"This is very tough," LeBron James could have said. "But I can't ignore my heart. I know a lot of people think I'm going to Miami, but I just can't do it. I can't leave home. That's why I'm staying in Cleveland to play for my Cavaliers."
Imagine how people would feel about James today if he had gone on live TV in July 2010 to announce that decision. The hatred and ridicule would have turned into adulation. Casual bystanders who today root against him would have become fans cheering for him.
I bring this up because the experience of James makes me wonder what Dwight Howard will do. The March 15 trading deadline is days away and Howard's request to be dealt has not been revoked. At the same time, he appears to be expressing signs of ambivalence that leave the Orlando Magic with hope of re-signing him for the long term.
Imagine what will happen if Howard decides to announce this week, this summer (if he should opt out early) or 16 months from now (when his contract expires) that he has changed his mind -- that he wants to lead the Magic during the best years of his career and that he is committed to winning a championship for Orlando. To do so would be to establish himself as the anti-LeBron, as well as the anti-Shaquille O'Neal and the anti-Carmelo Anthony. He would be able to cast himself as a star of loyalty, which is a rare selling point in the market today.
This is not to imply in any way that Howard's demand to be traded has been a ruse. When he asked to be dealt in preseason, he made his request knowing that the Magic could have moved him as quickly and irrevocably as the Utah Jazz sent Deron Williams to New Jersey last year. The sincerity of Howard's doubts about staying in Orlando would make his decision to stay all the more significant. He would be able to tell fans with credibility that he has searched his heart and he cannot bear to leave, and with those words his fans would love him more than ever.
I'm not predicting Howard will re-sign with Orlando. But if he does, it will make for an excellent career move -- and in many ways a better strategy than moving to the Nets, the Mavericks or the Lakers.
Some stars would love the challenge of joining Williams and the Nets in time to open their new arena in Brooklyn. But Howard should be warned: It isn't going to be easy to enter the country's most contentious media market as the best player in the city and be held accountable for carrying the Nets against the Knicks. For starters, most of the basketball fans in New York are lifelong Knicks fans. If Howard thinks he is going to convert them instantly, then there's a nice old bridge near the new arena that he can buy. He is going to be viewed as a threat to the Knicks' kingdom, and every time Howard misses a crucial free throw or doesn't beat a double-team to score, he is going to hear about it.
Someone may point out that Chris Paul's stature was elevated by his move to the Clippers, who are No. 2 to the Lakers in Los Angeles. But Paul faced none of the expectations that will burden Howard. Paul doesn't need to win a championship in order to have a terrific career. Howard is a bigger star with greater potential; he has more in common with James than with Paul. If Howard moves into the New York market and doesn't win a championship, then he will be a bust. He will have failed to fulfill expectations, and it will be that simple.
Kobe Bryant is the kind of star who would thrive in a win-or-else environment, and so is Deron Williams. On the other hand, LeBron didn't enjoy the consequences of his actions last year, and lately he has sounded as if he wishes he could go home again. Carmelo, meanwhile, has been in the inconceivable position of being perceived as detrimental to Jeremy Lin, and it is because Anthony's reputation in New York is less important than his impact on the standings. They will love him for who he is only if he wins in a big way.
Moving to Dallas as a free agent this summer along with Williams makes the most sense for Howard as a player on the court. A Mavericks trio of Howard, Williams and Dirk Nowitzki ought to be superior to the Big Three in Miami. The Mavericks would have three versatile stars who are unguardable and would complement one another perfectly for a long run of contention; Nowitzki, whose game isn't built on athleticism, should be able to play for years so long as he's enjoying himself.
But Howard needs to understand that he may not be the biggest star in Dallas. Williams is from Dallas originally, and Nowitzki has earned the lifelong love of Mavericks fans because he was loyal and he triumphed. Howard would have to share the attention in a way that he's never faced in Orlando.
Then there are the unfathomable Lakers. They are transitioning to the leadership of Jimmy Buss, who has been less accessible than Howard Hughes. No one can say with confidence that the Lakers will be successful after Bryant is gone.
Who knows what Howard will decide? Of course he would win games and make money in New Jersey alongside Williams, but would he be happy? Maybe he would. In Dallas he could win titles alongside Williams and Nowitzki, but would he be loved, and is he willing to accept less money? Maybe it will emerge that being the biggest star isn't as important to him as it appears to be.
Another option is to make Orlando his city once and for all. The city is there for the taking. After being abandoned by Shaq, the fans will love Howard for his loyalty. By remaining in Orlando he may continue to market and build his image from its current position of strength, as opposed to suffering the setbacks endured by LeBron and Carmelo over the last year. The Magic spend big money and win consistently, they have a new arena, and they're based in a city that is a destination for pro athletes as well as for children and families from around the world.
I found myself wondering what James was thinking as he watched the press-conference farewell of Peyton Manning, who spent his career in a small market where he won no more than one championship, and yet he is loved across the country like no other player in his sport. LeBron could have had that kind of relationship with America. Howard still can.