SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Dwight Howard was back on the bench again, taking a seat just like he had for most of Orlando's win Sunday night that he had very little to do with.
But his foul trouble hadn't stopped the Magic from clipping the Kings 104-97, and his humbling performance -- just five points and four rebounds in 20 minutes -- wasn't about to stop him from finishing his evening on a happy note. It was much like the surreal early season, the NBA's preeminent big man determined to share peace and pleasantries with his Magic teammates and coaches despite the fact that his uncomfortable trade demand that was issued in early December still stands.
So he untied those enormous shoes that the Magic still don't know who they'll get to fill, then gave them to a fan who had put in a request of his own. He gave up his jersey, too, stripping down to a padded undershirt and handing over the top that would be an instant collector's item if Howard just so happened to be traded before Wednesday's game in Portland.
Howard still wants out of Orlando, a point that he reiterated Sunday night when he said "nothing has changed" in terms of his desire to get out and his hope to land with Dallas, New Jersey or the Lakers. But with the Magic taking the slow approach on the trade front and Howard having settled the mood around this team that was justifiably jarred by his stance, this is the in-between existence that they must continue to deal with for now.
"Nothing has changed," Howard had said before the game. "There's no need to focus on anything else besides going out every night and playing hard for 48 minutes or however long I'm on the court. All that other stuff is up to the Magic and up to my agent.
"And I'm going to go be Dwight every night -- have fun on the court, entertain the fans, block shots, run the floor, rebound, do whatever I've got to do to win. That's the only thing that I can control at this point...I've said all I can say about it."
While Howard could wind up being dealt to a team that's not on his wish list, the Nets scenario that seemed so likely at season's outset now appears to be the longest shot. The centerpiece of that proposed deal, center Brook Lopez, is out indefinitely after fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and having surgery on Dec. 23. What's more, sources reiterated that Magic general manager Otis Smith is not a fan of Lopez's game and is not in favor of a deal involving the fourth-year big man who averaged 20.4 points and 5.9 rebounds last season. It doesn't help that the Nets are off to a 2-7 start, either, with rumblings surfacing recently that Howard's proposed running mate, point guard Deron Williams,
As silver linings go, there should be credit given to both Howard and the Magic for their ability to minimize the acrimony and awkwardness. By all accounts, Howard -- who took the cheap-shot artist approach when
Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy, meanwhile, insist there are no hard feelings and are focusing on their respective jobs as well.
"In training camp, it was awkward and difficult and all that," Van Gundy said. "People were talking about it all the time. But ... since the season has started, it's been very, very normal. He's been great, and I think everybody around it's been very, very normal. He's played hard. He's played well. He's into it with his teammates. He's been great with me."
Van Gundy has attempted to ignore the elephant in the room, speaking with Howard about his trade demand just once since it was issued.
"I talked to him one day before practice and told him that, 'Look, as far as that part of the business side of it, that's between him and his representatives and Otis and our front office,'" Van Gundy said. "I'm not going to sit down and talk to him about it, and bug him about it. I don't recruit him. I'm just going to coach."
Still, the notion that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year and five-time All-Star is now in Orlando against his wishes is both disappointing and distracting for Van Gundy and other Magic officials. Add in the fact that the Magic are hosting the league's All-Star game on Feb. 26 and the trade deadline doesn't come until Mar. 15, and the situation is even more complex than the Carmelo Anthony saga, in which Melo was finally traded to New York last February.
"It's not like your ninth man being pissed off about not playing today," Van Gundy said. "He's one of the top two or three players in the NBA and he wants to be traded. That's a little harder issue. But the bottom line is that you're always dealing with something.
"Now, I think everybody is sort of immune to it. The story goes on, but it's not like there's anything new coming up. He might have new teams in the story or whatever. But by now, guys [on the Magic] are like, 'OK, it's been a month. Nothing has happened. We're going to hear the things all the time.
"[Howard] has been fabulous [on the floor] up until tonight. And the way he has been with his teammates too. He's obviously all in and committed and wants the team to do well. He's been playing his ass off. ... He couldn't be any better. The issue is still there, and we all know it's still there. But in the meantime, we've got to play."
Even with the trade demand, Howard is thrilled just to be playing again. He wondered like all the rest whether the lockout would wipe out the entire season, and was certainly not close enough to the labor negotiations to have an accurate pulse on the matter.
His absence from player meetings and discussions struck many as strange and counter-intuitive, as Howard's looming free agency this summer meant he had more stock in the collective bargaining game than most, if not all, of his colleagues. But Howard, who spent much of his summer doing charity work in Africa and China, said it was an intentional choice to stay away from the CBA talks.
"I didn't want to get involved to the point where fans would think that I was fighting back and forth with the owners," said Howard, who noted that a new maximum contract deal under the new CBA is worth approximately $40 million less than in the old CBA. "Should we fight with the owners? To a certain level, yes. But we're basketball players. ... Lawyers, people like that, they're the ones who go to court and battle. We don't do that. We play basketball.
"That's why I felt like, 'Let me sit down and better myself and better the people around me and not get too focused on the lockout and everything that's going on.'"
From Dwyane Wade's infamous spat with commissioner Davis Stern on Sept. 30 to the numerous meetings with owners in which players like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and LeBron James played a part, numerous stars took part in what was often a contentious battle between the two sides. As was the case on Sunday night, however, Howard chose to give back instead.
"I just try to show the fans how much we really appreciate them, that this lockout had nothing to do with our fans and that it's business," he said. "We know a lot of fans were very hurt and upset by it and take it as we're being selfish and all this stuff.
"I'm not a selfish person. I love to give, so I try to spend a couple minutes with the fans before the game and after the game showing that I care about the fans."
Even if Magic fans who wish he'd rescind the trade demand might not agree.