Howard hosts exhibition as gift to 'our city'
Whether there will be NBA basketball played this season remains to be seen.
But in the meantime, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard gave Orlando fans something to watch Sunday night with an exhibition game featuring current and former Magic stars.
Howard deflected all questions about the current NBA labor dispute and ongoing intrigue about whether he will seek free agency in the summer of 2012. Players could be back to work as soon as December if they accept a current Collective Bargaining Agreement this week contract offered by the league's owners.
Instead Sunday, Howard focused all his comments on the Old-School vs. New School exhibition game he said was staged as a way to uplift and better the city where he has spent his entire NBA career.
''I think that this is the best way that, for me, you can express how you feel about a group of people,'' Howard said. ''Doing an event like that was actually something that me and a couple of guys thought about. We sat down with guys like Gilbert (Arenas) and Chris Duhon and other Magic players and also my staff and just talked about ways we could really better our city.''
The game was held Sunday on the campus of the University of Central Florida in front of a nearly sold out 10,000-seat UCF Arena crowd. Fans paid between $25 and $100 for tickets. Howard also interacted with fans at a celebrity bowling event on Saturday near UCF's campus.
All proceeds from the game benefited Howard's charitable D12 Foundation.
Players who participated included Howard's current teammates Arenas, Brandon Bass, Quentin Richardson, Jameer Nelson and Ryan Anderson. Former Magic players who played included Penny Hardaway, Courtney Lee, Matt Barnes, Rashard Lewis, Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat.
Rapper Lil Wayne and boxer Floyd Mayweather served as celebrity coaches.
In the end, the Old School Magic team beat their counterparts 114-102.
When asked specifically about the lockout and his free agency status, Howard said talking about those issues took away from the purpose of the night.
''We want to keep this about the game and about this event,'' Howard said. ''Right now that's the only thing that I'm focused on is this event and giving back to our city...It's not about free agency or whatever. There is no basketball right now. This is basketball - something like this. So let's not dwell on all the other stuff.''
Afterward, he called seeing so many Magic alumni back on the court together his favorite part of the night. He went as far as to say that when the NBA lockout ends that he hopes a player like Hardaway will be a more visible presence in the Magic organization again.
Hardaway received one of the loudest ovations of any player introduced in the pregame.
He said that he also hopes the appearance will lead to a rekindled relationship with Orlando. Hardaway started his NBA career with the Magic and was one of its first stars, helping lead the team to its first NBA Finals appearance along with Shaquille O'Neal.
''I felt great because I hadn't been back, especially in this type of atmosphere since I left the Magic,'' Hardaway said. ''I thank Dwight for doing this because I don't know if it would happen otherwise. So he kind of broke the ice with me coming back here...So it's kind of like something I will never forget for sure.''
As for the current players, both Bass and Anderson said they didn't think it would take long for them to get back into playing shape should the labor issues be worked out in the near future.
''Everybody has been training all summer, so to be honest a week or two and we'd probably be alright,'' Bass said.
Barnes said that the players recognize that right now it's the NBA fans that are missing out and that wasn't lost on them even in a light-hearted atmosphere like Sunday's exhibition.
''Unfortunately, with the lockout the fans suffer the most,'' Barnes said. ''Even in this economy, the fans give their last dollar to come watch us play. We get a tough rap for arguing over the business aspects and that's what we have to do. But with charity games and stuff like this we have a chance to give back.''
Howard didn't rule out the possibility of hosting a similar event should the NBA All-Star game schedule for February get canceled. Especially with so many of the former Magic players that participated Sunday still having residence in the Orlando area.
''One thing I like about it is that it's NBA players out supporting each other,'' Howard said. ''It's great. We're like frat brothers. No matter what team these guys are on or whatever, we still support each other. We're still brothers. That's the thing I always tell the guys that have been on my team. No matter what happens in life, we'll always be family. I hope it showed tonight.''