|After all the waffling and advice to go elsewhere, Dwight Howard chooses to re-embrace Orlando. (AP)|
There was a time on the eve of the trade deadline when Orlando was about to become Cleveland. Or at least what the world thought Cleveland would become. Life after LeBron James, it turns out, isn't as bad as expected.
And life for Dwight Howard, at least for the next year, won't be anything like what James has experienced since leaving the only city he had ever played for -- and, unlike Howard, the region where he grew up -- to chase fame, riches, rings and lots of other glorious things in Miami.
Dwight Howard sure as shootin' had been well on his way to becoming LeBron James over the past 24 hours. Even worse, in some respects. LeBron to this day regrets The Decision fiasco, but at least he had the decency to make a decision and stick with it.
"I was going back and forth," Howard said Thursday.
Was he ever. Back and forth between Orlando, his home for eight years, and parts unknown for promises undefined. Back and forth between villain and hometown hero, from having his jersey burned in the streets to being everybody's friend.
"I'm not like those guys that people are trying to paint me to be," Howard said Thursday, after signing a waiver of his early-termination option and thus assuring the Magic he would be in Orlando at least through next season -- not Brooklyn, not Dallas, not Los Angeles. Not yet.
|More on Dwight Howard|
|More NBA coverage|
"I'm loyal," Howard said. "That's just who I am."
It's easy, and also deserved, to ridicule Howard for flipping and flopping his way back into the eager arms of the Magic organization over the past two days. But what he did, in the end? Impossible to dismiss. Difficult to argue.
"I've had to look bad in the process of it, but I'll take all that," Howard said. "I'll take the hit."
Howard, 26, had been getting the hard sell for the better part of a year from his agent, Dan Fegan, and marketing people of all stripes that Orlando didn't cut it for a star athlete of his stature and with his aspirations of global fame and popularity. New York in general, and Brooklyn in particular, was where Howard needed to go to achieve all his goals -- on and off the court.
The Nets, moving to a new arena in the borough next season, took a gamble and traded major assets for Deron Williams. On Thursday, there Williams sat with the Nets, with no Howard walking through the door and with an early-termination option of his own after the season.
Williams thought Howard was on his way. So did the Nets, having been kept in the loop by Fegan, who essentially was staking his reputation on it. His reputation is neither here nor there, but it's hard to imagine his relationship with Howard continuing after this.
"I wouldn't say they were pulling me to go different places," Howard said, when asked about outside influences pulling him away from Orlando. "They were just looking at it from a business standpoint: what I needed to do if I wanted to accomplish this and that. And I totally understand that position. That's why you pay certain people to do certain things. And in my heart, I just felt loyalty was better than anything else."
In the throes of his indecision over the previous 36 hours, Howard mentioned that he was getting "some bad advice." As late as Wednesday night on a conference call arranged at Howard's request before he boarded the team bus on the way to a game in San Antonio, the advice was still flowing.
Whether it was good or bad depended entirely on your perspective.
Magic executives, including CEO Alex Martins, GM Otis Smith and owner Rich DeVos, were expecting Howard to lead off the conversation Wednesday night -- hours after Howard had informed a high-ranking team official that he wanted to sign the ETO waiver, commit to Orlando and not be traded. But when the Magic officials got on the call, the first voice they heard was Fegan's, according to a person who was briefed on the call.
Fegan spoke for about 10 minutes, the person said, informing team officials that Howard was not willing to relinquish his ability to become a free agent after the season. When it was Howard's turn, all he could muster was a plea for DeVos and the Magic brass to "trust" that things would work out.
"Then you're watching the game," a person familiar with the chronology of events said, "and you're thinking, 'Oh my God, this is his last game.' "
But something happened from the time Howard boarded the team plane to the time it landed in Orlando. Informed via text message that Howard was once again having second thoughts about leaving, Smith greeted the team plane at the airport. It was about 3 a.m. ET -- 12 hours from the deadline, by which Howard almost certainly would've been traded to the Nets without his signature being applied to the document in his possession.
Say what you want about the roster moves Smith has made to build a championship roster around Howard, but the man did the right thing in the wee hours of Thursday morning. Howard informed Smith he wanted to sign the ETO waiver right then and there, at the airport, before dawn.
"We've got to do this the right way," Smith told Howard, according to a source. "It's 3 a.m. Go sleep on it, and come see us in the morning."
Which is what Howard did, waffling all the way up to an hour before the news conference announcing that he was staying.
In the end, it was the influence of those Howard had come to know and trust -- Smith and Martins, speaking with him daily, explaining their vision -- to which he assigned the most weight. Fegan, in California, and an arena in Brooklyn that's still being built for players not yet known, were far, far away. In different worlds.
"I've got everything I want right here in Orlando, and all that other stuff will come," Howard said. "It will come. But the first thing we have to do is win a championship."
Where this goes from here is anybody's guess. This can't be oversimplified into some sort of long-lasting epiphany for Howard, who was the same immature, indecisive, 26-year-old boy in a man's body Thursday he had been the day before. But it was the comeback of all comebacks for the Magic and for Orlando, who have bought themselves the most important asset in today's NBA when it comes to stars as valuable and powerful as Howard -- something Cleveland couldn't buy when it came to LeBron.
More time. Just a little more time.
So the Magic, the happiest team in the NBA not to make a trade Thursday, will take their All-Star center and serviceable roster and third-best record in the East to the playoffs and see what happens. Then, to the summer they'll go for upgrades and changes Howard made clear Thursday he'll be involved in even more than he was before.
"It has to take everybody, you know, from the top all the way to the bottom," Howard said.
If he likes the results, he can stay -- and actually get more money during the next six years than he would've gotten any other way. Had he opted out, the best Howard could've done was a five-year deal this summer to stay with the Magic -- one more year than the Nets or Mavs could've offered. After we do all of this again next summer -- and please, have mercy on us all -- Howard can get a five-year deal from the Magic at that point, making Thursday's decision a six-year pay day in dollars and peace of mind.
So as for the loyalty part, we'll take him at his word -- even if we all want to snicker a little. Money and not wanting to be a villain -- not wanting to be LeBron -- were factors, too. And the more you think about it, the more it makes sense.
Howard's been searching his entire career for a way to stand out, to be different, to step out of the shadow of his contemporaries and do something that Shaquille O'Neal, the player Howard always will be compared to, didn't do.
On Thursday, by staying right where he was, he finally accomplished that. At least for a little while. At least until next time.