By John Denton
December 17, 2011
ORLANDO – After the chants of `Dwight! Dwight! Dwight!’ and `M-V-P’ and roars each time he touched the basketball, Orlando Magic superstar center Dwight Howard marveled at the standing ovation and playfully dabbed at his eyes.
Howard’s Magic teammates mocked him prior to Saturday’s free public scrimmage, predicting that he would be booed and also that he might shed a tear or two if there was an ovation. Afterwards, Howard admitted that the boisterous applause that he got following the open practice was an emotional experience for him.
``It was great. I didn’t know what to expect and my teammates thought it was going to be different, but it was great. It showed the support that we have here in the city,’’ Howard said. ``It means a lot and I know this city loves me and I love the city. I’ve expressed that from Day 1. It was great to see.’’
For many Magic fans, it was also great to see the reconstructed roster in action once again following a five-month lockout. Fans got their first look at newcomers Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis, Von Wafer, Larry Hughes and rookies Justin Harper and DeAndre Liggins in Magic jerseys, and all had their moments to shine while playing before an estimated crowd of 9,000 at the Amway Center.
But for the most part, the day was about a lovefest for Howard. The franchise center requested a trade from the only NBA franchise he’s ever played for two weeks ago and reaffirmed those demands again this past week. Magic CEO Alex Martins and President of Basketball Operations Otis Smith have repeatedly stated their intentions to not trade the franchise center and possibly keep him in a Magic jersey for years to come.
Some wondered how a fanbase that has adored Howard for seven years – from the time he was a skinny 18-year-old just out of high school to the 275-pound hulking center he is now – would react when the superstar’s name was announced. The crowd was pro Howard all the way, waving signs of support and delivering one chant after another.
``The crowd had a lot of energy and obviously everybody wants Dwight here and they made that pretty clear today,’’ Magic forward Ryan Anderson said. ``He gets on the mic and says two words and everybody is going crazy. It’s really encouraging to see everybody back him up. He’s our guy and we want him here. I didn’t expect anything less from the crowd than to keep on uplifting and pushing him to stay here.’’
Added point guard Jameer Nelson: ``He’s been great to this city so I didn’t ever think it would be any other way (than cheers). No matter what he decides this city should embrace him.’’
The Magic’s first-string squad beat the reserves 43-25, getting good shooting performances from Jason Richardson and Quentin Richardson and some theatrics inside from Howard. The starters hit six 3-pointers, including two from Wafer.
With all eyes on him, Howard was spectacular from the start. He beat Daniel Orton for a difficult left-handed layup despite getting fouled and seconds later buried a 15-foot jumper from the baseline. After splitting two free throws, Howard incited the crowd with a thunderous dunk over Orton’s outstretched arm.
When the scrimmage was complete, Howard addressed the crowd and thanked them for attending the scrimmage. He promised the crowd that the team ``is going to play this hard all season.’’ And as he was leaving the court, Howard looked around to take in the scene and sign a few autographs.
``My focus was on getting better and getting my team better and not getting caught up in everything around me. After the scrimmage I did get a chance to see some of the signs and it was great to see,’’ he said. ``I appreciate the city and everything it has done for me. And I’m glad that people appreciate me and the rest of the team. Our goal today was to play and get better. We wanted to have fun and entertain the crowd, but there’s a right time for that.’’
Having had just eight practices, the Magic open the exhibition season Sunday night in Miami at 6 p.m. The two teams play again in Orlando at the Amway Center on Wednesday night. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said he hadn’t given much thought to how much his core players will be on the floor against the rival Heat.
``I’m not looking at this as the first preseason game; to me it’s the next-to-last one,’’ Van Gundy said. ``So it’s not like we can just ease into this thing. I’m not going to play anybody 45 minutes, but I’d like to push the minutes up there because we need it right now.’’
J.J. Redick, who had a dazzling 3-pointer in transition on Saturday, said it was so nice to be back playing at the Amway Center again for the first time in seven months. He said the team is in shape for the most part, but rhythm is still very much an issue for the team. But those concerns were quieted on Saturday by a roaring crowd.
``First of all, I was humbled that so many people came out. And they were so loud. I told (Quentin Richardson) it was louder than it was in the game and the arena was half full,’’ Redick said. ``The people who came out today genuinely care and genuinely have a passion for our team. And obviously it was a cool thing how they responded to Dwight. Obviously they want him to stay in Orlando and I’m sure he felt that love today.’’
Howard said he was moved at the unconditional love that the fans showed him, and he especially appreciated the standing ovation prior to his speech to the crowd. He didn’t talk trade at all on Saturday, instead training his focus on his love for Orlando.
``(The teammates) were joking, saying, `Dwight Howard booooo’ or `Don’t leave.’ We were all just having fun with it,’’ Howard said. ``We didn’t know what to expect because of what we read or what’s been posted on my (Twitter) timeline. They thought it was going to be a different scenario, but the reaction was great for me and my teammates.
``It was emotional,’’ Howard continued, saying his fake tears were an inside joke with his teammates. ``It was great to see the crowd and their reaction. Like I’ve told (the media) from Day 1, I love the city and they’ve always embraced me. I’ve done the same thing, trying to change the city. When I first came here everybody called us the `Orlando Tragic’ and we’ve changed that. Nobody says Tragic anymore.’’
John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at email@example.com
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