Dwight Howard did just about everything he could to avoid addressing the media Tuesday morning at the Amway Center, where the Los Angeles Lakers center was preparing to play his first game as an opponent in the city where he became a superstar.
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With an eager horde of reporters standing a few yards away waiting for him to wrap up his post-shootaround workout, Howard, who spent eight years with the Orlando Magic before a rancorous departure this past summer, worked on his post moves as the rest of his teammates cleared the court. Then he tossed up a few free throws.
After an extended chat with an assistant coach, Howard moved on to his 20-foot fadeaway jumper — a shot he’ll never take Tuesday night against his old team. The latter was enough to make Lakers point guard Steve Nash crack from across the floor that it was the longest post-practice workout Howard ever had taken part in.
Eventually, when he was out of shots to pretend to practice, Howard made his way over to the scorer’s table, where he leaned against a ball rack as the inquisitive mob — cameras and tape recorders at the ready — enveloped him, pushing and shoving, clamoring to ask him all the questions he has heard before but never fully answered.
The seven-time All-Star didn’t say anything groundbreaking during his five-minute chat before Lakers staff whisked him away. And he didn’t distance himself from the same boring platitudes he has used the past seven months when downplaying his exit from Orlando. But he was there in the house that he helped build, and that, in and of itself, represented the beginning of closure for Howard and — he hopes — the fans he left behind.
“I’ve said it plenty of times: I’ve got nothing but love for the fans here,” Howard said.
“They made me into the player that I am today, and I’ll always be thankful for that. I came here a boy and left a man, and it made me a better person, being here. . . . I don’t know what it’s going to be like (during the game), but I had eight great years here and nothing can take away the accomplishments that we had here as a team and what we went through together, the ups and the downs.”
Unfortunately for Howard, the downs are what most people in Orlando are choosing to remember about his time in the city as he makes his long-awaited return.
The 2009 NBA Finals season and the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals run are commemorated by banners in the arena, and those aren’t going anywhere. But Howard’s indecisiveness, his dissing of his teammates and his feuds with former coach Stan Van Gundy on the way out of Orlando are at the forefront of the discussion when it comes to his legacy — something he said he hopes can one day change.
“We had a lot of great memories here, and they’ll never be taken away from me, from the people who supported us,” Howard said when asked if his time in Orlando ever would be defined by what he accomplished and not how he left. “I had eight great years here, we did a lot of great things and I saw a city go from a team with nobody in the stands to a new arena and a packed house every night to see our team play. So it was great to see that. Me and Jameer (Nelson) accomplished a lot here, and our goal was to get people to come and support us, and we did that.”
Nelson, however, didn’t seem to look back on Howard’s departure with the same warm fuzzy feelings his ex-sidekick did. Howard always was rumored to want a better point guard by his side during his time with the Magic, and his description of his teammates as a “bunch of guys nobody wanted,” during a TV interview last week only served to fan those flames. Nelson said he didn’t want to get into his personal relationship with Howard, but the implication that he made was that their bond had gone sour.
“You make friends over the course of your life, on the court and off the court, and some of them stick in your life and some of them don’t,” Nelson said. “We still have a lot of life to live, and, hopefully, we can be friends after basketball. . . .
"I’m not looking for an apology. Like I keep saying to you guys, I’m trying to prepare myself and do the things I do on game days to prepare myself to be successful tonight with my team.”
Beyond Nelson and the arena itself, there’s little about the Orlando Magic left to remind Howard of his time with the team. Head coach Jacque Vaughn was hired this past summer after the Magic fired Van Gundy, and with Hedo Turkoglu suspended and Glen Davis injured for Orlando, Nelson actually will be the only player on the active roster Tuesday who was also on the roster for Howard’s final game with the Magic, in April 2012. The reaction from the fans certainly will not be a familiar one, either, and the boos likely will outweigh the cheers.
But Howard said he’ll take it all in stride when he takes the court Tuesday night.
“All that stuff is over with now,” Howard said when asked what he regretted about the way he left. “Today’s a new day. Whatever happened in the past, I’m going to leave it behind me, and like I said, I have nothing but love for the fans here. They treated me well. It didn’t end right. It didn’t end the way we all wanted it to end. But I’m in a better place, and everybody has to move on.”