|Dwight Howard is hesitant to assert himself, letting the small, faster players dominate the game. (US Presswire)|
ORLANDO, Fla. -- This was supposed to have been Dwight Howard's show, and he seemed determined to make sure it wasn't. Never have you seen a player try so hard to do so little in an All-Star Game.
This was Howard's weekend, in the place he called "our city" during pregame remarks on the court in front of a packed arena.
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart," he said to the fans.
Later, when he came to the bench after barely running up and down the floor, Howard made a big show of sitting down next to Rich DeVos, the Magic's 85-year-old owner, in the baseline seats near the East bench. TV cameras hovered as Howard put his arm around the owner, and they chatted for a few minutes. Oh, to have been a boom mic over that huddle.
"We just talked about the game and having All-Star weekend here," Howard said after the West beat the East 152-149 Sunday night.
This was Howard's big night, the host and ambassador of All-Star weekend. And I understand fully that All-Star Games are for fun, and the NBA is so cutthroat and serious that some fun is badly needed. But once again, Howard crossed the line between having fun and putting his clown act on full display.
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It started with the introduction of the East starters, when Howard and LeBron James stepped in front of their fellow All-Stars to dance. Derrick Rose, standing to their right, looked like he wanted the stage to swallow him up. Or perhaps, swallow them.
When the game started, Howard lollygagged, smiled, laughed, launched 3-pointers (he was 0-for-4) and went out on the perimeter to defend Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and the other little people. I fully understand that the All-Star Game is a small man's show, and Howard got out of the way and let the athletes run up and down the Amway Center court and do their dunking, lobbing and alley-ooping 'til their hearts' content.
"I just wanted to have fun, get out there and make the game interesting," Howard said. "You know, for me, this is what I wanted to do. I didn't really care about getting the ball. I get the ball with my team. That's what matters."
And which team will that be? Howard wouldn't say. For a third straight day, he shut down all questions about his future, his trade demand and whether this was his official good-bye to Orlando. Maybe that's for the best, and a credit to his desire now to overshadow the weekend with his nonsense. But in a way, Howard ended up doing that anyway by making himself so conspicuous by his absence. Howard wanted to host the parties, do the meet-and-greets and fake-eyeglass press conferences and celebrity grip-and-grins.
The game? What game?
"The show was the whole weekend," Howard said. "It's not just about the game."
Whether Howard knew he was being introspective in that moment or not, he pretty much summed up his existence as a basketball player. In an event that has become consumed by hype, Howard was the ambassador, all right. He was the Host of Hype.
"We did our best to really put on a show for the city, for all the fans in the NBA," Howard said. "We really planned out a lot of things for All-Star weekend. Everything we've done these past couple of days has been great. I really thank all the fans for coming out and supporting me, and the rest of my teammates [who] were at a lot of our events. And that's putting on a show. It's not just the game."
Meanwhile, in the game, the between-the-legs dribbles and lobs off the backboard were over with three minutes left, when the East had cut a 21-point deficit to three, 144-141, on a 3-pointer by James. Right then, just like that, the best basketball players in the world flipped a switch. The hijinks were over. It was on.
For some -- like Kobe Bryant -- it had been on for a while. Bryant had passed Michael Jordan for No. 1 on the career All-Star scoring list, and he had to get a bloody nose from Dwyane Wade to do it. Bryant was driving baseline for the bucket that would've tied Jordan when Wade came down over top of him with both arms, blocked his shot, and hammered him in the face. Bryant twitched his nose, got some gauze stuffed in both nostrils, and sank the two free throws to tie Jordan with 262 All-Star points in his career. He later passed His Airness with a dunk, and finished with 27 points.
So no one had to let Bryant know that it was winning time with three minutes to go. No one had to tell MVP Kevin Durant (36 points), or the guy who was guarding him late, Carmelo Anthony, who barked at the ref to give him the ball quicker for the inbounds pass after Durant scored over him to make it 146-141 with 2:36 left.
And yet somehow, Howard didn't get the memo. There he was about 90 seconds later, trying to guard Paul near the 3-point line and fouling him in the process. Still hosting, still clowning, still in hype mode. Howard wasn't going to be heard from on his future during All-Star weekend, and he wasn't going to be heard from in the game, either.
"We had a great weekend," Howard said. "There's no need to talk about that stuff right now."
All-Star weekend is supposed to be fun. The All-Star Game, like the game itself, is more important to some than others.
So as you watched the best basketball players on the planet Sunday night, players so talented and dedicated they didn't need all the noise and parties and pre-game and halftime entertainment, you witnessed the two distinct camps of NBA stars. The consummate pros, Bryant and Durant, were here to play a game. Howard, by his own admission, was here for everything else.
I'm not here to assign the rest to one camp or another. But among the new generation of stars, I'll take Rose, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo with the next four picks in the old-school pro draft. I'll take Wade -- no-layup-rule Wade -- as well. And I'll provide my credit card and buy a ticket any time you tell me James is going to use his open-floor gifts, vision and uncanny passing ability the way he did Sunday night. The dunks? Stellar. But when James goes back to his roots as a pass-first playmaker, he reminds you that if he did that all the time, he'd be the best point guard in the NBA -- and it wouldn't even be close. With more of that and a lot less clowning, Howard would belong, too.
Bryant, nose bloodied and all, cared so much -- in his uniquely diabolical way -- about this exhibition game that he was all over James after the Heat star had thrown an errant pass that was picked off by Blake Griffin as the East went for the win on its final possession. "Come on, man! Come on!" Bryant shouted at James, who admitted afterward that Bryant told him he should've shot the ball.
Paul Pierce? He cared, too -- and he wasn't even in the game. On the previous possession, Pierce was up off the bench and yelling for his teammates to foul Bryant and put him at the line. Bryant, who'd missed two key free throws in the final minute against Dallas before the break, went 1-for-2. As Bryant strode back to the huddle during a timeout, he glared at Pierce and the rest of the East bench.
So here's some advice: There's a battle between hype and substance being waged in the NBA now, a tug-of-war between the game and the theatrics that come with it. The forever players of the sport, Bryant and Durant and Rose and the like, choose the game.
It's not too late to join them.