By John DentonNov. 4, 2015
HOUSTON – For three seasons, the Orlando Magic and their fan base have had to endure all of the pains, the losing streaks and frustrations that come along with rebuilding an entire roster.
As it turns out, Dwight Howard – the catalyst for the Magic tearing apart the roster in the summer of 2012 – was also suffering along with Orlando from afar after seeing the franchise bottom out the past three seasons.
Howard, the No. 1 pick of the 2004 NBA Draft by Orlando, led the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals, the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals and six straight playoff appearances – the longest such streak in the Eastern Conference back in 2012. But when Howard forced a trade that summer, the Magic hit the reset button and fired GM Otis Smith and head coach Stan Van Gundy and systematically gutted the roster that had surrounded the 6-foot-10, 265-pound center.
Howard’s defection – first, to the Los Angeles Lakers and later as a free-agency signing with the Houston Rockets – triggered a massive makeover in Orlando. And after the franchise center left, Orlando was forced to limp through seasons where it won just 20, 23 and 25 games while missing the playoffs each of the past three seasons.
Howard, the Magic’s all-time leader in points (11,435), rebounds (8,072), blocked shots (1,344) and minutes played (22,471) while playing for the franchise from 2004-12, always took pride in helping Orlando become as recognized for winning basketball as it was its world-famous theme parks. And to see all of that success crumble over the last three years hurt Howard – even though his demand for a trade was a big reason behind the collapse.
``It was tough to see how everything that we worked for and everything that we built up, it seemed like people took that for granted,’’ said Howard, whose Houston Rockets (1-3) host the Magic (1-3) tonight at 8 p.m. ET at Houston’s Toyota Center. ``It didn’t end well and all of that fell back on my shoulders, which is fine.
``I just know that I did a lot of great things for the city by putting my heart out there every single night and I put my body on the line to help the city and the team grow,’’ Howard said. ``But things happen. But I like what they are doing down there now and I really think (General Manager) Rob (Hennigan) is doing a great job.’’
The Magic squandered sizeable leads in their first two games this season and were disappointing on Sunday in a sloppy loss to the Chicago Bulls. But they won their first game on Monday in New Orleans, throttling the Pelicans 103-94 behind strong games from Evan Fournier (30 points and four 3-pointers) and Nikola Vucevic (22 points and 13 rebounds). Howard watched parts of that game on television and he said he was delighted to see how Orlando has rebounded around a solid core of young players.
``They’ve got a lot of young guys now who can really play the game and they’re only going to get better. I’m happy for them that they’re coming back,’’ Howard said following the Rockets’ morning shoot-around practice on Wednesday. ``Young guys like Vucevic, (Victor) Oladipo, Fournier – they’ve got a lot of guys who can really basketball. It’s nice to see them coming back.’’
Howard is coming back from a game where he had 16 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots on Monday in Houston’s defeat of Oklahoma City. A night earlier, Howard sat out Houston’s loss in Miami because of persistent back pain that has bothered him since late in the 2011-12 season when he still played for the Magic.
Drafted by the Magic out of high school at the tender age of 18, Howard will turn 30 years old on Dec. 8. He was something of an athletic and bruising ironman when he played for the Magic, never missing a game in five of his first six seasons and appearing in 567 of 574 regular-season games in his first seven years in the NBA. During his eight-year career in Orlando, Howard won three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards, was named to the All-NBA team six straight years, set a NBA Finals record with nine blocked shots against the Lakers and he averaged 18.4 points, 13.0 rebounds and 2.16 blocks in Magic pinstripes.
Howard, who said that he gritted it out in last spring’s Western Conference Finals while playing on a torn meniscus in his knee, believes now that all of the minutes that he played and the hits that he took while playing for the Magic have worn down his body.
``No doubt about it, all of that took a big toll on my body,’’ said Howard, who comes into tonight’s game averaging 12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a game. ``But at that time, I was young and I wanted to put Orlando on the map and I didn’t care if I died out there on the floor. I was going to give 100 percent no matter what. I took pride in playing all 82 and I took pride in playing because I wanted to be out there for my team and the city.
``As you get older, all of that jumping and banging inside, it wears on your body,’’ added Howard, who can potentially be a free agent this summer if he decides to opt out of his contract. ``Now, I feel (the pain in his back and knee) more and it’s almost expected (from the minutes that he logged). Coming into the league at 18 and playing the same way I did for 12 years, it really hits your body.’’
Howard said he often thinks back to his final game in a Magic uniform – April 7, 2012 in Philadelphia – when he had 20 points and 22 rebounds in Orlando’s 88-82 defeat of the 76ers. Howard noticeably played that night in excruciating back pain and still managed his ninth 20-point, 20-rebound performance of the season to help the Magic snap a five-game skid that was, in part, a result of his very public feud with Van Gundy.
Howard was later diagnosed with a herniated disc in his back, and because he needed season-ending surgery, he never played for the Magic again before being traded. Howard said he hopes that, in time, fans will remember him more for efforts like that where he played in pain and put his body on the line for the Magic more than the defection that sent the franchise into a three-year spiral.
``I’ve thought about that game a lot, my last game with the Magic, and how much pain I was in,’’ he recalled. ``My body wasn’t even a concern for myself; my only concern was to win that game. That was me putting myself on the line for other people – that was always my mindset when I played in Orlando. I hope people know that about me and will always remember that.’’