PHILADELPHIA – Humiliation hung over these Orlando Magic like an anvil, and somehow Dwight Howard still didn't understand these are the moments everyone judges him. On the bench in the fourth quarter, the Magic getting blown out and that arena Kiss Cam had stopped on Howard and J.J. Redick. Just ignore it, superstar. Just sit sullen, sit with stature, and play the part of the forlorn franchise star.
Only, Howard's eyes were on the video board, his mouth curling into a smile, a laugh, and finally he made an exaggerated lean to the right, separating himself and a teammate for the camera. No kisses here, people. No kidding.
Fitting scene, a perfect punctuation to the sudden freefall of a franchise. Laugh it up and lean out of the frame. It wouldn't matter that the Magic's bench made a furious, too-little, too-late run to bring respectability to a 74-69 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Kiss Cam had come and gone, and Howard returned to the game to miss the rim on a layup and let Elton Brand block his shot on his final trips down the floor. He couldn't dominate the 76ers, even with the only man to cover George Mikan and Dwight Howard – Tony Battie – defending him for most of the night.
The Magic will never respond to Howard again, and that's on him. They're lost in a brutal five-out-of-six-games debacle, and Howard's public proclamation calling out Magic teammates last week has compounded issues. Despite his inability to separate the get-me-out-of-town Dwight and the I'm-your-leader Dwight, the organization knows one thing for sure: They're the same guy.
"No need to point the finger," Howard lectured on Monday night.
Yes, well, he's done that. And that's how he's losing these Magic so fast – and why he'll never get them back. No matter how dominant of a player, no matter how superior of a talent, the world's best center has forfeited the right to talk to his teammates about commitment, professionalism and playing hard.
No one wants to hear it out of him. Howard has the right to ask for a trade, to want a better supporting cast, a bigger shoe deal. Whatever. Those are the privileges of stardom, but they no longer come with a license to lecture these Magic.
"It's not the first time I called them out, and sometimes I've got to do things that people don't like," Howard said. "People hate what they don't understand, and my teammates understand why I said what I said. They all agree. It's not like they're [saying], 'Oh, Dwight's wrong for what he said.' "
Perhaps he shouldn't be so sure of that. Maybe the Magic do need to hear it, but from him? That's the issue for these Magic, and that won't change until the trade's made or until free agency sweeps him out with the tide.
Isn't it hard to be the leader when you've asked out of town?
"These guys understand the whole situation," Howard responded. "But none of that stuff matters when we get on the floor."
Howard is kidding himself, and everyone knows it. He would go on to say, "We're all basketball players. It doesn't matter when we step on the floor. It doesn't matter if anybody's talking about trades, it's all about basketball. It's all about winning. You've got to take pride – first of all, in yourself.
"It hasn't affected me. I've been playing hard every night. Everybody else has to have that same attitude."
When Redick and Hedo Turkoglu talked in the quiet of the losing locker room on Monday, they simply conceded to each other: "I'm playing terrible." They're on a six-games-in-eight-nights stretch, point guard Jameer Nelson is out and they can't make shots. They can't score. The ball isn't moving, shots aren't falling, and it feels like the team has drifted into some kind of a coma.
They were 11-4 and winning with Howard's trade demand. Now, they're losing with it. The thing is, they're human and the superstar's words, his actions, have repercussions. He's the moon around which this franchise, this locker room, has revolved for years.
When asked if Howard's trade demand has truly become part of the locker room's décor every day, Redick said, "It is. Yeah, it is. I've said since the beginning: As long as he's here, it will be a distraction because it's all anybody talks about when they talk about our team. We don't hear it? Of course we do.
"But we also have to be professionals, do our jobs, and for the first 15 games we did that. And I don't think that Dwight's trade situation made us play so badly these last few games.
"Chemistry is a very fragile thing, the team dynamic of how guys rely on each other, how guys trust each other. All that stuff is very fragile. Those Boston losses may have had an impact on us, but we've got to get over that and get on with the season."
When pushed on how the Magic could possibly listen to Howard preach to them in tough times, on how could Howard still lead, Redick bowed his head and shook it side to side. "I'm not going to get into the leadership thing," he said. "I'm just not going to…"
"Listen, I'm a big fan of collective responsibility. You've got to do your job, and then as a group, you've got to hold each other accountable. If we're going to turn this corner, it's got to be a group mentality to man up."
After all these years, the Magic know this: It won't be Howard. Truth be told, his lecturing the locker room borders on the offensive. How do you check back in when you've already checked out?
Everyone is resigned to the inevitable: Sooner than later, Howard will be gone. Trade deadline, free agency, whenever. Everywhere Howard goes now, he can't wait to tell everyone how much he'd love to play for the Boston Celtics or the Chicago Bulls or whatever team someone mentions that isn't on his list of preferred choices.
"It's a blessing to be wanted by a lot of teams, a lot of cities," Howard said late Monday.
For now, he's wanted with these Orlando Magic. Everyone is waiting on him to leave, and long given up on waiting for him to lead. The Kiss Cam found its way to the losing bench on Monday night, and it was old times for Dwight Howard: In the avalanche of a loss, in one more forgettable night on his way out of the Magic uniform, the franchise star laughed, leaned away and distanced himself from a teammate.
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