By John Denton March 4, 2014
ORLANDO – At some point during a timeout in the first quarter on Wednesday night, the Orlando Magic will continue their year-long celebration of the 25th anniversary season by showing a video tribute of the returning players who contributed to the ream’s rich history.
For the most part this season, those classy video tributes have gone over well, and the ``Legends Nights’’ have been tremendous hits with fans eager to relive the franchise’s glory days. Why, even former superstar point guard Penny Hardaway, who left the franchise on a sour note in 1999 and was booed for years, received a loud, emotion-filled ovation when he returned in February.
The tenor of Wednesday night’s video tribute will largely be left up to the fans who will undoubtedly pack the Amway Center. Will they continue to boo and spew venom toward Dwight Howard? Or could it be that the passing of time, and the passing of Howard’s desire to play for the hated Los Angeles Lakers, will cause the fans to soften on the Houston Rockets all-star center? And will there ever be a time – granted, Wednesday night might still be too soon – when all that Howard did in Orlando will be recognized by a fan base that adored him for seven of his eight years in Orlando?
For all of Howard’s critics in Orlando, consider this: When he hit unrestricted free agency for the first time last summer, Howard was happy to leave Los Angeles so that he could look for a city and situation that most closely resembled what he had in Orlando. And if he closed his eyes just right and let his imagination go to work, Howard could look at James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverly and Omer Asik and see Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson and Marcin Gortat.
That grouping, along with Howard, led the Magic to some of their best times in franchise history. If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, shouldn’t Magic fans be somewhat pleased by the fact that Howard is simply trying to replicate in Houston what he had in Orlando? Howard admitted as much back in October when Orlando played a preseason game in Houston.
``I think it’s the almost same, exact team,’’ Howard said of the comparisons between the 2013 Rockets and the Magic of years gone by. ``Off the court, all of us are always together. And on the court it’s like the same thing. You look at Chandler like Hedo, James is like a Courtney Lee and a guy who can really score the ball. Then, we have two big point guards – Patrick (Beverly) is like Skip (Rafer Alston) and Jeremy (Linn) is like Anthony Johnson. So it’s almost like that same core group of guys that we had in Orlando.’’
There aren’t many Howard connections left on the Magic (19-43) other than the 32-year-old Nelson, who missed Sunday’s defeat of Philadelphia with a calf injury and wasn’t able to practice on Tuesday because of an illness. But many of the players on the Magic were around last season when Howard made his return to Orlando, and they saw the way the fans responded and how the night was filled with so much emotion. Howard tied his own NBA record with 39 free throw attempts last March – and incredibly made 16 of 20 tries in the second half – in a 39-point, 16-rebound, three-block performance.
``He’s one of the most dominant centers in the NBA. Say what you want about him, but that’s a fact right there,’’ said Magic forward Tobias Harris, who had 17 points and 15 points last March. ``He’s big and strong and athletic and he’s one of the top centers in the NBA.’’
Harris factors into the equation because he wears No. 12, the same one that Howard wore during his record-setting, eight-year career in Orlando. Howard was unhappy that the Magic gave away his No. 12 so quickly after he left, but he was unaware that Harris was only wearing the number as a tribute to a fallen teammate of his from high school.
Back in October, Howard addressed Orlando’s rebuilding project and his mostly fond memories of his time in Orlando. He said that while there things from Orlando that he missed, there were no regrets of the way he handled his departure. And, oddly, he had no remorse over leaving the Magic and forcing the team to undergo the massive rebuild that is still very much in progress.
``I would say that (the Magic) did some good things. They’ve got a lot of great pieces,’’ Howard said of the trade that netted Orlando Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo, Maurice Harkless and a first-round draft pick that will be exercised in the June NBA Draft. ``I’m still a little upset about the No. 12. I just think despite whatever happened, there were a lot of things that I did and we did as a team. That number is special down there. I was a little upset about that.
``But I think Orlando has an opportunity to be one of the good teams,’’ Howard added. ``They are very young right now, but once those guys learn how to play the game and grow into their games, they will be fine.’’
HAPPY TIMES IN ORLANDO
Howard grew his game in Orlando after the franchise chose him first overall in 2004 as an 18-year-old high school player. He morphed into an international superstar in Orlando, setting a NBA record for most votes in All-Star Game history, making repeated appearances on ``The Tonight Show’’ and garnering a half-dozen national advertising campaigns.
Howard used his massive shoulders to carry the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. His legacy with the Magic is indelible what with him being the team’s all-time leader in points (11,435), rebounds (8,072), blocked shots (1,344), minutes played (22,471), free throws made (3,366), free throws attempted (5,727), turnovers (1,930), fouls (2,002) and disqualifications (25). He led the Magic in rebounding and field goal percentage all eight seasons he was in Orlando and led the squad in points, fouls and turnovers seven times.
But Howard lost faith in the team’s ability to surround him with a second superstar and he got a wandering eye during the 2011 NBA Lockout. He opened that season with a trade request, one the Magic ignored throughout the season as the team played well at times and was confounding in other puzzling lopsided losses.
Howard agreed to waive the opt-out clause in his contract in the spring of 2012, giving every indication that he might remain in Orlando long term. But a long-simmering feud with he and then-coach Stan Van Gundy bubbled over in March of 2012, with Van Gundy informing the basketball world that he was well aware that Howard wanted him fired.
Soon after, Howard injured his back and retreated to Los Angeles, where he wasn’t seen in Orlando again the rest of the season. Van Gundy and former GM Otis Smith were fired, and the new regime running the Magic made the decision to trade the star center when he made it abundantly clear that he no longer wanted to play in Orlando.
Howard’s first season away, with the Lakers, was an abject failure. He struggled through back and shoulder injuries and L.A. got swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs.
In Howard’s defense, he never truly wanted to play in Los Angeles, never wanted to be a part of Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun offense and most importantly never wanted to share the ball and the limelight with Kobe Bryant. Howard knew deep down that it would never work, and proved to be extremely accurate.
REBUILDING HIS REPUTATION
Howard’s reputation took a beating because of the trail of bitterness he left behind in Orlando and Los Angeles. That could be seen in the voting for this year’s all-star game when Howard received just 653,318 votes and was a reserve for the first time in seven years. It was quite a fall from 2009 in Orlando when Howard received a NBA-record 3,150,181 votes.
Snapped Howard: ``I didn’t come to Houston to be a starter in the All-Star Game. I came here to win a championship.’’
The 6-foot-11, 275-pound center vaulted the Rockets in championship contention with his stellar play of late. He had games of 34 points and 14 rebounds against the Suns, 27-13 against the Bucks and 20-13 against the Lakers as he was booed during the month of February. For the season, he’s averaging 18.9 points and he’s fourth in the NBA in rebounding (12.5) and ninth in blocked shots (1.83) and his Rockets headed into Tuesday’s game against Miami having won 11 of the past 13 games.
So on Wednesday when the ceremonial video rolls showing Howard in a Magic hat shaking David Stern’s hand on draft night in 2004, showing him dunking over Tim Duncan in that epic 2007 finish, showing him lifting the 2009 Eastern Conference trophy high overhead, will the fans respond with appreciation or bitterness? Both reactions are totally understandable, of course, considering the hot and cold nature of his time here.
In the NBA, all player/organization relationships eventually come to an end, and most of the divorces are unpleasant. Will the passing of a year and the celebratory theme of Wednesday’s video tribute soften some of the bitterness and create an appreciation of the better times?
Howard has moved on, but have Magic fans done so as well?