Dwight Howard's fall from grace was as swift as it was mystifying. Once the best defensive center in the NBA and an athletic force of nature, the 31-year-old Hornets star is a shell of his former self in 2017, at an age where he should still have plenty of miles left in the tank.

That's the root of a new feature from Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, who got together with Howard to discuss where it all went wrong. The factors are too plentiful to list all in one place, but it reads as though a constant desire for love and attention is at the center of Howard's epic downfall. Having lived a sheltered, Christian lifestyle before coming to the NBA, Howard let loose when he got his first NBA contract and hordes of women apparently came along with the paychecks he started to receive. Five children with five different women later, Howard told SI the religion that used to be his anchor when he first came into the league eventually became a burden because of his new lifestyle.

"I was ashamed because I’d talked so much about being a Christian, professed my faith to the whole world, and here I was with a baby out of wedlock," Howard said, recalling the birth of his first child. "My parents judged me. A lot of people judged me. I felt like I shouldn’t even be out in public because everyone looked at me as a hypocrite. I felt like I didn’t need my relationship with God anymore, and that caused a lot of pain."

Howard—who has been reluctant to talk about his children in the past, which has actually caused a lot of confusion with regards to how many children he actually has—also seemed more willing to broach the subject of fatherhood with SI. He admitted he should have been "more responsible" when he was younger, but he said he now sees his children as a "blessing." He also said he maintains relationships with all five of his kids, even though they live in different parts of the country.

All of his five kids live with their mothers—two in Florida, two in L.A., one in Houston—and share his last name. They FaceTime and text and visit Atlanta every off-season. They drink slushies and watch movies, appropriate since their taste in food and cinema is not much different from their father’s. When they tell him they love him, he turns away, so they can’t see him tear up. "It’s a tough situation, obviously," Howard says. "I should have been more responsible. I messed up. I sinned. But I won’t look at any of them as a mistake. They’re all a blessing to me."

Outside of discussing his personal struggles with SI—he spoke about his strained relationship with his parents and the family members and friends who have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from him over the years—Howard also talked hoops. Specifically, he spoke on how he has altered his game over the course of his career, and if you believe what he said to Jenkins, Howard appears to have changed his style of play on numerous occasions solely to be the person/player other people wanted him to be.

"I lost confidence in who I am as a player," he said of his time on the Los Angeles Lakers. "I’d hear people say, 'You should play more like Shaq,' so I tried to bully guys. But that didn’t work because I’m not as big as Shaq. Then I’d hear people say, 'You smile too much, you should be more like Kobe,' so I tried to put on a mean face and play mad. But I wound up getting all these stupid techs and flagrant fouls."

This is a rather illuminating revelation from Howard. He faced some of the sharpest criticism in the league at his peak, in part because his gifts were so obvious that people felt as though the game should just come easy to him. Maybe the issue was also who the criticism has come from and why Howard might be sensitive to that. Shaquille O'Neal, for example, has crushed Howard for most of his career, not only because Howard was framed as the next great big man, but also because Howard followed in Shaq's footsteps to an extent, taking on the "Superman" nickname and making his first two stops in Orlando and Los Angeles.

But it wasn't just Shaq-level critics who Howard cared about. According to Jenkins, Howard would allegedly call friends at halftime of some of his games, needing to know what they thought about how he was playing. He also admitted he was so fed up during his Houston Rockets tenure that he almost retired after the 2014-15 season. The desperate thirst for admiration is actually pretty sad, and it gives you a pretty good idea of how Howard lost his way.

The entire piece is worth reading, and regardless of how I feel about his antics over the years, I hope Howard finds inner peace and gets back to doing what he does best. He doesn't have the athleticism that made him great anymore, but he's better than he has been in recent years and deserves to see out his NBA career on his own terms.