The exit was bitter and acromonious — a drama of indecision and uncertainty that dragged fans and a franchise through the mud. It made everyone look bad and left a path of disaster in its wake. Bob Vander Weide, Otis Smith and Stan Van Gundy were decimated.
In the end, the Magic are left with Dwight Howard going to the Lakers, just as Shaquille O’Neal had 16 years ago and a roster mashed together and perhaps destined to fail for better draft position in 2013 and, quite possibly, 2014. The roster will comprise of the pieces Orlando gained in the trade — Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga — and the future roster will contain the five draft picks the Magic also acquired in this blockbuster deal.
Those are issues of the future. Today, in the immediate aftermath of the trade, it is perhaps best to remember the past. Those provide much happier memories.
Even Magic general manager Rob Hennigan gave a small reflection of the past and what Dwight Howard meant to the franchise in a, perhaps, wrote statement in the press release announcing the trade.
“Dwight Howard accomplished tremendous success on and off the court during his eight years in Orlando,” Hennigan said in the press release. “We wish him, Chris (Duhon), Earl (Clark) and Jason (Richardson) all the best in the future.”
This sentiment was re-affirmed at the very top of Hennigan’s press conference Friday: “Lastly, we want to thank Dwight,” Hennigan said to conclude his opening statement regarding the trade. “I heard a story the other day that he was booed on draft night and he turned himself into a pretty good basketball player. We want to thank him and thank him for all he gave to the organization.”
Hennigan was not here for all the ups — and downs — of Dwight Howard’s eight years in Orlando. The last year has created an enormous amount of venom that it has seemingly overshadowed all the good Dwight Howard has done in the last eight years. There was a lot that he did.
But it all started with that night in June in 2004. There was a choice to make. A very difficult one. Dwight Howard or Emeka Okafor?
The Magic’s then-current star was looking for the team to win now and take the proven college player. Jon Weisbrod, in one of his few good decisions, saw something in this young player something Tracy McGrady did not see, something the experts did not see, something the casual fan did not see. Orlando took a chance on the kid with braces.
It is hard to remember just how close that decision was because the choice is so obvious now. Okafor is bouncing to his third team in his career and has zero All Star appearances. Howard is clearly one of the top five players in the league.
And we saw him develop into that.
Watching highlights from Howard’s rookie year are simply astonishing. He transformed from a dancing, plucky teenager into a superstar player. He became a defensive force and the best center in the league.
More than that, Howard continually outperformed all our expectations. He dominated defensively, turning even mediocre defenders into an elite defensive unit. He transformed everything about this team and this franchise.
It became hip to be a Magic fan again. I think everyone forgets how hopeless it was going to Magic games during the Tracy McGrady era. The team was mired in mediocrity and not even the best pure offensive player in the league could sell out the Orlando Arena. The arena certainly never had the buzz it had during the 2009 and 2010 years and the rise that came with Howard at the helm. The team brought out the threat of moving and leaving Orlando in that time.
Howard brought the glory days of the expansion years and the mid-90s run back. He brought buzz back to the stadium. As Dwight Howard said, the city was on fire.
He brought the spirit back to Orlando in so many ways. He created an entertaining product on the court and he made an impact off it.
For seven years, he was an absolute model citizen on and off the court. The D12 Foundation is not going anywhere even with Howard leaving Orlando. And Howard is a multiple-time winner of the Rich and Helen DeVos Community Enrichment Award. This part of his life was never an act for Howard.
A year and a half erased a lot of that for a lot of people. But it should not completely eliminate the joy he brought Magic fans and all that he did for Magic fans the last eight years.
The wound is fresh, and there will be some scarring. But the good memories far FAR outweigh the year and a half of uneasiness. In time, even Magic fans will realize this.
Despite the imagery, Howard did not burn down the city. The franchise still exists and fans care enough to feel the pain. That may not be here if Howard was not so good in the seven years before the Dwight-mare began.
When McGrady left, there was anger but not the outright rage there was when Howard left. Maybe he was excused because the team was coming off a 21-61 season and the uncertainty that comes with drafting a high school player. There was a lot of apathy in the Magic fan base.
That apathy may return with Howard gone. Certainly after the initial anger ends.
What Dwight Howard did in the last eight years was restore the belief in the Magic as a franchise. Yes, the franchise eventually made mistakes to make it easier for Howard to exit. But Howard very much resurrected the franchise. He made the Magic winners and made the organization expect a championship again. Even coming out of the Dwight Howard trade, the Magic expect a championship sometime in the relatively near future. That was not the case post-Shaquille O’Neal or post-Anfernee Hardaway.
Howard raised the expectations of what was possible throughout the franchise after years of simply accepting mediocrity and hungering for simple Playoff berths.
More simply than that, Howard played his heart out for 82 games a year for eight years in a row. Without fail. There was no questioning his effort and his resolve every single night. He did everything that was asked for him until he decided to leave — and then continued to play pretty well and hard for a team he knew he wanted to leave. For what that is worth, Howard always carried himself as a true professional on the court.
His legacy when we talk about the good times will be with warm memory. He brought joy to being a Magic fan again.
That is important. Orlando fans may not ever fully trust a superstar player and throw themselves into the franchise like they did with Howard. He gave us a reason to believe. That is why it hurts so much right now. And it should hurt. Howard betrayed that trust.
There is good reason to be angry and stay angry at Dwight Howard right now. The wound is still raw. Each Laker game on TV is going to sting more than the last. The March 12 game against the Lakers in Orlando is going to be cathartic and brutal for Howard. It will be necessary to the healing process in Orlando — and hopefully Nick Anderson is around to hit the game-winning shot.
In the end though, as time passes, there are a lot of good memories related to Dwight Howard. A lot of good feelings. Those are probably not at the forefront right now. They will not be for a very very long time. But we shouldn’t forget them.
The good from Howard far outweighs the bad.
When we come down from that anger, the good memories will remain. When we get there, we will be ready.
Thank you, Dwight Howard.