At 18 years old, braces recently off, you could tell there was a superstar somewhere inside Dwight Howard.
In the first game of his career, he sent several opposing lay-ups into the stands and his dunks were reminiscent of a young Shaquille. His athletic feats “repeatedly wowed the fans,” according to the AP recap. As the Magic beat the Bucks 93-92 on a last-second shot from Steve Francis, one thing was for certain: Dwight was going to be something special.
On that night, for the first time in almost a decade, I thought about the NBA Finals. I was fairly confident that, at some point in the future, this kid named Dwight would get the Magic to basketball’s biggest stage. The question was when.
We all knew the Magic weren’t going to sniff the NBA Finals anytime soon. Not with Johnny Davis, Steve Francis, Kelvin Cato and Cuttino Mobley involved. Not with Dwight’s offensive game limited to slam dunks (although he had a nice little jumper in high school; what happened?). Not with a hockey coach running the team.
So I, like many other Magic fans, figured the NBA Finals could come by 2015 or so. That was a fair goal.
But we knew it could happen. That was the beautiful thing. It could happen. There was hope.
That’s the awesome part about the NBA Draft. It gives people hope. The Clippers will have hope, whoever takes Ricky Rubio will have hope, and whoever takes James Harden will have hope. Even if it’s misguided hope, it’s a great feeling to have.
It’s a feeling that all Magic fans are sharing right now. For the Magic, after astonishingly racing to the NBA Finals with a still-extremely-young Howard, the sky’s the limit.
“I’m 23 years old,” Howard said. “God willing, hopefully I have a long career without any major injuries. You know, I’ve got a great feeling that we’ll have a chance to be back. There are no doubts in my mind about that.”
That’s typical confidence from Dwight. It’s the same thing you hear from every player, yeah — but Dwight was the guy who predicted the Magic would go to the NBA Finals before this season, much to the chuckling of reporters and ridicule on message boards. The NBA Finals and swift rise to stardom happened much sooner than anyone thought it would.
Did people close to the situation ever think Dwight would be in the NBA Finals at age 23?
“No way,” said Ken Hornack, a former Magic beat writer for the Daytona Beach News Journal.
Five years ago, he was coming to a team that went 21-61 and hadn’t won a playoff series in eight years. Shaq took them to the Finals in his third year, but he was something of a known quantity coming out of LSU. In 2004, Dwight was an 18-year-old whose high-school competition left much to be desired. Plus, the NBA Finals don’t happen for everyone. Ask people in Atlanta, Denver, Sacramento and Minnesota, all of who have never been there.”
Tim Povtak, a former beat writer for the Orlando Sentinel who currently covers the Magic for NBA Fanhouse, agrees.
“I thought it would take Dwight another year or two before he reached the NBA Finals,” he said.
It was unexpected to almost everyone. Dee Gugel, a former assistant sports editor at the Orlando Sentinel and long-time season ticket holder, knew the NBA Finals would come sooner than expected for Dwight — just like in 1995 with Shaq.
“The one thing I knew is it would happen when we weren’t expecting it because that happened with the mid-1990s team,” Gugel said. “And I believed that with Dwight’s work ethic and his focus on achieving goals that it would happen eventually.”
But again, there is hope. As a fan, that’s all you can ask for.
“Shaq reached the Finals at the same age of 23, in his third year with the Magic,” Povtak said. “So they are on pretty much the same course. If the Magic can keep surrounding him with top-notch talent, there’s no reason why he can’t return several times before his career is over.”