ers` forward Andre Iguodala learned of his formidable play when a layup attempt of his was batted into the crowd by him.

Iguodala claimed Howard`s authority over his game was one of the worst moments in his professional career: "It`s like he can guard two guys at once. He can guard his guy and the guy coming off the pick-and-roll, which is almost impossible to do. If he gets any more athletic or jumps any higher, they`re going to have to change the rules."

Always a jokester, Howard paid his teammates due respect in a comical vein: "I really appreciate those guys for allowing their man to get to the basket to give me the opportunity to get blocks."