Denton: Does Dwight Regret Leaving Orlando? (Part 2)

By John Denton
March 11, 2013

``I really just got caught up in wanting to please everybody else,’’ he continued. ``I really love that city. The hardest thing to do was to leave that city because I basically grew up there. That was my whole life. Orlando was it. I did not want to leave all that behind — the city, just everything about it. The fans. But I wanted a change for my life. I just felt like there was something else out there for me.’’

That explanation likely won’t satiate a scorned Magic crowd that witnessed Howard blossom from a raw teenager in 2004 to one of the game’s dominant players. For eight seasons, those fans cheered Howard’s dunks, wore his jerseys and shoes and supported his bids to become the league’s Most Valuable Player – only to be jilted once again.

Of course, Magic fans have been down this path before of watching a once beloved player return following a bad breakup. In 1998, fans taunted Shaquille O’Neal with signs and boos and they delighted with joy when Nick Anderson made a baseline jumper in the final seconds to vanquish O’Neal’s Lakers. Penny Hardaway, once a two-time first-team All-NBA player while in Orlando, was given a similar treatment in 2001 when he came back with the Phoenix Suns. And on their first returns back to Orlando, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady got grief before the games even began.

``They booed me when I got the ball in the layup line,’’ Hill said earlier this year before the Magic faced the Clippers. ``Man, the layup line? I couldn’t quite believe that one.’’

As for McGrady, who demanded a trade following the 21-61 season in 2003-04, a fan once yelled an insult to him during the singing of the national anthem.

Regardless of Tuesday’s reaction to Howard, Magic veteran point Jameer Nelson said that it will do nothing to undo all of the damage that the center’s defection has inadvertently caused. Howard’s demanded trade last August triggered a massive Magic makeover and the team has struggled through an injury-filled 18-46 season.

While saying that he doesn’t begrudge Howard for wanting to play elsewhere, Nelson – Howard’s teammate for his first eight seasons in the NBA – mostly shrugged off Howard’s recent apology for how things ended in Orlando. Howard also angered Nelson, Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis and former Magic standouts Rashard Lewis and J.J. Redick by telling a L.A. television station that he led the Magic with a team full of players ``that nobody wanted.’’

For the record, those Magic squads were among the most successful in franchise history, reaching the NBA Finals in 2009 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.

``We made a good run,’’ Lewis said last week while the Magic were playing in Miami. ``I mean, hell, look at those banners hanging up in the stands. They don’t say `Dwight Howard’ on them; it was a full roster, coaching staff and (former GM) Otis Smith that helped. Everybody should get a piece of the credit because it wasn’t just one guy who did everything.’’

Again, Nelson was indifferent to Howard’s reasoning and apologies from the past week.

``What is said is said and what happened is over and done with,’’ Nelson said. ``I’m just here trying to look forward and not dwell on the past. The decision (to leave the Magic) was made and things happened. It’s not like anybody can take them back. Me personally, I’m not mad at him for what he did. Could things have been done differently? Yeah, but they weren’t. As a person, I just have to move on and try to be successful.’’

One of the Magic’s most meaningful wins of the season was an emotion-filled 113-103 defeat of the Lakers on Dec. 2 in Los Angeles. In that game, Orlando wiped out a four-point deficit with a downright stunning 40-point performance in the fourth quarter. Los Angeles native Arron Affalo scored 30 points, while Nelson added 19 points and 13 assists.

But what made the victory even sweeter for the Magic was the team’s inability to take advantage of Howard’s career-long weakness at the foul line. Employing the same Hack-A-Howard move that the Magic witnessed for years when the center wore Magic blue and black, Howard made just eight of 18 free throws in the fourth quarter to totally knock L.A.’s offense out of rhythm. For the game, his 21-point, 15-rebound performance was marred by his 12 misses from the free throw line.

Having once been Howard’s best friend, Nelson took great pride in winning the game in Los Angeles. Not only did he remind everyone that he stayed in Orlando this past offseason when he could have been a free agent, but he also dedicated the defeat of the Lakers to Magic fans who had endured so much throughout the Howard saga. Nelson said that facing a player he had sided with previously for so many seasons will undoubtedly spark a wave of mixed emotions.

``Anytime I’ve been on a team with a person and I go to play against them or see them for the first time, it’s a little weird,’’ Nelson said. ``It will be a little different than when we were out in L.A. It was different going to Miami and seeing Rashard (Lewis) or playing against Ryan (Anderson). It’s always different when you’ve been through a lot with a guy on the court and now you’re playing against him.’’

The Magic certainly went through plenty last season with Howard. He opening training camp following the NBA Lockout last December by indicating that he wanted a trade that would allow him to play elsewhere. When the Magic didn’t meet that demand, rumors churned on a daily basis and took a toll on the players in the locker room.

Howard was still pushing for a trade last spring, but surprised most everyone in the sports world when he waived the opt-out clause in his contract – a move that potentially could have kept him in a Magic uniform through this season.

Not long after being celebrated by Magic fans, Howard’s tenure in Orlando began to unravel when then-Magic coach Stan Van Gundy told the media he was aware that the star center had pushed to get him fired. In a downright surreal setting, Howard walked in on the media session where Van Gundy had just outted him and not knowing what his coach had said. Footage of the event became an instant YouTube sensation, and it shed some light on the dysfunction surrounding Howard’s shaky status in Orlando. Howard, Orlando’s all-time leader in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, says now that he should have been more forthcoming to his Magic teammates and coaches about his desire to play elsewhere.

``Whenever something happened, I should’ve let my teammates know. I should’ve said, `OK, this is what’s going on. I know what’s being said, but this is how I really feel,’’’ Howard told USA Today. ``Or, `Hey, coach, this is what’s being said, but this is how I feel,’ instead of just letting everything pile on and me not saying anything. ``I just felt at the time like, `I’m not going to say anything. I’m just going to sit back and let it unfold.’ By doing that, everybody was getting mixed signals,’’ Howard continued. ``They’re hearing this on TV, or I might make a quote about this and (the media) twist it and turn it into something else. Now you’ve got everybody like, `What is he doing?’ … I could tell some of that stuff started to bother my teammates, but I didn’t say nothing because I’m like, `They know that I’m not saying this.’ And it just kept piling on and piling on.’’

Clearly distracted by the Van Gundy/Howard saga, Orlando lost on April 5 of last year – which proved to be the final time Howard would play on the Amway Center floor as a member of the Magic. He had just eight points and eight rebounds in that game. Howard did return to wear Magic colors once again, putting up the final 20-point, 20-rebound game of his career on April 7 in a win in Philadelphia. But he played that night in obvious back pain, and he left the team days later to seek opinions on his back injury. Howard left not long after for Los Angeles, never to return to the Magic again. He had surgery in April, and was ultimately traded to the Lakers on Aug, 12. In the months since the trade, Howard has had to deal with waves of criticism as his usually dominant interior play lagged and his relationship with Kobe Bryant wavered. Not until recently did the Lakers move into playoff position and it has coincided with a run of stellar play from Howard. He had 16 points, 21 rebounds and four blocked shots in the Lakers’ defeat of Chicago on Sunday. And over his past five games – four of them Lakers’ victories – Howard has averaged 15.4 points, 16 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots.

Is that enough to convince Howard that he made the right decision in leaving everything he had in Orlando for the tradition-rich Lakers? An unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career over the summer, Howard has yet to commit to Los Angeles long term and plans to see what the market has to offer.

He said the way things soured in Orlando and the less than dreamy path that he’s been down so far in Los Angeles has taught him a lot. He said that while change was hard, it was needed for him to become the iconic player he’s always hoped to become. ``If it didn’t happen, I’d be stuck in my ways,’’ Howard said of all the upheaval in his life over the past 18 months. ``I would never change, and then it would be a lot worse. For all this stuff to happen, for me to sit back and see and evaluate myself and what I could’ve done better and realize that I needed to make a change, I’m getting better. I’m growing up. I’m maturing.’’

That maturity will certainly be tested when Howard faces an Orlando crowd that will almost certainly boo his every move, shot and rebound. The game is already a sellout and the size of the crowd could exceed the 19,311 that saw the Miami Heat and Magic on Dec. 31 – which was the largest crowd to ever see a basketball game in Orlando. Anyone with ties to Howard during his eight seasons in Orlando will likely be interested to see how the night plays out – including Miami Heat power forward Rashard Lewis, who said Howard’s return will be must-see-TV for him. He was irked at Howard’s comments last week, and said he’ll be an interested viewer in how the star center handles his return to Orlando.

``Oh, I’ll be watching,’’ Lewis said, while doubling over in laughter. ``I’ll be glued to the TV.’’

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