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As courting continues, Nets still hoping to win Howard's affection


NEWARK, N.J. -- The throng of reporters stretched three, four deep, packing the tight space around Dwight Howard's corner locker. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes passed, the group patiently waiting as Howard goofed with teammates and rattled off sophomoric jokes.

"Shut up and talk to the media, Dwight," Jameer Nelson barked in his direction.

"I've only got one thing to say," Howard said, his voice rising into song. "Leave me alone."

No chance. This was the first and only time the full complement of Nets media would get a crack at Howard, to gauge his feelings on moving north next season and saving a flagging franchise. The team, predictably, rolled out the red carpet, strategically positioning glossy placards of the Barclays Center in Howard's path coming off the bus and quickly removing them once he walked by. Howard masks salted the Prudential Center and signs imploring him to change teams popped up periodically all around the building.

"It's a humbling experience," Howard said of all the attention. "I wish more people can see how it feels to go into another arena and have big faces and posters. It's a blessing."

Howard didn't offer much more, didn't leave any bread crumbs indicating the direction of his future. "Right now, my only concern is winning games, playing as hard as I can every night and leading my team," he said. "That's the only thing I can control. I put all the other thoughts aside and I'm focused on one thing, the only thing I can control, which is what I do on the court. And that's the only answer I can give you."

There is no need for Howard to make waves now, knowing the Magic won't make any moves until the NBA's annual All-Star extravaganza rolls out of Florida this weekend. The chase for Howard won't heat up in earnest until March 1, when Magic general manager Otis Smith asks Howard, again, to sign a five-year, $110 million contract extension, an offer Howard will assuredly reject.

There will be some temptation to challenge Howard, to see if he will leave the $30 million on the table in July and sign elsewhere. But the fear of getting burned, like the Cavaliers and Raptors, will be too great, the appeal of quickly rebuilding like Denver and Utah too tempting, and the Magic will let the Nets, Mavericks and Lakers know they are open for business.

The Nets will be prepared when they do. The creative mind of GM Billy King is already working, constructing, as he did in the pursuit of Carmelo Anthony a year ago, possible three- and four-team trade scenarios to pitch when Smith is ready to talk. An offer with Brook Lopez and draft picks is good, but since the Lakers have the potential to put All-Star center Andrew Bynum on the table, New Jersey knows it must add pieces to the pot.

But the Nets also know they are Howard's top choice, with a new arena in the largest media market and the perfect co-star waiting for him next fall. Yes, the relationship between Howard and Deron Williams is strong. On the eve of Williams' rematch with the Knicks' Jeremy Lin, Howard texted Williams and told him to take it to him, to leave no doubt. Howard has told friends he would love the chance to play with Williams, a top-five point guard who would have no issue relinquishing the spotlight and allowing Howard to be the team's alpha dog.

As the drama around Howard picks up, the Magic are trying to avoid becoming a casualty. Orlando has quietly put together an effective season. They have the fifth best record in the NBA (22-12) behind a stingy defense and prolific three-point shooting. Miami and Chicago are considered the frontrunners with the Lin-led Knicks collecting the hype, but there is a growing feeling in Orlando that in a seven-game series with Howard in the middle, they will be tough to beat.

"We have a good team, we know that," Nelson told "We can't get caught up in any rumors. We have to stay professional. His situation is his situation. Every day you hear new stuff. But Dwight is the one who has to go through all this stuff. And he has been professional about it. All of us, we're focusing on winning. We believe we can compete with anybody."

A resolution isn't coming soon, but it's coming. Like LeBron James, Howard wants to be courted, wants to be wooed like the franchise players that have hit the market before him. Howard will say the right things at All-Star Weekend and give the home fans one more show. Then he will be gone, off to a destination of his choosing. And the Nets are hoping, praying that it's to them.