Howard should speak with Duncan about future

BY foxsports • January 18, 2012

Monday afternoon, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard spoke with New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony about his future and the stress of being a superstar player in flux.

Anthony gave him some sound advice, Howard said, telling the three-time reigning defensive player of the year to "do what's best for you" and to "live for you" when he chooses his next team.

'Melo would know. He put himself first last year when he demanded a trade from Denver to New York, informing the Nuggets that they should deal him now before they lose him for nothing in the offseason. He would later get his wish when Denver sent him east in February.

Howard, too, should certainly make himself the priority when he picks his next destination and to date, Los Angeles, Dallas and Brooklyn seem like the most viable options. He has certainly earned that right.

But before he decides to leave Orlando in his dust, he should make it a point to talk to another NBA star, someone who did things differently, broke the mold and was handsomely rewarded for it in the end.

Tim Duncan is the symbol for longevity, and, more importantly, loyalty in the NBA. He's the type of guy every player in the league — Howard included — should aspire to be. And one can only hope that Howard will reach out to Duncan when the Magic host the San Antonio Spurs Wednesday night at the Amway Center.

Because it wasn't long ago that Duncan was the can't-miss big man walking in Howard's shoes. And Duncan, in the end, chose familiarity over fame, permanence over popularity, small-market success over mainstream marketability.

Duncan did what felt right, not what made him most popular. He took care of the team and the city that took such great care of him, and there are countless people in Orlando who hope Howard will have a change of heart and do the same before it's too late.

Duncan's commitment to the name on the front of his jersey actually started in college, when he stayed at Wake Forest for four years, even though he easily could have declared for the NBA draft well before he received his degree.

"I'm different," a 21-year-old Duncan said at the time. "I am not the norm. I did something only a few other people will do. I am an original."

Even at 21, Duncan understood what it meant to honor a commitment and play for something bigger than himself, and all these years later, he's still holding himself to that same high standard.

San Antonio selected Duncan No. 1 overall in the 1997 draft, and in the 14 years since, Duncan's closest — and only — brush with another team came in 2000, and it was actually the Magic who nearly lured the star power forward away from the city where he made his name.

At the time, the Magic, led by head coach Doc Rivers, had a load of money to spend and two players, in particular, whom they wanted to spend it on: Duncan and Detroit Pistons small forward Grant Hill.

The team brought Hill and Duncan down to Florida and gave their best sales pitch, and Hill was on board almost immediately. Duncan, however, took a little more convincing, and Orlando went to every length possible to show him that Central Florida was where he wanted to be.

Magic officials took him to Disney, where "Grant Us Tim" was written in lasers on the side of the famed EPCOT ball.

The team famously tossed out a lunch meat platter and sent a staffer to go get burgers when they found out Duncan didn't eat cold cuts just minutes before his plane touched down in Orlando.

Orlando even had Tiger Woods — then a 24-year-old at the top of his game and on top of the world — in its corner, doing his best to woo Duncan to the city he called home.

But in the end, it was comfort of San Antonio and an impassioned meeting with then-Spurs teammate David Robinson — another legendary big man who spent his entire career with the same team — that won Duncan over.

On Aug. 2, 2000, Duncan re-signed with San Antonio — something he did again in 2003 and a third time in 2007 — and in the years since, the future Hall of Famer has picked up two league MVP awards, three more NBA titles and two NBA Finals MVP awards.

Not bad for a guy who almost decided to leave for greener pastures.

The Magic, on the other hand ended up signing Tracy McGrady instead of Duncan, but they never reached the level of success that most expected they would. McGrady's tenure in Orlando was at times spectacular, but Hill's ankles simply refused to hold up, and the Magic wouldn't even win their next playoff series until 2008 — long after Hill and McGrady were gone.

"It was probably a lot closer decision than people even think or even know," Duncan told reporters during the 2007 NBA Finals when asked about his choice to return to San Antonio. "But it's worked out the right way, to say the least, and I can't even go through all the factors that went into making the final decision to come back here. But just the organization and the people and the situation, and as I said, obviously it worked out the right way."

In some ways, Duncan's decision in 2000 really isn't all that different from Howard's now. He was the star player on a small-market team that needed him in a city that absolutely adored him. Duncan had nice pieces around him — certainly, San Antonio's roster was good enough to be competitive — but they hardly guaranteed him a title.

Sure, Duncan — unlike Howard — had already won a championship during the 1998-99 season, but in 2000, the Phoenix Suns bounced the Spurs 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs after a 53-win season earned San Antonio the No. 4 seed in the West.

And the Lakers, fresh off a 67-win regular season and a romp to the NBA title, looked poised to dominate the West for years to come — which they, in fact, did.

But Duncan stayed, regardless. Even though he had every reason in the world not to. Even though his coach and teammates had already mentally prepared for his departure. (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was so wrought over Duncan's decision that he once said, "I never let myself believe he was going to stay.")

He stayed and he helped cultivate players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, turning them from no-name additions to star sidekicks. He transformed San Antonio from a playoff also-ran back into a member of the Western Conference elite.

He stayed because he loved the city, however small the market, a sentiment Howard purportedly shares about Orlando. He stayed because he loved his teammates and his longtime coach.

He stayed because he wanted to finish what he started in the place where he became a household name. But most of all, he stayed because he was truly happy where he was.

"There were several reasons for staying," Duncan said at the time. "It really came down to being comfortable."

Rather than look back on his seven years in Orlando and say "Thanks for nothing," Howard should look back on his time so far and say "Thanks for everything."

Rather than follow Shaq's blueprint for success and bolt for a shiny new opportunity, Howard should consider Duncan's path instead. Duncan was loyal to his team and his fans and his city, and he was rewarded for it in the end.

Instead of trying to be the next 'Melo or LeBron, Howard should consider what it might be like to be the next Tim Duncan instead.

There's certainly no promise of success for Howard if he stays in Orlando, but there's also no reason to think he won't be able to follow in Duncan's footsteps and breed that success on his own should he choose to stick around.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter.



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