ORLANDO — Dwight Howard is remembering his days in Orlando and he’s growing nostalgic. During the first eight years of his career, Howard helped lift the Magic from being just another small-market team to an NBA title contender.
But it’s the memories that he and his teammates made off the court that he still holds dear. The community events around town. The barbecues with players and fans. Fight nights at Rashard Lewis’s house. And, the security guard who was standing near the Legends Suite of Amway Center on Friday morning who chastised Markieff Morris for kicking a basketball off the scoreboard.
Howard smiled and gestured to the guard, and she waved back.
“The stuff like that are the things that I hate to see go down,” Howard said Friday before the Washington Wizards lost to the Magic, 117-108.
When critics scream for rebuilds and fans demand to trade everyone, they should use the Magic as a case study and think again. When the ‘Dwightmare’ ended and the superstar left town, so went the franchise. Despite improving to 5-7 with the win over the reeling Wizards, Orlando is still very much in rebuild mode.
The Magic built a 25-point lead in the first half, forcing the Wizards' backcourt of John Wall (19 points) and Bradley Beal (27 points) to play the entire second half just to climb out of the deficit. Wall made a transition layup, in which he went behind his back before scooping in the shot, to bring the to 106-105 with 2:30 remaining, but Orlando responded with eight straight points. During that stretch, Wall missed two layups at the rim and turned the ball over as the Wizards fell to 2-9.
Both Wall and Beal played 42 minutes ahead of the Wizards' first back-to-back set of the season. On Saturday, the team will take on the Miami Heat.
Although Orlando improved to within two wins of .500, no NBA team in recent memory has struggled to rebuild in the wake of losing its franchise star quite like the Magic, which possesses the worst winning percentage in the NBA (. 320) in the seven years without Howard. Since the 2012-13 season, its first without Howard, Orlando has gone through five coaches and two general managers. The team’s 162-342 record over those past seven seasons has been shaped by the six high lottery picks, as well as other inexperienced players mixed in with a host of journeymen.
The latest coach, Steve Clifford, has a tie to the franchise’s golden past when the Magic competed in the 2009 NBA Finals and he’s not the type to pass out ribbons for good effort. After the Magic lost to the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night, when the starters played well but the bench couldn’t score, Clifford cut off a reporter’s question that he interpreted as trying to find a silver lining.
“To say, ‘Let’s find out what’s good’?” Clifford told local reporters after the game. “Let’s not. Let’s just tell the story, okay? The bench was embarrassing. It was embarrassing. That’s it.”
Clifford took no further questions and walked away from the news conference.
In his latest visit back to his first basketball home, Howard was asked if it was tough for him to see the current state of the Magic.
“On the competitor side, you don’t want to see a team that’s in the same division as you being successful but you know, overall you always want the team that you played for to always be successful. Especially the players that come through and the people that you know,” Howard said. “So I would never say anything bad about this team or this city. More so the city than the team. I’ll always be grateful for this organization, but this city, we went through some tough times together and I really got a chance to learn Orlando. I know pretty much this whole area.”
The Shaquille O’Neal-Penny Hardaway years were a boon for Orlando but after the duo broke up in 1996, the city had to wait until a smiling high school kid arrived as the No. 1 pick in 2004. Howard dominated as the premiere center in the NBA but his greatest act as ‘Superman’ was reestablishing Orlando as an NBA destination.
“We always talk about the team that we had here. How we were committed to winning, how we were committed to making this city better and one, how we were trying to change the perception of Orlando Magic,” Howard said. “Teams came here, the focus was: ‘Let’s go to Disneyland and Universal Studios and have some fun because the Magic were going to be easy.’ And we wanted to change that.”
However, during the 2011-12 season, Howard wanted a change himself. He demanded a trade and the season that followed became dubbed the ‘Dwightmare.’ While Howard moved on to the Los Angeles Lakers — and kept moving, to the Houston Rockets, to the Atlanta Hawks, to the Charlotte Hornets and now the Wizards — the Magic has remained stuck in the throes of a remodel that has no end in sight.
The years haven’t seemed to heal old wounds. Along the Amway Center hallway leading to the Magic locker room, oversized photos of current players and pillars of the franchise, largely from the 1995 and 2009 Finals teams, line the wall. Bo Outlaw and Hedo Turkoglu have framed pictures, yet Howard’s image is conspicuously missing.
The first portrait on the wall, however, is the face of the franchise’s latest promising big man.
Mohamed Bamba — a 7-footer — has built a kinship with Howard. On draft night, Howard sent a congratulatory text to Bamba. The rookie still occasionally “hits up” Howard with questions.
Along with Bamba, the Magic are trying to solidify the franchise around Aaron Gordon, who is proving to be more than just a flashy dunker, and Jonathan Isaac, who was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Wizards with an ankle injury. The three players are all younger than 24 — the age Howard was after the Magic won the Eastern Conference in 2009. Back then, that team was winning, Orlando was in love with the Magic and everything seemed so much simpler for the franchise and its superstar.
“That’s one thing I’ll always miss was those moments right there,” Howard said. “You can never get them back and those were some of the best moments of our lives.”