It’s another week before the Orlando Magic officially open regular-season play.
That doesn’t mean that Magic fans are waiting around to show their top star how much they want him to stay in town.
In his first on-court appearance in front of fans since making a trade request, Howard was greeted to a loud ovation from about 9,000 fans when he was introduced during a free, open scrimmage the team held at Amway Center on Saturday.
The All-Star center has spent each of his seven NBA seasons in Orlando, but asked management to be traded shortly after the Magic opened training camp.
Howard’s No. 12 jersey was worn by fans throughout the crowd Saturday, many of whom held professionally printed signs from StayDwight.com that read ”Superman This Is Your Metropolis.” Other homemade signs were also on display, nearly all including three words: Dwight, please and stay.
”We didn’t know what to expect because of what we heard and what’s been posted (negatively) on my (Twitter) timeline,” Howard said. ”They see it and they thought it was going to be a different scenario. But it was great for me and my teammates. We’re looking forward to starting off the season on a good note.”
Howard said Thursday although there hasn’t been any movement on his trade request, it still stands. His agent, Dan Fegan, has permission from Magic general manager Otis Smith to discuss trades with Dallas, New Jersey and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Howard can opt out of his current contract in July 2012 and become a free agent.
During the player introductions Saturday, Howard received a standing ovation. He said that moment was special for him.
”It was emotional,” he said. ”It was great to see their reaction. And like I’ve told you guys from Day 1, I love this city … When I came here, everybody called our team the Orlando Tragic. I wanted to change it. Nobody says tragic anymore.”
Magic fan Dallas Wilkes, from Howard’s native Georgia, sat near midcourt and said he supports Howard even though there’s uncertainty about whether he’ll remain in an Orlando uniform.
”I have mixed feelings,” Wilkes, 28, said. ”I understand he’s a person and needs to do what’s best for him. But this is a great place. The guys that are here really seem to like it, and hopefully what’s best for him is what’s best for us.”
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said after the scrimmage he ”had no idea what to expect” when it came to the reception Howard would get. He added his focus is trying to get his team ready to play its regular-season opener Christmas night at Oklahoma City.
Orlando plays the first of its two preseason games Sunday at Miami.
”I look at it not as the first exhibition, but as the next to last,” Van Gundy said of his approach. ”You can’t ease into this thing.”
Before taking the court in front of fans Saturday, the Magic practiced for about 90 minutes.
Van Gundy said he was impressed with Howard, as well as free agent acquisition Von Wafer, who had some of the best moments in the public scrimmage, knocking down several open jumpers and getting to the rim off the dribble.
Wafer appeared in 58 games last season with Boston and spent a portion of the offseason playing overseas in Europe.
”I’ve definitely got an advantage because I’ve been playing in Italy,” Wafer said. ”But I still don’t have my legs under me … It’s different in the NBA, more up and down, more transition. But they’re coming slowly.”
Still, Van Gundy said getting the entire squad up to game speed is the priority.
”We’re not in the condition now that we are normally in when we open training camp,” Van Gundy said. ”I think there will be some teams better and some teams worse. But as far as relative to where we are – I don’t know.
”I think when you’ve been in this league a long time and a lot of the coaches in this same boat, you know what it’s supposed to look like at various points … But right now, you don’t have any idea.”