There was a somewhat awkward moment during Saturday's open practice. At the end, Stan Van Gundy gathered his team together for some final words and told them Dwight Howard would say a few words and then they would be free to go, depending on what the media relations staff needed them to do. Howard slowly stepped up to take the microphone. The crowd began to roar in appreciation of this superstar, desperate for any sign from Howard to acknowledge their love.
Howard seemed to pause for a moment, talking with the relations staff woman holding the microphone as everyone waited for him to speak. The Amway Center speakers began playing the fanfare from Superman and Howard took a moment to figure out what he would say.
Then, with fans oozing affection and trying to prove their devotion to the city's lone superstar, he gave a bland, wrote statement thanking the fans for showing up and urging them to give the same type of passion they showed at the practice throughout the season and promising the team would give the same hard effort in return.
Fans ate it up. But it also felt contrived. It felt a little forced. It felt ... awkward. At least it did live. I found watching it again, that it leaves everything as much up in the air as it ever was. Howard certainly has no animosity toward the Orlando fans, his beef that led to his trade request is with management and conditions on the team.
Howard is going to do and say the right things. He is going to play hard and he is going to put on a brave face. But that little trade demand still stands. And, while Monday was spent leaving a small window open that he might return, Howard still officially and publicly wants out of Orlando. As devoted as his fans might be, they are not enough.
Dwight Howard seemed somewhat unaffected by those affections. Maybe he was tired from working hard in practice -- the Magic went at it for an hour and a half before taking the court for the open practice.
Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel, the longtime Magic beat writer who was covering the team when Shaquille O'Neal left in 1996, had this to say of Howard after the open practice:
"[Stay Dwight founder Ryan] Totka said he hoped the crowd reaction 'gives Dwight a chill down his spine. It's crazy to see this, everyone here showing support. The community needs this, needs a voice, and if you're a player, you've got to get a chill.'
"Howard didn't exactly sound like he had goose bumps.
"'It was great. I didn't know what to expect,' he said. 'It means a lot, not only to myself, but to the guys on the team.'
"Howard said he saw a few of the signs. 'I appreciate the city and everything the city has done for me ... but our goal is to practice and get better,' he said.
"He has taken the emotion out of the equation now, defusing the saga for the team's sake. There's no greater tell than his detachment.
"Make no mistake: Dwight doesn't want to be here."
Schmitz comes under fire often from Magic fans. He comes off as a little bit raspy and a little bit of a downer. More than that though, he is a realist. And of all the people covering the Magic, he has the most experience with the team. You at least have to listen to what he has to say. That is my opinion, at least.
But Schmitz's sentiment certainly captures the feeling of awkwardness that has surrounded every Dwight Howard media availability since he announced his desire to be traded last Saturday. The thing I noticed during the practice was a much more glum Howard. We rarely saw a smile or the playful energy he brings to every game.
He has taken on a much more serious tone. Maybe that is because he is more focused than ever on improving his game and getting ready for the season. Maybe it is because this was a practice and not a game. Or maybe it is, as Schmitz suggests, because Howard is awaiting his fate, having already let Magic management know what he wants.
Schmitz was not the only one to notice Howard's reaction to the fans. Brian Serra of MagicBasketballOnline was on hand too. While he was a bit disappointed with the lack of organization from the fans, he wondered what impact it had on Dwight as he walked off the floor. Howard was as gracious as he ever is with fans. He spent a long time signing autographs for fans, including some of the "Superman, This is Your Metropolis" signs that the Stay Dwight campaign passed out.
It is difficult to figure out what is motivating Dwight Howard right now. There certainly is nowhere -- besides maybe his hometown of Atlanta -- where Howard would be universally loved like he is in Orlando. So many people have devoted so much of their time to show Howard what he means to this team and this community. He has certainly seen it.
And any observer would be hard pressed not to see it too. Practically every one of the 6,000-plus in attendance had one of those Stay Dwight signs. There were many more wearing Dwight Howard t-shirts, jerseys and gear. There were plenty of heartfelt homemade signs too. The fans did their part, even if there were no sustained chants that you could hear over the live stream on OrlandoMagic.com.
The fans plead their case to Howard. They will get another opportunity when the home schedule opens with the preseason game against Miami on Wednesday (the Stay Dwight motto for this one is: "Who needs a Big Three when you have a Superman?").
The question is whether it has affected him. That answer is difficult to decipher. And it really should not be. If there is one thing that could keep Howard conflicted about whatever decision he has made (whether or not it is a final one) is the fan support and the thought that he can do no wrong in this city -- you would think though that would have been something LeBron James considered in his Decision to stay in Cleveland or leave, but it appeared not to be enough there.
Howard has acknowledged how much he appreciates the outpouring of support he has received from the Orlando community. The fans have shown a lot of concern for the future of their franchise. In that sense the fan base has grown since 1996 when Shaquille O'Neal left. The hope is that the Stay Dwight campaign, whatever the final result from Howard, will spawn a grassroots push to be Magic fans and embrace the team as a community no matter what -- something that was dreadfully lacking when O'Neal left and during the Tracy McGrady era.
Judging solely from Howard's body language and his continued politicking with the press, along with his re-affirmation of his trade request, it seems that the fans, despite their best efforts, will have that much weight on his decision. At least not as it stands now.
The question remains then: If it is not unconditional and unending support with an ownership that has shown a willingness to spend (sometimes recklessly) to win, what is it that Dwight Howard wants? That question I leave for Part II coming up Monday or Tuesday.