Throughout the 2013-14 campaign, the Orlando Magic have aired brief video tributes to former Magic players and coaches who have returned as part of visiting teams, in keeping with the organization's year-long celebration of its 25th anniversary as an NBA franchise. It's a nice, relatively innocuous way to recognize those who have played a role, however small or large, in helping build the Magic into a viable NBA franchise over the past two and a half decades; as Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel notes, the Amway Center faithful mostly "have greeted the returnees with little more than polite applause."
Things were a little different during Wednesday's home game, which saw Jacque Vaughn's young squad take on the visiting Houston Rockets. As you might have heard, the Rockets have picked up a new center since their last regular-season visit to Central Florida. Magic fans know him pretty well; he played in Orlando for eight years. They don't like him very much these days.
And yet, despite all the ugliness that surrounded Dwight Howard's prolonged exit from Orlando in a three-team trade that landed him with the Los Angeles Lakers, the Magic treated Howard like every other ex-Magician (well, every non-Beno Udrih Magician, apparently) and briefly recalled his career in black, white and blue on the big screen. When asked before the game how he thought he'd be received by Orlando fans, Howard struck a hopeful note:
Well, about that:
Amway Center was out of "polite applause," it seems, but it wasn't nearly as bad as some feared:
While the forced exit obviously looms largest, Howard also might not have left the best taste in Magic fans' mouths by saying this past October that he was "a little upset" that the team gave his old No. 12 to Tobias Harris rather than, I guess, unofficially retiring it after he shot his way out of town. (To be fair, as John Denton of the Magic's official website notes, Howard "was unaware that Harris was only wearing the number as a tribute to a fallen teammate of his from high school.")
That said, I'm on board with the position taken by smart Magic-covering folks like Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post, who noted before the game that the brief recognition of Howard wouldn't be the sort of ramped-up recognition reserved for "Legends Nights" honorees like Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and Nick Anderson, but would rather simply be in keeping with business as usual and should be treated as such:
The Magic won't treat Howard any differently than it did New Orleans Pelicans assistant coach Randy Ayers, Milwaukee Bucks center Zaza Pachulia, Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick, or any of the other former Magic players and coaches when their respective teams visited Amway Center.
These videos present their subjects in a positive light — they show highlights, after all, and express gratitude — but their real beauty lies in the fact that they empower fans to react however they like. The folks in attendance can respond to the figures they depict with indifference, as in Ayers' case; amusement, as in Pachulia's; or with raucous cheering, as in Redick's. We ought to commend the Magic for demonstrating an awareness of and an appreciation for their history.
Irrespective of how things ended, Howard most certainly is a major part of that history. He tops the all-time Magic leaderboard in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes played. He made six straight All-Star Games as a member of the Magic, earning five consecutive starting nods and leading all vote-getters in fan balloting twice (2009, 2012). He won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards in a row between 2008 and 2011, led Orlando to five consecutive playoff berths from 2006 through 2011, and served as the centerpiece of
the lone Magic squad one of two Magic teams to play in the NBA finals, back in the spring of 2009. (NOTE: As BDL reader Vince L. reminds, the Shaq-and-Penny-led 1994-95 team made the finals, losing to, funnily enough, the Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon.) You can make a pretty compelling argument that his tenure in Orlando was the best of any player in franchise history, although I wouldn't challenge you to a streetfight if you said you preferred Shaquille O'Neal's four-year tenure to Howard's six-year run. (I almost definitely wouldn't challenge you to a streetfight anyway, no matter what you said.)
Not only was Howard's time in Orlando worth celebrating, but the franchise's present state — a completely overhauled roster full of relatively inexpensive and intriguing talents (rising rookie Victor Oladipo, rebounding machine Nikola Vucevic, potential-laden forward Harris, near-All-Star shooting guard Arron Afflalo, prospective contributors Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn) led by an up-and-coming head coach in Vaughn — looks significantly brighter than many anticipated when then-new Magic general manager Rob Hennigan sent Howard to Hollywood.
The losses have come fast and furious this season, with Orlando's 19-43 mark standing as the NBA's third-worst, but there's reason to hope for something better. Two years down the line, with Howard out of L.A., Andrew Bynum out of Philly, Andre Iguodala out of Denver and more draft picks headed Orland's way, Hennigan looks to be the clear winner of a trade that was roundly panned at the time, and as Eddy Rivera wrote at Magic Basketball, Dwight forcing his way out of town no longer seems like the end of the world:
The effects of the Howard trade have already transformed the Magic. Vucevic, Harkless, and possibly Afflalo are seen as part of Orlando’s core. The Magic’s second lottery pick should provide another young piece for GM Rob Hennigan to add to a budding roster. But that’s not all. Orlando still has two more first round picks coming in the future (a 2016 first round pick from the Sixers and 2017 first round pick from the Lakers).
Everyone always said that Howard’s departure would have a huge impact in Orlando. But no one imagined that the direct effect would be so positive. What many considered a disastrous deal at the time has turned into the saving grace of the Magic franchise while also extricating them from the black cloud Howard had wrought over his final two seasons.
Saying "sorry" doesn't always fix everything, and time might not necessarily heal all wounds, but when they're combined with the opportunity to watch the one who spurned you eat dirt, as Howard did in L.A. last season, and the realization that there's light at the end of the tunnel, it does make it a bit easier to let bygones be bygones. Magic fans weren't quite ready to go that far just yet, but it was cool that Orlando's brass gave its most ardent supporters the chance to express themselves as they saw fit.
Howard finished with 19 points on 8 for 12 shooting, 13 rebounds, two steals and a block, albeit with six turnovers thanks in part to some aggressive Orlando double-teams in the post early in the game, as Houston erased a 14-point second-quarter deficit to take care of business with a 101-89 road victory.
All-Star shooting guard James Harden led the way with 31 points on 11 for 19 shooting, six assists and three rebounds; he and Howard combined for 25 points in a third quarter that saw Houston double Orlando up, 34-17, turning the game around and propelling the Rockets to their fifth win in their last six games. Kevin McHale's club is 16-4 over its last 20 games, boasting an NBA-best 21-6 mark since the calendar flipped to 2014 that has Houston fending off the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
Afflalo scored a team-high 18 points with four assists, while Vucevic added 15 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, and Harkless chipped in 15 points and five steals for the Magic, who were without rookie star Victor Oladipo (sore left ankle) and who have dropped seven of their last 10.
Video via Orlando Magic Stuff.
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