ORLANDO, Fla. -- The basketball world snickered when Dwight Howard bragged Thursday about being "too loyal." Eyes rolled when the Magic All-Star center talked about fasting and turning down his favorite candies during tense contract talks. And surely eyebrows were raised when the self-titled Superman asked everyone to "believe" in Orlando now that he's staying around another year.
But all the skepticism and scorn at Howard's self-pity and script-flipping proves one thing:
He made the right decision.
Dwight Howard belongs in Orlando -- a one-franchise, one-newspaper town where he can say whatever he wants and then go play video games and everyone will love him anyway. Howard is both a fully-formed superstar and an incomplete project -- imposing and still immature -- but Orlando built him a palace and begged him to stay.
It was both heartwarming and kind of sad to see the City Beautiful suspend all reason in its determination to hope against hope that Dwight really loved it back. Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn't. But no matter; Orlando will forgive Dwight, and in Central Florida he'll never be pressured like Carmelo Anthony in New York and LeBron James pretty much everywhere.
"Believe" is an ironic request from Dwight, as he's made his name in a land of make-believe, and only a small market's capacity for imagination is what allows him to remain as beloved as a Disney princess.
What's lost in the soap opera of the past few days -- which was both created and dismissed by Howard -- is that the Magic is a pretty decent team with Dwight. A title contender? Not quite. But capable of making noise in the NBA playoffs? Yes. And although the people of Orlando want a championship, a nice playoff run will be deemed "good for the city" by fans who care and show up but don't get their hearts decimated by a playoff series loss.
The state of Florida, after all, doesn't have too much in the way of sports success these days. All three NFL teams stink. All three college football powers are rebuilding (or un-building). The Rays and Lightning are good, but let's face it -- nobody far from area code 813 cares that much. The Panthers are ... cute. And the Heat is a power, but obviously a divisive one. The Magic, no matter what you think of Howard, is a nice antidote to the sons of beaches to the south.
So although this one-year opt-in might be a temporary arrangement, it's still a healthy one. Howard will make the Magic fun and watchable -- for a time -- and Orlando will make Dwight feel loved. Both the player and the city are national targets for giggling, but no one can say Orlando is a nasty town, and no one can say Dwight is a bad guy.
Meanwhile, if Dwight had left? Then "nasty" and "bad" would have come fully into play. The New York press would have chewed Howard up for his free throw shooting, his imperfect post play, and his childlike ways. That would have been nasty (and still might be). Building Amway Center for Dwight is not the same as building Barclays Center in Brooklyn for someone like Dwight. Here in Orlando, "bad" could have been an understatement if Howard left. There was gallows talk here in town that if Howard vanished, the Amway ownership would have given up and gone back to Michigan -- leaving a gorgeous building and nothing inside save (wait for it) Princesses on Ice. Now the ugliest thing that can happen in the next few months is Dwight missing more free throws.
Could the worst case scenario still come about? Of course. This might just be another delay of the inevitable. It's not like the Magic has the weapons to either win a title or made a trade that will push the Heat to fretfulness. So odds are we return to this scene next year if not sooner.
But in Orlando, that's OK. In Orlando, a digital billboard is already up downtown blaring "Thank You Dwight." In Orlando, short stays in magical places are quite lucrative, thank you. And in Orlando, a larger-than-life character only needs to say, "Believe," and a town built on innocent dreams will make it so.
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