We relay this news as professionally and tactfully as the man deserves. Orlando Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard was diagnosed with a herniated disk in his back last week, and this is a significant injury. After seeing specialists in Los Angeles, and discussing his future with the Orlando Magic training staff, ESPN's Ric Bucher is reporting that Howard has decided to undergo surgery and end his season.
Those of us who have suffered through back woes know that issues like this are no joking matter. And a herniated disk can be a debilitating malady. And we're sure that Dwight Howard's dedication to craft, and his loyalty to the Orlando Magic made this a tough, tough decision to sit out the rest of the season, and essentially make his Magic a walkover in this spring's postseason.
For anybody to question Howard's dedication in the wake of his very public falling out with coach Stan Van Gundy, after Van Gundy heartlessly confirmed to anyone who would listen that Howard would prefer that Van Gundy not work in any NBA capacity for the rest of this season, is beyond us. Why Van Gundy would needlessly confirm such pointed and cogent criticism of his clearly lacking skills as a basketball coach, and hoped-for residence away from the Orlando bench, has left just about everyone I've discussed the situation with aghast. Van Gundy's revelation hurt Howard. Badly. Combine that with this clearly diagnosed back issue, and you have a center that is in due need for a respite.
We're also sure that, if the doctors gave Howard the go-ahead, he would be cheering his Magic teammates and coaching staff on from the team's bench; but we mustn't judge too harshly from afar. Howard is an athlete, and back issues are not to be taken lightly. So the fact that we won't be seeing Dwight Howard in the same three-mile radius as Van Gundy before Van Gundy is DESERVEDLY fired once the Magic's season ends after the first round of the playoffs can only be chalked up to the fact that Howard cannot toy with the rest of his career.
He's learned as much, as the Magic toyed with his career by refusing to offer him a contract extension (even though they were legally allowed to) in 2010-11, and dangling him in endless trade rumors with the New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Lakers this season — even though Dwight was EXPLICIT in telling the Magic that he wanted nothing to do with playing with the Lakers or the "New Jersey" Nets. And yet they fielded offers for the guy, and listened to other teams! Such insolence, and even after Howard was smart to start the season playing a C-level capacity, smartly in anticipation of the back problems that he likely knew would rear their ugly head some four months later.
All in all, this is a fitting end to a frustrating season for Dwight. Van Gundy's coaching has done him no favors, and despite the Magic's limited roster and depth, Howard has been fantastic in leading the Magic to one of the East's best records despite (by most accounts) not playing nearly as well this season as he had in years prior. Again, this boils down to Howard's veteran leadership, guile and willingness to think Orlando Magic-first, and The Perception of Dwight Howard-second. For us to develop any assumptions influenced by Van Gundy's willingness to act as a destructive (and, let's be honest, lazy) Magic employee would just be a fool's game.
Stan Van Gundy will play out the string in Orlando, just along for the ride as the Magic put together a series of impressive wins and close losses inspired by the thought of a stricken Howard cheering the team on from behind the scenes. Don't be fooled, though. This is no reason to keep Van Gundy around. The Magic organization needs to learn from Howard's transparency, candid tone, thoughtful articulation, and balanced takes on what the Orlando franchise needs to do to move forward. And hopefully Howard (under contract for next season, and apparently unable to sign a contract extension beyond that because the Magic just refuse to tender him one) will find a doppelganger to help run the team from the sidelines in 2012-13.
It's only fair, for Dwight. Get well soon, big fella. The NBA will miss your class, dedication, leadership abilities, and effortless stroke from the free-throw line.
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