The Romance Of Dwight Howard And The Orlando Magic

It’s winning time for the Orlando Magic. It has come down to that. 40-22 and 24-point comebacks just don’t cut it. If Dwight Howard is to spend his career in ocean-blue pinstripes, there better be a whole lot of winning going on in Disney World.

Take a look at Howard. The carefree, smiling, sun-faced young kid is endangered. That side of him still surfaces from time to time. But more often than not, fans are left with a new Howard: colder and more aggressive, angrier on the court. That’s a double-edged sword for Orlando. He was told all along he needed that to win a title. Well, now he has it. Many out there loved Howard for the approach he took to the game. But the star is smartening up to what’s happening around him, not only the colossal movement of star players, but those star players coming into his backyard in New York, New Jersey and of course, Miami. He’s growing impatient. Magic GM Otis Smith has surrounded him with players, but for the last two years, this team has regressed. And Howard is more of a lone warrior than ever before.

“The most interesting part about this story is that he’s eligible to sign an extension right this instant if he wanted to,” says Evan Dunlap, Founder and Managing Editor of Magic blog Orlando Pinstriped Post. “He could tack two more years at a maximum salary onto his deal and forego free agency in 2012. He’s not going to sign anything that will rob him of his leverage, though.”

The blueprint is set. The gauntlet is being dropped.

That Heat squad is the same team that Howard and the Magic undressed last night, coming from 24 down in the third quarter to win. But while critics are quick to point out the troubles in South Beach, it is Orlando more than anyone else who hasn’t lived up to expectations. Ask Jameer Nelson about expectations. Or Hedo Turkoglu. Or Gilbert Arenas.

As his teammates have wilted, Howard has risen, smoothing his game up through offseason work with Hakeem Olajuwon and an aggravation at being unable to break through. He was always on the cusp of iconic, yet could never fully explode out of his shackles. Finally, it has happened.

Howard was the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for February and averaged over 30 points per game during the month’s final two weeks. His numbers have steadily risen this season, growing stronger as the games tighten. In February, he was more than a man, averaging nearly 27 points, 15 rebounds and shooting almost 67 percent. For years, Howard was tantalizing. He was great, but not great enough. Talent is a funny thing. When you have as much of it as Dwight, being great is never enough. You have to be the best. Howard finally is that this season.

“Right now is about this season,” Howard told Tim Povtak of AOL News last month. “It’s not about L.A. or New York, or wherever. I’m really tired of it. I don’t want to be talking about where I might be playing next. I never said anything about leaving. I never said anything about me not being happy here. I just want to play basketball and help this team win a championship.”

Still, you have to know he’s contemplating his future. What would it be like to run L.A.? Would New York or New Jersey/Brooklyn give him the keys to New York City? All he has to do is take a look down the Florida Turnpike to see the opportunities. Yes, LeBron and Dwyane Wade haven’t been unbeatable, but they have everything they could ever want, and a guarantee that they will be competing for titles for years.

After last Tuesday’s win against the Knicks, Howard spoke on the issue with Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

Orlando’s the most attractive place for me right now. They have a sexy new arena, a beautiful franchise, nice banners around here and been in the top four in the Eastern Conference for the past four years. Yes, Orlando’s the most attractive place right now.

“If you’re going to make a decision then make it … earlier than later.” That’s what Carmelo Anthony told the New York Daily News. Ironically, ‘Melo’s adventure could mirror Howard’s. Anthony was part of a winning team in a sports-crazed city, with an excellent coach and a roster young enough to compete for the next five years. Except that wasn’t enough.

Denver rebounded with the best move they could possibly make, and some will argue are an even better team without their former superstar. But if Orlando loses their big man? It will be a repeat of July 19, 1996 when another seven-footer in pinstripes turned in his small-time card for a shot at glory in Hollywood. Howard leaving may not destroy the hype surrounding a gorgeous, new arena, but that building could be left to peasants with no Sultan to control it. It’s impossible to replace the irreplaceable. There is no one who can do what Dwight Howard does.

“Come 2012, Dwight is going to go where he feels he has the best chance to win,” says Dunlap. “If that’s in Orlando, he’ll stay. If it’s not, then he won’t. I don’t think he’s going to approach free agency quite like LeBron and Bosh did. He’ll want to hear pitches about what the various teams will offer, but I can’t imagine him making a documentary or TV special about it. People clown on Dwight sometimes for being a goof, but I don’t know how anyone who’s watched him for the last three years can argue he doesn’t care about winning. That’s going to come first in his free agency decision.”

This is the calm before the storm. If Orlando fails to reach the Finals again, or even worse, gets beat in the second round, the ripples will spread and grow larger. The countdown is on to 2012, or perhaps earlier. In New York or Los Angeles or Dallas, Dwight Howard could become the biggest name in basketball, the most monstrous creature to prowl the plains of the NBA. The thing is, he doesn’t need to leave. Howard already is that in Orlando.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.