I met Dwight Howard during his senior year at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. I was doing a story about him for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and because the Hawks were completely unwatchable at the time, Howard was the biggest basketball story in town.
I remember going into local barbershops in the months before and listening to folks discuss whether or not he was going to skip college and go right into the draft. When I got my chance, I asked him that question straight up.
He flashed that big ole smile of his, looked me right in the eyes and said, "I don't know."
At the time, I thought he was lying.
"I don't know."
How in the hell does he not know?
But after watching Howard comically, painfully, annoyingly flip-flop nonstop up until the day of this week's NBA trade deadline, it is now clear to me that he was not lying in 2004. The dude really didn't know. And after watching an unnecessary news conference at which he announced he was not being traded -- as if the world wouldn't notice he was still in Orlando next week -- I get the feeling Howard still doesn't know what he wants.
"It's been very tough for me the past couple of months to make a decision " he said. "It's not as easy as what people think. One of the biggest reasons is because I'm too loyal. I've always believed that loyalty is before anything."
All of these years as a professional athlete and either he hasn't figured out this is a business or he thinks fans don't know this is a business. However, everyone can see Peyton Manning is out looking for work with a new team because the NFL is a business. Derek Fisher is in Houston because the NBA is a business. And when Howard finds himself on another team next season, he'll be able to see for himself that pro sports is a business.
The news conference was designed to look as if the situation was resolved but, really, everyone just watched a can get kicked down the road. And because the word "loyalty" was tossed around every other sentence, I couldn't help but think of the famous line from Shakespeare's "Hamlet:" the lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Loyalty in the sports industry is the offspring of max contracts and recent championships. And by "recent," I mean this year. If you don't have those two things, you do not have loyalty. You just have two parties trying to make the best of a situation because a workable trade wasn't possible. I'm sure Pat Riley loves Wade, but if the Heat don't win a ring this season and Mitch Kupchak called over the summer offering up Kobe Bryant, Riley would listen.
Now that the dust has settled -- at least for the rest of this season -- columnists and pundits will pontificate about how ridiculous Howard looked and how unfair it was for him to put the Orlando Magic through all of that trade me/keep me crap. And he did look ridiculous. And it was unfair. And we know if Howard doesn't sign a contract extension this summer, this fall he's likely going to be somewhere else.
No way will the Magic want to experience a repeat of what just happened.
But any team considering making D12 its centerpiece should know this: He's a No. 2. That's no diss on Howard's personality, talent or integrity. He's Hall of Fame bound and any team with him is a championship contender. But it's hard to imagine someone so wishy-washy being the kind of leader a team needs to go beyond "contender". He may always be the best player on his club, but as he clumsily demonstrated during much of the season, he's doesn't necessarily have the best personality to handle that kind of pressure.
Much like another NBA player in Florida we know.
And since that previous sentence was a not so thinly veiled reference to LeBron James, I will give Bron Bron this: He didn't let his pending free agency hijack his last season in Cleveland. I'm sure he thought about his decision every day but he managed it in such a way that he still came across as a No. 1 to much of the NBA world. Howard simply wasn't as savvy. He came across as a drama queen and consequently his leadership skills join free throw shooting as the weakest parts of his game. And no one knows this better than the somewhat rudderless Magic, who clearly have a talented roster but, as we've all seen, no true No. 1 to lead in their locker room.
Believe me, if the Magic could have traded Howard in exchange for one, they would have. But they didn't, so both parties have amicably decided to put off the inevitable for a few more months and called the arrangement "loyalty."
If Orlando wins a ring this season, I'm sure it will be.