It’s the game that’s been circled on every Orlando Magic fans’ calendar since the beginning of the season.
Lakers at Magic — 7 p.m. ET — March 12, 2013.
The return of Dwight Howard.
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It won’t be a warm reception for the once beloved Magic center, who had called Orlando home for the first eight seasons of his NBA career.
But all the love turned to bitterness during a tumultuous 2011-12 season in which Howard waffled back and forth about whether Orlando was the place he wanted to play out his next contract.
He ultimately decided the grass would be greener elsewhere, and first-year Magic GM Rob Hennigan obliged, trading him to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a multi-team, multi-player deal in August.
“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,” longtime Magic fan Dennis Salvagio told the Associated Press. “But the way he did it was wrong and kind of spit in the face of the fans.”
Orlando had already been through this once before with Shaquille O’Neal. What are the odds the lottery lightning ball would strike twice, only to leave Magic fans feeling jilted in nearly the exact same manner when all was said and done?
Howard maintains that it was nothing personal, however, that matters little to the Magic fans he deserted.
“In Orlando, I handled a lot of stuff the wrong way,” he told USA Today Sports. “If any of those people in Orlando are upset with how I did it, I apologize for the way I handled it and the way it was handled in the media.
“I really just got caught up in wanting to please everybody else. I really love that city. That was the hardest thing to do was to leave that city because I basically grew up there. That was my whole life. Orlando was it. I did not want to leave all that behind — the city, just everything about it. The fans. But I wanted a change for my life. I just felt like there was something else out there for me.”
That “something else,” this year at least, is the Lakers.
Most expected that with Howard in the fold, the Lakers would challenge the Oklahoma City Thunder for Western Conference supremacy. But with Howard slow to recover completely from last year’s back surgery and having added a shoulder injury to the mix, the Lakers have only recently moved about .500. They’re currently battling for the final seed in the West.
While the season has certainly been a difficult one for the Magic, it didn’t start out so bad. Glen Davis stepped up into a leadership role and was having a breakout season when a shoulder injury on Dec. 19 knocked him out for several weeks. The Magic were 12-13 at the time — which included a 113-103 victory over Howard and the Lakers in Los Angeles on Dec. 2 — but lost 10 of 11 in his absence.
With depth an issue for a young rebuilding team, the Magic were never the same, and injuries to other key players also took their toll. Howard’s replacement, young Nikola Vucevic, is the only Magic starter who has not missed a game this season. Davis returned Jan. 14 but was knocked out for the season on Jan. 30 with a broken foot.
So when Howard makes his much ballyhooed return, he’ll be greeted by a Magic squad that may sit 18-46, but will most certainly be amped to throw a monkey wrench into the Lakers’ post-season hopes.
“Obviously the atmosphere is gonna be probably a little turned up, a littler crazier than we’ve had so far this year,” veteran point guard Jameer Nelson told reporters Monday. “I’m quite sure guys will be a little more juiced up during the game and ready to go, just like we were when we played them in L.A.”
Nelson was one of the Magic players who felt slighted when Howard told a Los Angeles TV station CBS2/KCAL9, “My team in Orlando was a team full of people who nobody wanted.”
Howard later said people twisted his words and that he meant no disrespect toward his ex-Magic teammates, but the the damage was done. Nelson said he has not spoken to Howard since the interview.
“What’s said is said and what happened is over and done with,” Nelson said. “I’m just here trying to look forward and not try to 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 and do the things I need to do to help the team.”
During his time in Orlando, Howard became almost everything the fans could have hoped for when the Magic drafted the unproven high school talent with the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NBA Draft over Emeka Okafor, who was coming off a stellar junior season in which he captured the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player award.
Most experts figured Okafor would be a solid pro — and he has been — but didn’t envision him as a franchise player that could carry a team.
Howard, on the other hand, was pure potential. The sky was the limit. But gambling on a high school player was a risk.
For the Magic, it was a gamble worth taking. And they won big. While Okafor may have captured rookie of the year honors, Howard’s star ascended following a rookie season in which he became the first player straight out of high school to start all 82 games.
In 2007 he became an NBA All-Star.
In 2008 he became Slam Dunk champion.
In 2009 he won the first of three consecutive NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards.
In the midst of all that, he turned the Magic into NBA championship contenders. They advanced to the 2009 NBA Finals, dropping LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals along the way. Though they fell short of the title, losing 4-1 to the Lakers, there was the feeling that as long as Howard stayed healthy, the team would be in good shape for years to come.
But instead of the lifelong relationship that everybody hoped would bring championships to Orlando, Howard is now nothing more than somebody Magic fans used to know.
“I think it’s going to be crazy,” Howard told reporters of what he expects from his first visit to Orlando in an enemy uniform. “I don’t know how I’m going to handle it. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be very emotional for me.”