Denton: We All Want Dwight to Stay

By John Denton
May 10, 2011


Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Magic and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

ORLANDO – First, let’s just get this out of the way and make it abundantly clear right off the bat: No one who considers themselves a fan of the Magic wants Dwight Howard to leave Orlando. And for that matter, no one that covers the Magic – including the Orlando Sentinel and us here at OrlandoMagic.com – wants Howard to bolt away from the only franchise he’s ever played for.

Howard makes whatever team he’s playing for significantly relevant. He makes whatever team he’s playing for a championship contender, a lock for 50 wins and a regular in the playoffs. He makes that team a national TV draw, a hot topic on ESPN’s SportsCenter almost nightly and a magnet for attention locally and around the globe.

Howard stirred up a firestorm late Monday night/early Tuesday morning when he cranked up his computer, read some of the buzz about the Los Angeles Lakers assuredly about to make a push to get him and then responded via Twitter. I was alerted of Howard’s online activity by a friend and tore myself away from the Memphis-Oklahoma City three-overtime thriller to check it out.

(Full disclosure: I’m not a Twitter guy. I have a couple of accounts, but have never posted anything. I just don’t understand its relevance as it relates to the journalism business. Again, it’s giving away the product for free, something that the newspaper business has done for years with the internet and is in an unshakable death spiral partly because of it).

Back to Howard, here’s what he posted in Twitter talk: ``Y does it seem like the writers of Orlando sentinel are tryna push me out of Orlando with dumb articles. It’s annoying. Can I enjoy my summer and get ready for next season in Orlando. Pls. Same thing u guys did to Shaq. Smh.’’

According to my inside sources – i.e., people much younger and cooler than me -- SMH is for ``Shaking My Head,’’ and I’m joining Howard in shaking my head right now.

From what I’m able to gather, Dwight already feels smothered by the fact that everyone in Orlando – and the basketball world for that matter – is consumed by his impending free agency after the 2011-12 season. Howard is the engaging type and when he goes out on in Orlando – be it a movie theater, a trip to Disney, a nice restaurant or a midnight run to Steak ‘N Shake while wearing a Rick James’ wig – he is bombarded by requests from Magic fans to stay in Orlando.

With his Magic out of the playoffs earlier than they have been in the past four years, Howard has undoubtedly turned on the TV lately to catch some of the postseason action. Again, much of the studio talk has about how Howard can swing the balance of power with whatever team he plays for next. And to hear the likes of Magic Johnson, Jon Barry and Michael Wilbon talk, it’s as if Howard should get on the next flight out to L.A. to aid what ills the Lakers.

And when Howard takes to Twitter – a favorite hobby of his these past couple of years as his soaring popularity has allowed him to accumulate a massive following of more than 2 million readers – he’s again hit with a barrage of questions about his future. Fans in Orlando, L.A., New York and Dallas are constantly pitching their teams.

My advice to Dwight: The Bahamas. Or Cancun. Or for that matter, Cleveland. No one cares about professional basketball there anymore and will likely leave him alone.

Since his free-agency has become a hot topic, Howard has had nothing but glowing praise for Orlando and Magic fans. Having been around him for seven-plus years, I know that he loves living here, he loves how he’s treated by the fans and he loves being the biggest star in town. But because this franchise was burned once before by former NBA player Shaquille O’Neal (sorry, I couldn’t resist), Magic fans won’t believe a word of the glowing praise until Howard signs a contract extension with the Magic.

And why wouldn’t he? In Orlando, he has a dedicated ownership group with a track record of spending money to make the product better. He has an intelligent coach in Stan Van Gundy and a GM in Otis Smith who struck gold as recently as two seasons ago when he put together a NBA Finals team. He’s playing in the best of the best facilities at the Amway Center. There’s no competition from another star in this town. His Lake Mary mansion is a beautiful palace anyone would dream of living in. (The heated pool grotto and the upstairs barber room are specialties you can’t find just anywhere!)

Have we mentioned yet that it’s 70 degrees in November, December and January and there are no state income taxes? And, oh yeah, his father, Dwight Howard Sr., is in big favor of him staying in Orlando, and that has to account for something, right?

There is a negative perception out there that Howard can’t be all he wants to be in Orlando because of the relatively small size of the market. But he’s done just fine the past seven years, becoming the first player ever to win three Defensive Player of the Year awards, twice being the East’s leading vote-getter and having nearly as many national commercials as Miami’s ``Big Three’’ combined. And when Howard killed with his quick wit and sense of humor at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno back in February, you just knew that Orlando’s favorite son would someday wind up in more movie roles and likely hosting NBC’s ``Saturday Night Live’’ someday.

Howard said something extremely insightful and thought-provoking before Game 3 of the Magic-Hawks series in Atlanta earlier this month. He pointed out that the largest untapped markets are ones outside of the United States and in Asia and India. And as he correctly pointed out, you no longer have to play in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago to be an international superstar.

Clearly, Howard is bothered by all of the speculation surrounding his future. He cut off a free-agency question following the Game 6 loss in Atlanta and he abruptly ended a media session the next day in Orlando as players cleaned out their lockers. Most just chalked it up to Howard’s frustration from a season that ended well short of expectations.

But he has to know that the discussion of his future in blogs, talk shows and on the street is going to persist, especially with so much riding on it as it relates to the Magic. With Dwight in the fold, the Magic are alive, vibrant, relevant and an ``it’’ franchise in the NBA. Without him, they are, well, gulp, a rebuilding version of the Cleveland Cavaliers, an abandoned, forgotten franchise likely locked into a downward spiral. It’s a bitterness that the franchise hopes to never have to taste again, especially after having already been down this road once with Shaq’s defection back in 1996.

Howard is, in many ways, the Magic franchise. Without Howard, there would likely be no shiny, new state-of-the-art arena that has been a boon to the construction industry and downtown Orlando. Without Howard, the Magic aren’t on national TV dozens of times and likely not in the playoffs. Without Howard, you don’t see Magic jerseys in NBA arenas across the country and in random outposts around the world. Heck, without Howard, the franchise might not even be in Orlando any longer; imagine the rampant disgust of seeing one of the NBA’s best franchises over the past decade operating in Nashville, Kansas City or Louisville?

My gut feeling is that Howard wants to remain in Orlando. And he said as much last night/early Tuesday morning in Twitter talk, adding ``That’s what I’m tryna do,’’ when some fan asked why he doesn’t just stay in Orlando and build his legacy with the Magic.

Still, Howard wants a solid-on-court reason to re-sign. Losing in the first round of the playoffs didn’t sit well with him, and might have even caused him to contemplate leaving for the first time in seven years. There is no big secret here – improve the talent around Howard and the Magic will greatly improve their chances of retaining the best center in the game.

That will be a tricky thing to do, but the Magic have until July 1 of 2012 to make it happen. Howard absolutely, positively won’t be traded between now and then because franchises always get 50 cents on the dollar in return when dealing a superstar player. (Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato, anyone?) And he isn’t likely to sign an extension, instead keeping his flexibility in order to reevaluate the NBA landscape in July of 2012.

So the talk of Howard’s future will undoubtedly persist – in the newspaper, in the blogs, on the internet, in TV studios and irrepressibly on Twitter. It’s not going away and Howard would be best suited to take it as a huge compliment that millions of basketball fans are interested in whether he will remain in Orlando or (gulp, again) play elsewhere.

For years, Howard has quietly steamed over the fact that LeBron James has been the darling of the highlight shows and almost universally regarded as the game’s best player. Howard got a good look at how not to handle free agency last summer with James’ ill-advised ``The Decision.’’ In some ways, Dwight is now the 2011-12 version of LeBron because his retention/addition will send shock waves throughout the NBA.

Here’s to believing that Howard will handle his free agency with much more class and tact than James. And the thought here is that he’ll pull an anti-LeBron and remain with the Magic. And in response to those late-night Twitter ramblings, Howard should know that he’s still very much wanted here in Orlando.

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com. Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at AskJD@orlandomagic.com.