<italics>On March 12, Dwight Howard will return to Orlando for the first time since he was traded to the Lakers. The first pick in the 2004 draft, Howard spent eight seasons with the Magic. Here's a look at his road from high school to Hollywood.</italics> *** The Naismith Award winner as the top prep player in 2004, Howard averaged 16.6 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.29 blocks in four years at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy (Ga.)
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In 2004, Howard opted to forego college and declare for the NBA draft. Orlando made him the first pick. "He's not a normal high school kid," general manager John Weisbrod said at the time, ignoring Howard's braces.
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During his rookie year, Howard became the first player straight of high school to start all 82 games and the youngest player to have a 20-point, 20-rebound performance. He was a unanimous selection to the All-Rookie First Team, but finished behind Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon in the Rookie of the Year voting.
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In 2007, Howard made his first trip to All-Star weekend as a reserve and a participant in the Slam Dunk Contest (in which he failed to make the final round). He finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds in the All-Star Game. "Dwight's a monster," East coach Eddie Jordan said. "He defends the rim. He's just scratching the surface offensively. He's a great piece to build your franchise around."
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Howard helped the Magic qualify for the playoffs at the conclusion of the 2007 season, marking the team's first postseason appearance since 2003. But the No. 8 Magic couldn't overcome the first-seeded Pistons, falling in four games despite averages of 15.3 points, 14.8 rebounds and 54.8 percent shooting from Howard.
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Feeling snubbed by the judges in 2007, Howard returned and ran away with the dunk contest in 2008. "I really wanted to win it for all the big men," he said of his performance, which included a now-memorable dunk in a Superman cape. "Everybody always says, Big men can't jump and big men don't look good dunking. I just tried to add a little bit of my personality."
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Howard earned his first playoff-series victory in 2008, averaging 22.6 points, 18.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocks as the Magic knocked off the Raptors in five games in the first round. The Magic would go on to lose to the Pistons 4-1 in the next round.
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With Howard at center, Team USA marched to gold at the 2008 Beijing Games, its first gold since the 2000 Olympics. Alongside LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, Howard averaged 10 points (on 81.4 percent shooting) and 5.3 rebounds.
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After a sensational 2008-09 season, Howard became the youngest player to win Defensive Player of the Year. "A lot of guys don't want to go up [for blocks] because they're afraid of getting dunked on," Howard said. "Dikembe [Mutombo] and Patrick [Ewing] told me, 'As many times as you're going to get dunked on, you're going to have more blocks.' "
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Days after a Game 5 second-round loss to the Celtics in which he took only 10 shots, Howard called out coach Stan Van Gundy, saying, "You got a dominant player, let him be dominant." Van Gundy compared the comments to an argument with his wife. "When she gets on me for something, my first reaction is to blame someone else," he said, "But when you step back and look at it, I usually realize the person who's been on me has a point. And then it's time to step up and do the job." And step up Howard did, forcing a decisive Game 7 by going for 23 points and 22 rebounds in Game 6. Orlando defeated Boston in Game 7 to advance to face the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals.
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Howard and the Magic overwhelmed regular-season MVP LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, defeating the Cleveland in six games. Howard dominated inside throughout the series, with his best performance coming in Game 6, when he finished with a playoff-career-high 40 points and 14 rebounds.
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Facing the Lakers in the Finals, the Magic disappointed, falling in five games as Phil Jackson captured title No. 10. Howard played well throughout the series, averaging 15.4 points and 15.2 rebounds and recording a Finals-record nine blocks in Game 4. "It hurts," Howard told reporters. "It hurts a lot. But you can learn a lot from losing. Sometimes you've got to lose to win."
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Howard became the first player to lead the the league in blocks and rebounds in consecutive seasons en route to the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year award. "I think most people look at Most Valuable Player as somebody who scores a lot of points, which is great. I believe that defense wins championships, wins games," he said.
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Howard averaged a career-high 22.9 points during the 2010-11 season, but his scoring was overshadowed by a league-high 18 technicals. "There's only so much somebody can take," Howard said. "People grabbing you, holding you, slapping you in the face -- sometimes you're going to retaliate." He was forced to sit out two games as result of the hefty sum of Ts.
15 of 23Bob Rosato/SI
Despite an all-time playoff series from Howard, the Magic fell to the Hawks in six games during the first round of the 2011 postseason. Playing against a young Atlanta front line, Howard averaged 27 points, 15.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 43 minutes per game, but it wasn't enough to overcome the cold shooting of Hedo Turkoglu (29.2 percent) and Jason Richardson (33.3 percent).
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After the NBA lockout concluded, Howard entered training camp with a public trade request. "You only get one time around," he told reporters on Dec. 11. "You get one chance at this. ... I really love Orlando. I've given a lot for this community, and it's not because I want people to say, 'Well, he gives us money.' I do it because I care." The soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets are reportedly his first choice.
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After months of trade speculation, Howard shocked everyone when he opted into the final year of his contract with the Magic. "I'm loyal. I talked to my teammates and told them, 'I'm all in,' " Howard said at a news conference announcing the decision. But Howard wasn't that loyal; he refused to sign a long-term extension, saying only, "This is where I am today."
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In a bizarre press conference, coach Stan Van Gundy confirmed a report that Howard was pushing for him to be fired -- only to have Howard walk into the media scrum moments later. Who are your sources, Howard asked when reporters presented Van Gundy's accusations to him. "Whatever happens at the end of the season is not under my control. I am a player for the Magic. I am not the GM," Howard said. "I haven't said anything to anybody about anything." Van Gundy was fired a little more than a month later.
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Howard underwent back surgery on April 19, ending his season and making him unavailable for the 2012 London Olympics. Reports speculated that Howard was unwilling to continue playing under then-coach Stan Van Gundy and used the surgery as an out. He refuted those reports. "It hurts [emotionally]," Howard told <italics>ESPN the Magazine</italics>'s Chris Broussard. "That's the first thing -- it hurts. And then with people saying and thinking I'm quitting on my team. This is a real issue. I tried to play through it and it just made my back worse."
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Howard was finally traded to the Lakers in a four-team deal in August. The deal, which included the Sixers and Nuggets, as well as the Lakers and Magic, involved Howard going to L.A., Andrew Bynum going to Philadelphia and Andre Iguodala going to Denver, among other moves. "It's kind of unreal," Howard said after the trade. "It finally happened. ... I'm really a part of the Lakers. It hasn't really hit me yet. I'm just happy to be here and I'm going to make the best out of it."
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Plagued by injuries and chemistry issues, the Lakers stumbled to a 17-24 record amid reports that Howard was feuding with everyone from coach Mike D'Antoni to star Kobe Bryant. "It's just funny. We're losing. Every little story that comes out is geared toward breaking our team up," Howard told the <italics>Los Angeles Times</italics>. "We're bigger than that. We're stronger than that and we're not going to let anything divide us."
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With unrestricted free agency looming, Howard refused to commit long term to the Lakers, saying that his "only focus" was getting the team into the playoffs and that "nothing else [mattered] at this point." Despite fears that Howard might leave in the offseason, the Lakers opted not to trade him at the deadline.
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Days before returning to Orlando, Howard criticized his former team, saying that those Magic squads were filled with people "who nobody wanted." Howard later apologized for the comments. "For all this stuff to happen, for me to sit back and see and evaluate myself and what I could've done better and realize that I needed to make a change, I'm getting better," he told <italics>USA Today Sports</italics>. "I'm growing up. I'm maturing."
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