Weisbrod helped deliver Howard, Nelson

Photo Former Magic GM John Weisbrod poses with Dwight Howard and then-coach Johnny Davis.
(NBAE/ Getty)

The man largely responsible for Dwight Howard’s presence in an Orlando Magic uniform was in New Hampshire over the weekend, doing what he does the best and loves the most: scouting college players at a hockey game.

“Basketball is not hockey to me,’’ John Weisbrod was saying. “I’m still a hockey guy at heart.”

This “hockey guy” – he played at Harvard and coached in the minors – nonetheless found himself running the Magic in the critical spring and summer of 2004. Elevated to the position of general manager in March 2004, Weisbrod, who had no basketball background whatsoever, but a boatload of athletic experience as a hockey player and executive, signed off on four big decisions in the space of two weeks in June and July.

Five years later, they almost all look like no-brainers. But after that frenzied two-week stretch yielded Howard, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and hastened the departure of Tracy McGrady, Weisbrod was vilified by fans (had there been a blogosphere the size of today’s, it would have been exponentially worse), received bags of hate mail (some of which he still retains) and for a while had to move into an area hotel under an assumed name because of death threats. The FBI installed surveillance cameras at his house.

If you Yahoo search the words “polarizing” and “Weisbrod,” your computer will explode. It wasn’t easy.

“It’s strange looking back on how it all worked out,’’ Weisbrod said after a day of meetings with his current employer, the Boston Bruins, for whom he scouts. “I had had a history of team-building in hockey and I thought I could do the job with the Magic. We needed to blow it up and start all over and I knew it was not going to be pretty. It was a hectic time – but a good time.”

The Magic ended up with the No. 1 overall pick in 2004 and the choice was quickly pared to two: the young, athletic, upside-laden Howard and the dependable, more-seasoned and incredibly polished Emeka Okafor. Howard was a risk because he was in high school. Could he be the next Kwame Brown? Okafor was more of a sure thing, having played three years at Connecticut and winning an NCAA title along the way. In all his years coaching at UConn, coach Jim Calhoun puts Okafor on his own Mt. Rushmore along with Ray Allen and Ben Gordon.

Weisbrod didn’t act in a vacuum. He leaned heavily on his basketball people, current GM Otis Smith and current assistant GM Dave Twardzik. But, in the end, he made the call. And even though Okafor won the Rookie of the Year award, and even though Okafor was named to the 2004 Olympic team, there isn’t an executive in the NBA who would take him over Howard, who won gold in Beijing and became the first player to amass 3 million All-Star votes.

“I had always tried to use character as the deciding factor in evaluating players, but, in this case, it was hard because they were both outstanding individuals,’’ Weisbrod recalled. “It then became about the basketball part. Dwight was not as much of a finished product, and in that way, he was more of a gamble. He had more hurdles to climb. But when you calculate a guy’s chances to improve, you look at character and he was flawless. The more time I spent with him, the more I said to myself, ‘He is going to bring it to bear every day because he is so earnest, so hard-working.’ I had no difficulty seeing him get to where he has gotten. He had it in him.”

The Magic also were a bit worried about Okafor’s physical condition. While he had been reasonably healthy at UConn, in his first four years in the NBA, Okafor missed a total of 80 games. Howard missed none. And Weisbrod knew the Magic were more than a player away from becoming a very good team and had time to wait and allow the ridiculously talented Howard to develop. Nonetheless, Weisbrod has a vivid memory of the fans in New York booing when David Stern announced that Orlando was taking Howard ahead of the better-known Okafor.

“There were times when I went back and forth, but that was early on in the process,’’ Weisbrod said. “I think as long as two or three weeks before the draft, we were clear what we were going to do. And we felt good about it.

“It has been gratifying to watch Dwight’s career and see it come to fruition. But to me, the most stressful part of that [draft] night was not making the Howard pick, but the Jameer Nelson trade.”

Indeed, Weisbrod couldn’t shake a grin when he got an e-mail last week from one of his former workers at Orlando. Nelson had been chosen as a reserve for the Eastern Conference All-Stars.

“We had agreed to trade a future No. 1 to Denver, who was picking 20th. Jameer was the only one we wanted,’’ Weisbrod said. “And we had to sweat it out because there were a number of picks out there between the time we made the trade and the time Denver made the pick for us.

“That part was the icing on the cake for us and, in some ways, more memorable because it literally went down to the wire. And it is also gratifying to see him succeed.”

With those two in the fold, Weisbrod then moved McGrady to Houston five days later. To many, that is what he is most remembered for in his stint as the Magic general manager. McGrady was still popular in Orlando, but Weisbrod wanted more of a team identity. And, although he didn’t say it, it was clear that McGrady was not a “hockey guy.”

Weisbrod readily admits the deal (the principals were Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley) didn’t pan out as hoped but he said McGrady, whom he had named captain and received league permission to put a “C” on McGrady’s uniform, simply had to go. T-Mac wanted out. Weisbrod was happy to accommodate him.

“We were changing a culture and it didn’t work out with Steve. He had been such a ferocious competitor in Houston and we thought he might have got swept along with what we were doing,’’ he said. “But if we had kept Tracy, you have to wonder: Would Dwight have developed so quickly?”

Two weeks later, Turkoglu came aboard as a free agent. Weisbrod was ripped for overpaying the ex-King by giving him the full, midlevel exception. Eight days after that, another character guy, ex-Celtic Tony Battie, was acquired, although it cost the Magic Drew Gooden (no great loss) as well as someone Weisbrod thought might really help them down the road: second-round pick Anderson Varejao.

“I thought he would complement Dwight quite well,’’ Weisbrod said.

At that point, Weisbrod was almost persona non grata in Orlando. But as he looks back on his handiwork from that time, he can’t help but feel happy. Howard may be the one player not named LeBron who any exec would choose to build a team around. Nelson and Turkoglu are solid; the latter was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season and could well have been an All-Star. The Magic are among the top four teams in the league, record-wise.

Weisbrod spent 14 months as the general manager before returning to his first love. He still follows the Magic, still counts friends in the organization, but if there’s a choice on television between a hockey game and a basketball game, he’s going with the former. He has an unabashed love not only for the sport, but for the camaraderie it engenders, something he doesn’t see as much in basketball.

“I used to tell my players, if you’re on the bench, and you look to the left and then to the right, you have to be able to say to yourself, ‘I will take a bullet for either one of those guys.’ It makes you tough,’’ he said. “In basketball, there’s a lot more individualism and egotism and it’s harder to get that kind of mentality. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I do think it comes more naturally in hockey. Then again, that’s what I am: a hockey player.”

A hockey player who made one of the most crucial basketball decisions of the decade – and looks all the smarter for it as the years roll on.

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Updated Monday, Feb 2, 2009