ORLANDO, Fla. — As the franchise’s all-time leader in points and rebounds, Dwight Howard couldn’t go without being recognized during the 25th anniversary season of the Orlando Magic.
But his return Wednesday night was different from those of Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and everyone else honored before him in that he’s still very much an active player and one less than two years removed from an unpleasant breakup with the team he helped lead to the 2009 NBA Finals.
Before Howard and the Houston Rockets faced the Magic, the 6-foot-11 center admitted the video tribute to him which the organization was planning to show at the end of the first quarter could leave him feeling touched.
”I had some great moments here, ones that I’ll never forget,” he said. ”So it might get a little emotional. We’ll see.”
After an acrimonious final season with the Magic and a year he would just as soon forget with the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard is back to performing at a high level on a winning team. He has played in every game for the Rockets this season and is averaging 19 points and 12.5 rebounds, with the latter figure ranking him fourth in the NBA in that category.
The Rockets have the league’s best record since the beginning of the year at 20-6 and are very much in the mix of Western Conference teams seeking homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs and beyond.
”I’ve grown the last couple of years, and it’s made me a better person,” Howard said. ”So I’m excited about my future, our team’s future. And it seems like with some things that are going on here, I’m excited to see the future of the Magic.”
The only Magic player remaining from his final season with them is guard Jameer Nelson, and he wasn’t even in the arena after coming down with an illness earlier this week.
”Me and Jameer, we wanted to change how people viewed the Magic,” said Howard, who was the first pick in the 2004 draft while Nelson ended up being taken later in the first round that year. ”That was our mission while we were here. And I thought we did a good job of that.”
Although he didn’t mention former coach Stan Van Gundy or former general manager Otis Smith by name, Howard implied that at age 28, he has mellowed.
”At the end of the day, I think time heals all wounds, even though it’s only been a year,” he said. ”I’ve forgiven the people that I needed to forgive. And I hope the fans have forgiven me for how the situation ended.”
Howard is coming off a 22-point, 16-rebound performance Tuesday night as the Rockets defeated the Miami Heat 106-103. Coach Kevin McHale said Howard’s teammates have finally adjusted to his style of play.
”The league is full of guys who have never played with post people,” he said. ”Post people is a lost art. So the poor guy was in there working his butt off, and we wouldn’t get him the ball. We’re getting the ball to him better now. He knows he’s going to get it now. He’s not quite as anxious when he gets it.”
Former Florida standout Chandler Parsons, who starts for them at small forward, has a unique perspective on being on the same team as Howard.
”His family was (Magic) season ticket holders,” Howard said. ”He said he had my jersey and all that stuff. So it’s pretty cool.”