Former Orlando Magic star happy to return home

Dwight Howard made his return to the Kia Center to cheers during Game 6 of the Orlando Magic's playoff series. It is another step in Howard's reconciliation with the franchise.
Dwight Howard's exit from Orlando was a bitter and nasty one that followed him ever time he returned home. But Howard's first game as a fan during Game 6 was a celebration for him.
Dwight Howard's exit from Orlando was a bitter and nasty one that followed him ever time he returned home. But Howard's first game as a fan during Game 6 was a celebration for him. / Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The buzz was already building before Game 6 started at the Kia Center last week. It was Game 6 after all. The Orlando Magic's season was on the line. Everyone expected the team to pull out all the stops.

The buzz though grew louder as fans inside the building saw a familiar face sauntering over to his seat opposite the Cleveland Cavaliers' bench.

For the first time since his bitter departure, not only were the Magic back in a series they felt like they could win but their former superstar was back in the building. Dwight Howard had come home.

The Magic hedged their bets, introducing him to the raucous crowd alongside fellow 2009 starter Rashard Lewis. He got cheered all the same, seemingly burying the hatchet with fans after his bitter 2012 season and exit.

Howard was back home.

Howard said this was his first time at an NBA game since his time with the Los Angeles Lakers ended in the 2022 season. Howard has been on a basketball sojourn to the Philippines as he wrestles with trying to return to the NBA or officially retiring.

This night though, Howard was living it up. Even the Bally Sports Florida broadcast caught Howard dancing with the 321 Hype Squad after the game and celebrating with STUFF too.

This was a night to celebrate everything Magic.

Howard has still been a thorny subject in Orlando. With the Magic playing the Cavaliers, everyone was thinking about the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals that saw the Magic upset the LeBron James-led Cavaliers. There was at least the thought of seeing Howard back in Orlando.

Of course, nobody knew how Magic fans would react to Howard's return. Even Howard was uncertain about it. His relationship with the team has been rough for several reasons.

"It's not as good as I would want it to be," Howard told The O.G.'s Podcast last week (recorded before he attended Game 6). "I think people are still upset over how things ended when I was there. I would love to right those wrongs because, at the time of coming into the league, I'm 18 years old, I don't know any better. I guess when I got out of there, there was a lot of turmoil, a lot of hate, a lot of bitterness. I would love to change that around."

This was certainly a really important step.

Howard's departure from Orlando was extremely bitter despite Howard's attempts to keep his trade request quiet and his desire to stay in Orlando.

Everything backfired on him as the Magic seemed determined to force him into a decision before he hit free agency and exercised his early termination option as the team wanted to get something for him rather than lose him in free agency as they did with Shaquille O'Neal.

After the lockout ate into the 2012 season, Howard went public with his trade demand but vowed to play his way through the season until a deal was completed. The Magic ultimately talked him into waiving his early termination option and try to work out a long-term deal. But things devolved from there, getting only more awkward.

The Orlando Magic ultimately traded Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers in August, starting off a decade-long rebuild that finally seemed to end with the team's recent Playoff appearance.

Since then, Howard has faced jeers whenever he returned to Kia Center as an opponent. Any mention on him in social media also received a lot of reaction.

Time has a way of healing old wounds. And Howard's return to Kia Center was part of a process of reconciling the franchise, the fan base and one of the Magic's greatest players.

"It felt so crazy being at the game," Howard said on his own podcast, Above the Rim. "It was my first game I ever went to as a fan. I'd never been to a game. The atmosphere was amazing. Just being back in the building brought back so many memories."

Time has indeed healed a lot of wounds between the franchise and Howard. Howard is certainly more reflective about his career and his time in the league.

That was certainly the feeling when Howard returned to Orlando to be with former teammates after Stan Van Gundy's wife died last summer.

Howard told The O.G.'s Podcast that if he could have done things differently he would have stayed in Orlando. He definitely appreciates what he had in Orlando now that he may not have when he was younger and yearning for something different.

Howard added in his own podcast that he took it for granted what being the superstar for the team meant. When ownership and management told him they built the arena for him, he did not understand what that meant.

That came full circle in his return to the arena for Game 6.

Howard still seems hopeful to return to the NBA for another year or two. Howard still feels like he can play.

But as he moves to his post-playing days, it was one of the best stories of Game 6 to see him get showered with love in his return home. He has that now again -- a basketball home.