This has not been about the Orlando Magic or the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets or Dan Fegan, the agent who neither signed the necessary paperwork nor appeared at the peacemaking news conference Thursday in which Dwight Howard reintroduced himself to his fans.
Howard sat in between Magic CEO Alex Martins and GM Otis Smith and announced, "I'm too loyal."
Howard has spent the last two years trying to understand who he is on his way to deciding what he wants to be. Finally, two hours before he might have been traded to who knows where, he settled on his brand: Loyalty.
"I've always believed that loyalty is before everything," he said at a news conference.
This was not so much a description of who Howard has been as much as it was a pledge. He was defining himself once and for all as a star of loyalty. He referred to that quality again and again, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He was establishing himself to become the anti-LeBron.
This is why it suddenly isn't so important that the Magic's All-NBA center is committed to Orlando for no more than one additional season. With this announcement, coming as it did after two years of uncertainty over Howard's priorities and ambitions, he made it clear that he isn't planning to leave. By defining himself as loyal, Howard understands that if he should decide in 11 months (when the next trade deadline reverts to its normal date in February) that he wants to leave Orlando without reasonable cause, then he will be vilified as if he were the second coming of LeBron James.
If we have learned anything about him over the last few days, it is that Howard wants to avoid damage to his reputation. He wants to create fans instead of enemies. He wants to build on what he has established in Orlando, instead of destroying those relationships as LeBron did when it came time for him to define himself.
He has put all his chips into the pot. "I told my teammates that I'm all in," said Howard. So long as the Magic continue to move toward improving the team around Howard, he isn't going anywhere. By defining himself as loyal, he has made it infinitely more difficult to leave Orlando than it would have been earlier this week, before he had branded himself.
Howard has earned criticism for his waffling. At the same time, his uncertainty has been understandable. He hasn't been deciding simply where he would like to live and with whom he wants to play. It has been much more complicated than that. He is essentially the 26-year-old CEO of a firm that is built on his talent and personality, a kind of incorporation that brings in close to $30 million annually between his NBA salary and sponsorships. Over these last two years he has been struggling to decide how best to grow his business by means of which he can be proud.
It starts with winning a championship and making a lot of money, but that isn't all there is to it. LeBron moved to a better team yet seemed miserable last year. He was miserable because he had defined himself in a way that he didn't want to be defined, by instantly destroying the goodwill and public support in which he had been investing for years.
Howard's decision to stay in Orlando showed unusual independence, because he opposed a trend that has defined his generation of NBA players. Most of his teammates from the 2008 gold-medal Olympic team have demanded a trade or left their teams. When Howard decided to stay in Orlando, he was faced with second-guessing and accusations that he had shortsightedly surrendered his power as a free agent.
But the exercising of such "power" is exactly what led to the short-term thinking that made LeBron miserable and more recently has cast Carmelo Anthony as the reason for the Knicks' problems. It's true that Howard could have made more money over the short term by moving to Brooklyn, where he probably would have been rewarded with a big contract by Adidas, among other investments. But he also would have been viewed as just another player grabbing at the biggest pile of dollars.
When you think about Howard turning his back on a huge plate of money in order to stay at home, then it's easier to understand his back-and-forth waffling. He is supposed to grab for the money, because that is what most people in his position would have done.
What he has done instead is to separate himself from his peers and to invest in a long-term view. When he opposes LeBron or Carmelo in the playoffs, which star is the casual American fan going to be rooting for? It won't be the carpetbaggers. If Howard should win, it will be a victory not only for him but also for his city, because the relationship between Howard and Orlando has a chance now to become something that transcends money.
Howard didn't show a lot of loyalty over the last two years while hinting and threatening to leave. At that time he didn't know what he wanted to become amid the trends and temptations of instant gratification.
Now he knows what he wants to be, and on Thursday he wanted everyone else to know too, because he wanted to be held accountable to his new ideal. From now on, when you hear of Dwight Howard, he wants you to think of loyalty. It isn't a description of who he has been so much as it is a pledge of what he promises to become.
There is no backing away now, nor should there be. The punishment would be too severe. And the rewards are too great.