Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy assumed their respective positions Thursday night, the franchise centerpiece going to work against the New York Knicks and his coach -- scratch that, the coach -- directing Orlando Magic traffic just as he has since 2007.
The court was always the most transparent of settings, the place where we saw two truths about these men: Howard is a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player, and Van Gundy a top-tier coach. Magic fans had every reason to believe this potent pairing would be a precursor to championship parades.
But the truths weren't so easy to see behind the scenes, where the game's most dominating big man spent recent months blurring the job description lines while hoping no one on the outside would notice. Van Gundy foiled that plan on Thursday, of course, revealing to a mob of media at the morning shootaround that he had been told by "people in management" that Howard had asked that he be fired.
This was Howard's latest "Dwightmare," the public relations gaffe that served as nails on the chalkboard to the 26-year-old who so badly wants to be beloved. His "InDecision" leading up to the trade deadline was right up there with LeBron James' "Decision" when it came to earning critics, and Howard's choice to stay at least one more year meant the saga wasn't supposed to restart until next season.
And then the truth came out.
"The only thing ... that ever liberates me is be honest and deal with what's out there," Van Gundy said at the team's shootaround in explaining his decision to share private discussions publicly. "Some people have a hard time with that, I guess, but to me that's a lot easier than bull****."
It was one of the most awkward moments you'll ever see, with Howard walking up unknowingly just 10 seconds after Van Gundy pulled the curtain back on his team's dysfunction and putting his arm around his, err the, coach. Van Gundy should have thrown his arm to the side and stormed off, but he opted for the more civil exit moments later, before Howard took the floor.
"Whatever happens at the end of the season is not under my control," Howard said after reporters informed him of what his coach had said. "I am a player for the Magic. I am not the GM. I am not [owner] Rich DeVos. I am not [CEO] Alex Martins, so that's not my job."
The meddling into management is hardly a new hobby of Howard's, and none of it is particularly impressive.
Sources close to the team say Howard's voice has been instrumental in a number of the team's moves, chief among them the underwhelming offseason sign-and-trade acquisition of forward Glen Davis (four years, $26 million). There's nothing diabolical about a prominent player letting it be known that he would enjoy teaming up with certain teammates, but sources say the move was made with Howard's happiness -- and clearly not the team's salary cap space -- in mind. Veteran shooting guard Jason Richardson (four years, $24 million), who has the same agent as Howard, was re-signed with the eternal hope of pleasing the big man in the short term.
The irony, of course, is that Howard's dissatisfaction with moves made by the actual general manager, Otis Smith, have left him without much job security of his own. Smith's thin-ice status was the worst kept secret in the league leading into the trade deadline, with front office sources widely assuming there would be a vacancy there come the summer.
But Howard's decision to play out the final year of his contract was widely seen as an extension on that front. Now? Who knows. With CEO Alex Martins taking a lead role after taking over for the departed Bob Vander Weide in December, the idea that both Smith and Van Gundy could be gone before next season -- either by firing or resigning -- doesn't seem so far-fetched.
Not that the Magic didn't draw the line somewhere when it came to Howard calling the shots. Howard, sources say, wanted the Magic to keep guard Gilbert Arenas this season despite the fact that his pay ($62 million over the next three seasons) far outweighed his production (21.8 minutes and eight points per game on 34.4 percent shooting).
The Magic took the prudent step of using their amnesty clause on Arenas anyway, and even he told SI.com recently that he understood the move that somehow confounded the opinionated Howard. The lesson, it seems, is that Howard doesn't seem destined for a long and successful front-office career when his playing days are over.
By the time Howard and Van Gundy got back to the jobs for which they are actually paid to do on Thursday, this pairing was anything but potent in a 96-80 loss. Howard, who was returning from a two-game absence due to back spasms, scored for the first time with three seconds left in the third quarter and finished with just eight points, eight rebounds and five turnovers. The Magic fell for the fifth straight time, slipping into a tie with Atlanta for fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
TNT's David Aldridge revealed during the telecast that Van Gundy had known all season long that Howard had asked for him to be fired, but it didn't sound as if his wish would be granted anytime soon during an in-game interview with Smith.
"Stan Van Gundy is still our coach, and Dwight Howard is still our player, and we're still trying to win basketball games," Smith told Aldridge. "It will have to work out for the remainder of this season, and we'll see where [it is] at the end of the season. [It] just happened to play out in the media. It probably shouldn't have played out in the media, but it did, so we are where we are."
With truths that Howard hoped stayed hidden there for all to see.