Jilted Magic fans ready for Howard
The number 12 is no longer sacred in Orlando.
The man who used to wear it, Los Angeles Lakers’ center Dwight Howard, also once shouldered the Magic’s hopes of attaining an elusive first NBA championship.
But after eight years of chasing it, and taking Orlando through one of the most turbulent seasons in its history last year, the man who called himself Superman is now the city’s biggest villain.
He returns for the first time Tuesday since his offseason trade to the Lakers to face the jilted fans, front office members and handful of teammates that he left behind.
”I’m not sure,” Magic point guard Jameer Nelson said when asked about his expectations for Tuesday. ”Obviously the atmosphere is gonna be probably a little turned up, a littler crazier than we’ve had so far this year.”
Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis are the only players on the Magic’s roster that have previously played with Howard. With Davis out with a broken foot and Turkoglu serving a suspension for violating the NBA’s drug policy, only Nelson will play in the rematch.
There will be a No. 12 on the Magic’s sideline, though. Only it will be worn by one of the Magic’s most recent acquisitions, second-year forward Tobias Harris. He’s been wearing it since his senior year in high school.
Fans once called Howard ”D-12,” they now refer to Harris as ”T-12,” a subtle dig to the star whose luster has faded in central Florida.
If his contentious departure from Orlando didn’t add enough heat to Tuesday, Howard tweaked many in Orlando last week when he referred to his former Magic team as ”full of people that nobody wanted” during a television interview. He clarified later saying he only meant they were underrated.
He went further Monday when he apologized for his part in last year’s drama during an interview with USA Today, saying in part that he ”handled a lot of stuff the wrong way” and got caught up in trying to please everyone.
Howard acknowledges, though, that his reception will be icy.
”My dad said I might as well get earplugs,” Howard said. ”I think it’ll be tough for everybody…I heard they have chants ready, so it should be interesting.”
The Magic stunned the Lakers on the road back in December, 113-103, in easily their biggest win of the season. The Lakers were able to shake it off as early-season chemistry issues, but this time around can’t afford any slippage as they try to hang on to a West playoff spot.
”We gotta get this win,” Howard said. ”That’s what’s on our mind. We don’t know if it’s going to be a hostile environment or a good environment, but it really doesn’t matter. I know these guys are gonna be there for me.”
Magic CEO Alex Martins said this week that he hasn’t spoken to Howard since he left, and is focused entirely on a Magic rebuilding process that includes first-year coach, first-time general manager and major roster turnover.
”The way I look at it, basketball is such a fast-paced game that you gotta be focused on the present and future,” Martins told The Associated Press. ”And if I’m focused on anything from the past then I’m not doing my job in getting our team and our organization ready to compete again.
”So, that’s all we’re focused on, is looking ahead and our rebuild and making sure we’re doing all the right things systematically to get ready to compete again in the short-term.”
For a fan base that has previously trudged through similar sagas and departures of All-Stars like Shaquille O’Neal , Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill, this latest bitter homecoming is one that no one in Orlando ever expected to have endure again.
Now that it’s here, though, the city and its fans are preparing to make Howard’s return the most unwelcoming to date.
Along with chatter on social media planning signs to taunt Howard with, a local radio station put up electronic billboards in three Florida counties mocking Howard’s visit. They feature a running countdown clock to Tuesday’s game time with the tagline ”’Til Dwight Leaves Us Again.”
And boos are almost certainly expected to echo inside the Amway Center which Howard once helped draw sellout crowds in.
”I certainly will,” said longtime Magic fan Dennis Salvagio when asked if he planned to boo on Tuesday. ”I think because of the way he did it. There’s lots of guys who left the team, but left because of other things, and they don’t get booed and get a nice hand when they come back. But the way he did it was wrong and kind of spit in the face of the fans. Why shouldn’t we boo him? It’s why we pay our money, right?”
Salvagio has been a season-ticket holder since before the Magic even played their first game. The 65-year-old Orlando lawyer purchased the tickets he’s held for the past 24 seasons in a special offering three years prior to their inaugural 1989-90 season.
He called the daily soap opera that Howard was the centerpiece of last season ”messy,” but was loyal throughout. But he said watching the affect the season-long ordeal took on the team changed his mind.
As raucous as the night may be, Nelson said he’ll try to just focus on basketball.
”What’s said is said and what’s happened is over and done with,” he said. ”I’m just here trying to look forward and not dwell on the past. A decision was made and things happened. So it’s not like anybody can take it back or anything like that. Me personally, I’m not mad at him for doing what he did.
”Could things have been done differently? Yeah, but they weren’t. So me as a person I just have to move on and try to continue to be successful.”