On June 24th, 2004 Dwight Howard, only eighteen at the time, carefully dressed himself in a dark blue suit, a blue shirt, and a tie speckled with shades of blue. Later that night, adorned with a similarly blue baseball cap awarded to him by NBA Commissioner David Stern, Howard showed off his thousand mega-watt smile, capped at the time with braces, as he giddily played along with an Orlando Sentinel reporter’s observation that he had chosen to wear Magic colors. When asked if he was attempting to will himself to Orlando, Howard simply remarked "I was."
Of course only moments earlier Howard’s will and desire to play in Orlando (or at the very least be selected with Orlando’s number one draft pick) had been rewarded. Although his agent Dan Goodwin had received word from the Orlando Magic that they would select Howard with the first overall pick, Howard was unaware of their decision until he heard Stern call his name. At that moment, feeling no doubt a heady rush of emotion, Howard stood and almost reflexively rose his arms. He felt, he later admitted, as though his destiny was coursing towards him as he shook hands with the commissioner and slipped a blue Orlando Magic hat on his head.
"I was just waiting for that magical moment," he said, flashing again that braces-lined, newly-minted million dollar smile.
Most Orlando fans didn’t hadn’t quite felt the magic yet, however. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale chided the Magic, calling the move "a major mistake" at the time- and it seemed as though most Magic fans and analysts agreed. Although the Magic had stumbled to a 21-61 season in 2003-2004, the memories of Tracy McGrady’s premature celebration after taking a 3-1 series lead over the Detroit Pistons in the 2003 playoffs lingered in Orlando’s consciousness.
McGrady was undeniably an unstoppable offensive basketball force who could seemingly lead the league in scoring in his sleep, a player who elicited comparisons to Penny Hardaway, George Gervin, and Michael Jordan. Many even argued that he was actually better than fellow prep-to-pro star Kobe Bryant. Still, while relations between McGrady and the front-office had become frigid and trade chatter had ramped up to deafening levels following McGrady’s comments that he wasn’t interested in sticking around in Orlando for a rebuilding project, McGrady was still many Magic fans favorite player.
Making matters worse, it was the common perception around the league that the lackadaisical commitment to defense and fundamentals that occasionally plagued McGrady and consistently submarined the Magic’s postseason success were largely because McGrady had chosen to forego the rigorous training in team basketball of college hoops and enter the NBA straight from high school. Despite the successes of players like McGrady, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett, the NBA was on the verge of passing a rule requiring American players to play at least one year of college basketball before entering the NBA and the memory of the Wizard’s choosing Kwame Brown with the number one draft pick was still fresh in people's minds. Although players like Lebron James, who had entered the league as the Cavalier’s number one draft pick after demolishing all of his opponents for two straight years in high school, were considered locks for the top draft pick, Howard had shown a troubling tendency to play games on cruise control at times and was entering the league with far less polish than James.
Had their not been another high-caliber frontcourt player in the 2004 draft Howard’s shortcomings likely wouldn’t have amounted to much. After all, Howard was unquestionably an intelligent and mature eighteen year-old with remarkable athleticism and natural skills.
But Emeka Okafor, a 6’10" college junior who was only three months removed from leading UConn to the NCAA Championship with his shot blocking and defense, stood in Howard’s way. To many, Okafor was exactly what the Magic needed, an experienced and battle-tested player whose defensive ability could contribute immediately to helping Orlando get back into the playoffs after a year decimated by injuries and inconsistent play. Rumors swirled that McGrady was only willing to stay with the Magic if they chose Okafor, the NCAA Defensive Player of the Year.
Instead the Magic drafted for upside, choosing the unpolished eighteen year old without a pedigree or even a definitive position (at the time the Magic considered Howard a power forward) before, possibly in an attempt to placate fans, trading for Okafor’s co-NCAA National Player of the Year Jameer Nelson.
On June 25th, 2004 the Orlando Sentinel ran two articles about the Magic’s draft selection. The headlines read "Youth Movement" and "Let The Rebuilding Begin With That Guy Full of Potential," and both articles warned Magic fans that the process back to respectability might be a long one. In comparison, Nelson, who was selected with the twentieth pick, was welcomed to the Magic in an article headlined "Magic Elated To Get Nelson" that featured Orlando GM John Weisbrod gushing, "he’s the most NBA-ready kid in the NBA regardless of position."
On April 21st, 2007 Howard might have thought he felt that touch of destiny again as he stood on the hardwood floor at the Palace in Auburn Hills watching his teammates Jameer Nelson, Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu, Carlos Arroyo, and Darko Millic during the morning shoot-around. An emergent superstar who had recently celebrated his first All-Star Game and brought the Magic to their first playoff series since their epic collapse in 2003 against the Pistons the season before they drafted him, Howard spontaneously burst into a Mexican hat dance sans hat during the shoot-around.
On April 27th, only six days later, Howard’s thoughts weren’t likely to have been on destiny. Having lost the first three games while Howard averaged only 10.7 points, the Magic were on the verge of being swept by the Pistons and Howard mentioned to the press that he was unhappy with how few shots he had gotten during the series. Matched up against Rasheed Wallace and Chris Webber, Howard had struggled to score because of his limited repertoire of post moves. In the meantime, the Magic’s perimeter players had been unable to take score efficiently in the half-court and struggled to keep their turnovers down. Howard’s mood had soured considerably in the week since he’d made his debut, and in a frustrating losing effort Howard scored 29 points and corralled 17 rebounds only to watch the Magic crucially fumble away the ball twice late in the fourth quarter.
"One thing we had such a big advantage on them is experience, and the only way to get better at it is to go through it," Billups said after icing two free throws with eight seconds left.
In the three short years since he had been drafted, Howard had become one of the best pivot men in basketball, blocking shots and defending with the same ferocious intensity with which he slammed the ball through the rim. Howard’s electrifying blocks, thunderous dunks on the court, mile-wide smile (sans braces by this point), and masterful impersonations had made him a fan-favorite for those who watched the dregs of the NBA for the past two years. Yet, in Orlando, with it’s sunny weather and thousands of distractions, Howard and the Magic had hardly registered even as water cooler talk.
Getting swept by the Pistons may have stung for Howard and the rest of the Magic players but few blamed the Magic’s budding superstar for the loss. For one thing, the Pistons were widely acknowledged as a much better team. Even the Russian national newspaper Pravda reportedly ran the headline "Putin OKs Selling Weapons To Iran, Says Magic Will Be Swept By Pistons." For another, Howard largely escaped the blame for the sweep despite being held well below his season averages in points and rebounds for three of the games. The Magic organization and the media generally sided with Howard on his complaints that he hadn’t gotten enough shots during the series, and the few Orlando fans seemed content that Howard had taken them to the playoffs.
In fact, because of his stellar play in the final game when he’d helped the Magic go on a 12-0 run in the fourth to draw a sold-out Amway Arena to their feet and earned the respect of veterans like Chauncey Billups and Richard "Rip" Hamilton, Howard had actually increased his profile in Orlando. For the first time since Game 4 of the 2003 Playoffs, Howard had managed to give Magic fans reason to believe that they were on the road to contention.
But any spotlight that had shined on Howard during his series against the Pistons was quickly supplanted by Lebron James, who exploded for a playoff career-high 48 points on the Pistons home floor. After James’ faltered late in his first two games in Detroit to give the Pistons a 2-0 series lead, he lead the Cavs to two straight victories in Cleveland before scoring the Cavaliers’ final twenty-five points in a decisive Game 5 victory that cemented his place amongst the games’ greats. James’ performances unexpectedly powered the Cavs into the 2007 NBA Finals, where they were quickly exposed against the San Antonio Spurs and promptly swept.
Spurred by Howard’s development into a truly great player, the Magic took another gamble in the 2007 offseason locking up Rashard Lewis, the highly coveted free agent, to a six-year $118 million deal. Suddenly Orlando was once again a top destination for free-agents, even if critics grumbled that he was overpaid and ominously warned that his contract could cripple the Magic’s ability to build around Howard. In Orlando it didn’t matter, for a moment the Magic were back in the center of the basketball world in a way that they hadn’t been since they signed Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady and flirted with Tim Duncan in the 2000 offseason.
Even Lewis and newly hired head coach Stan Van Gundy, who had just come from coaching the dominant inside-outside duo of Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, weren’t shy about their goals for the pairing. "Every championship team has a great interior presence," Van Gundy said, "and a great perimeter presence."
Magic fans heard every word and in 2007-2008 anticipation began to build around the up-and-coming team. No one expected the Magic to take home a championship yet, but city planners began planning for trips deep into the playoffs and talks of a new arena, which had stalled for years, began to gain traction. And Dwight Howard was at the center of it all.