Stan Van Gundy's grey suitcoat is ruffled and worn, his thick, slowly graying mustache is unkempt, and there's a deep-set scowl on his face as he sits down at the podium to speak the growing mass of reporters that fill the room in front of him. Van Gundy's never garnered much of a reputation as a sharp dresser or cheery optimist and certainly no one would blame him for the sense of exasperation that seems to exude from him in the middle of a brutal back-to-back stretch that pits his Orlando Magic against two of the best teams in the league, the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. But given that his team just came through with one of their biggest wins of the season- coming back from a double digit deficit against a Miami Heat team that has already won 31 games halfway through this lockout shortened season and seems a near lock to make at least the East Conference Finals if not a return trip to the NBA Finals- against the organization that unceremoniously fired Van Gundy on their way to the 2006 NBA championship, you might except the hint of a smile.
And for a moment as he sits, he cracks a smile and familiarly asks the reporters for their questions. It doesn't last. Within minutes a reporter pipes up and addresses the question that all the cameras have been set-up to catch- "What are your thoughts on trading Dwight Howard before the deadline?"
It's a question Van Gundy's been asked incessantly this season following Howard's trade demands in early December and it's never been one that's sat well with the coach. Whether or not Howard will still be playing for the Magic hours, days, or months from now is out of his control and with a game coming up in less than twenty four hours against Greg Poppovich, one of the best coaches in the league, Van Gundy has enough matters to worry about. In fact, according to rumors, Van Gundy's not even in control of whether he will be with the Magic in the future, as reports have swirled that the Magic organization has offered Howard the power to choose to keep his current coach and general manager or hand-pick new ones if he agrees to an extension with Orlando. And Van Gundy, the son of a basketball coach and brother of former Knicks and Rockets coach and TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy, knows the NBA well enough to know you can only focus on one thing if you want to win- the game.
"I'm not talking trades tonight," he says, "tonight we're actually going to give a s**t about the game."
He's asked one more question about the numbers Howard put up against the Heat- 24 points and 25 rebounds, Howard's second 20-20 game against the Heat this season- before an uncomfortable silence smothers the room. With a sense of levity that's been absent nearly all night, Van Gundy asks if there are any more questions as he stands to leave. No one laughs and no one asks any more questions, but it couldn't be more obvious as Van Gundy walks out that yes, there are still questions here.
In the Magic locker room Von Wafer is slowly getting changed at his locker when he sees the thick crowd of reporters file in. They mill about the room for a moment, glancing here towards where Howard sits untying his shoes and talking quietly to Glen "Big Baby" Davis then over to a set of empty lockers to see if Jameer Nelson or JJ Redick is available for comment. As the reporters cluster next to Ryan Anderson, who put together another impressive game against the Heat with 16 points and 12 rebounds, Von Wafer satirizes their questions under his breath, exaggerating their unequivocal devotion to asking questions exclusively about the trade deadline only slightly.
"What do you think about that you might not be in Orlando tomorrow?" he cracks, knowing that the Magic will be catching a plane to San Antonio for their game against the Spurs in only a few hours. "What do you think about the trade deadline?"
Von Wafer knows about the business side of the NBA. After playing alongside Lebron James in the McDonald's All-American Game and starring for two seasons on the FSU basketball team, Wafer was chosen in the second round of the 2005 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. After less than a year in the league Wafer was waived by the Lakers, which started a quick carousel of teams. He garnered Player of the Month honors for the Colorado 14ers in January 2007 and was picked up by the Los Angeles Clippers and then picked up by the Denver Nuggets when his ten-day contract with the Clippers resulted only in a minute of playing time before he was waived. The Denver Nuggets then traded him to the Portland Trailblazers at the trade deadline in 2008. Wafer got his first real chance in 2009 with the Houston Rockets, when Tracy McGrady was forced to miss games with a knee injury, and he stepped up to the plate scoring 14.3 points per game a starter in McGrady's absence and a hitting a game winning three in Boston. But when McGrady returned Wafer again found himself the odd man out and wound up playing for Olympaceous Pireaus in Greece. In 2010 he got another shot at the NBA on a ten-day contract with the Dallas Mavericks but didn't crack the rotation before being waived and, perhaps remembering that game-winning three, the Celtics took a flyer on him for the 2010-2011 season. He wound up in the Magic locker room as a footnote to the Glen Davis-Brandon Bass trade.
"The NBA is a business," Ryan Anderson, who has already been traded once in his two-and-a-half year NBA career, says to the huddle of reporters surrounding him, already begun to mimicing the questions Von Wafer satirized only moments before. For Von Wafer, who's played for eleven teams in six year NBA career, this means that within the next forty-eight hours a trade could easily land him on a team in another new city, even a team with no need for a second or third string wingman. In fourty-eight hours Von Wafer could be boarding a plane bound for New York, San Francisco, Oklahoma City, or Chicago. He might not even get a chance to stop by his home in Orlando, one he found less than six months ago, before leaving. Or he could easily end up without a team. Despite scoring 5.3 points per game on a career high .457 shooting, Von Wafer could easily be included in a trade to any of these cities simply to make the salary math fit the NBA's complicated trade rules and waived on his arrival. When Ryan Anderson says the NBA is a business, this is what he means.
The reporters don't huddle around Von Wafer to ask questions.
Jameer Nelson enters the locker room quietly, so quietly in fact, that he has to announce his presence.
"Do any of you need to ask me any questions before I take a shower?" he asks to the reporters huddled around Anderson. It's the only sign of the brash, nobody-believes-in-me confidence he exhibits on the court, a challenge to the reporters to focus on the game that just ended. Despite the dominating talents of Howard, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh, Nelson was arguably the best player on the floor when it mattered, scoring twenty of his twenty-five points after halftime. Seamlessly alternating between splashing textbook threes through the bottom of the net and fearless drives to the hoop past double teams and defenders nearly a foot taller than him, Nelson helped carry the Magic out of an 11-point deficit at the start of the third quarter and hit nearly every big shot down the stretch.
But surrounded by the media that brash, irrational confidence sublimates to the sort of common sense soundbites that dominate the news cycle.
"My job is to play basketball," he offers, "no matter what's going on."
He doesn't even bother to mention what's going on because what would it matter if he did? Despite entering the league together in 2004 and playing together on the Magic ever since Nelson and Howard are co-workers and teammates first and foremost and Nelson, 28 years, playing the leagues most bountiful position, and listed at a generous 5'11', knows how tenuous employment in the NBA can be. Even if his performance against the Heat had been related to the encroaching trade deadline or built from some fiery rejection of Howard's occasional belief that his teammates may not be able to help him hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy that's pictured directly across from his locker Nelson's job is not to elucidate these things to his teammates, let alone the press. It's his job to play basketball and if he wants to keep on doing it amidst rumors that he's lost his first step, a career low shooting percentage, and his lowest scoring average since his rookie year and a game tomorrow night against Tony Parker he's determined to let his play do the talking.
Nelson's interview trails off as Howard emerges from the showers to sit at his locker. Even as Howard stands with his back to the media and pulls his shirt over his head the cameras set-up behind him, focused on his taut, muscular back, and reporters fill the space around him with microphones. He says nothing while he gets ready, and then sits on a stool set in front of his locker, his head and shoulders suddenly disappearing into the throng of media. After a few moments he speaks up.
"Jameer," he shouts, and then waits for the response. Unable to see over the television cameras aimed at him, and rows of press surrounding him he tries it again. This time someone from the back chimes in that he's left.
"Jameer," he shouts one last time as he stands and asks, "did he head back to the showers?" Without waiting for an answer he trots back through the doors, letting them slam behind him.
It's nearly a half an hour before Howard reappears again, and in that time the reporters scatter around the locker room and gather into conversations, discussing what team Peyton Manning will choose, Van Gundy's press conference, Lebron James' missed shots, their fantasy basketball teams.
A small contingent wonders out loud what Howard and Nelson are talking about, mythologizing the behind the scenes moment that might the last in Amway Center for the pair of Magic co-captains. The longer the doors are closed the greater the sense atmosphere seems to build amongst the younger reporters in the room. Behind those doors, their lingering glances seem to suggest, the defining moment of a story that has been building in intermittent fits and starts since 2004. Flashes of the video footage of Lebron James tearing off his Cavaliers jersey in 2010 as he walks off the court dance in their eyes.
They joke about it mostly. The closest anyone gets to a prediction is a declaration that Howard will either be here in this locker room again Friday, or down the hall in the visitor's locker room in a brand new New Jersey Nets uniform. No one rehashes the already concrete moments of the story, Howard's press conference at the beginning of the season when he requested a trade, the day the Magic gave him permission to speak with the Nets, the Mavericks, and the Lakers, or later when they expanded that to the Clippers and the Bulls as well. No one even discusses the All-Star Weekend held here in Amway Center, the Magic's recent wins over the Bulls and now the Heat, the rumors that Carmelo Anthony has requested to be traded, or the recent Andrew Bogut-Monta Ellis trade that's taken one of the players the Magic were targeting in free agency off the table.
Someone leans down to look at Howard's bag, before declaring that he definitively has not left the Amway Center out of a back door as a final insult to the Orlando media because it looks like his car keys are in the bag. Three older reporters agree that Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Carmelo are easily the three superstars you'll have to wait the longest for to get out of the shower. There's a slew of off color jokes describing what could be taking Howard so long, but other than a discussion of how long it's been no one bothers to talk about the situation at hand. There's a sense that they've been waiting here for nearly a year, trying to get an answer out of Howard or the Magic- but still, there are no answers.
With fifteen minutes left before the Magic have to catch their flight to San Antonio, Dwight Howard and his agent Dan Feagan re-enter the locker room. The media circles in tighter on Howard who sits down again on the stool and takes a deep breath to ready himself for their questions. The first one concerns the Magic's victory over the Heat and Howard is visibly reassured by this, looking up at the reporter and letting the tenseness in face relax for a moment.
"I just told him 'go'," Howard says of Nelson's remarkable game before cracking a joke, "I mean Lebron's 6'8" and Jameer's 5'1" and he was getting shots over him." Then while Dwight takes a moment to flash a winning smile, another reporter cuts in gruffly, asking Howard what a win like tonight's against the Heat means with the trade deadline approaching. It's the barbed, loaded question that no doubt will played on repeat across the country. Feagan looks up from Blackberry and puts his hand on Dwight's shoulder for a second. Howard paused.
"Well, I told those guys, I've been telling them for the past two or three weeks now that I want to stay and finish the season," Howard replied, "I told them I feel we have a great opportunity to win and I told them that I want to be here and I want to bring a championship here. I told them they've got to give me that chance. They didn't trade me at the beginning of the season and I told them I'd go out and play as hard as I could every night to put our team in a position to win."
He paused again before continuing.
"We're third in the East and playing great basketball," Howard said. "I don't want to see that slip away. We have to take a chance and I think we have a great chance to surprise a lot of people by winning. We've been talking for a while, I told them that I want to finish this season out and give our team and our fans some hope for the future. I feel they have to roll their dice. It might be tough, but I feel like we have a great opportunity. They've got to roll it."
There was another pause and silence for a moment and Feagan, Howard's agent, took the opportunity to pre-empt any questions and end the interviews, citing the team plane that was scheduled to be leaving within ten minutes.
As Feagan was ushering the press away from Howard one of the reporters, a young brunette, quietly offered up a thank you. At first, it seemed as though Howard didn't hear.
"What?," he asked as he perked up and then trailing off after a pause, "I didn't really,"
"For talking to us," she replied.
As the media fanned out into the hallways of Amway Center to file their reports in the media workroom or back to their hotels or their houses I don't think a single person doubted Howard's desire to finish the season with the Magic, or his belief that the Magic could contend this season. Sources may be cited as saying one thing or another, but no one in that room that night couldn't see the love Howard had for the Magic. If this was the way he had presented himself for the past two weeks to the Magic organization, then it was easy to see why owner Rich DeVoss still regarded him as a son and was adamant Howard wouldn't be traded.
Of course, by the morning it was clear that Howard also had nothing to lose by imploring the Magic to not trade him. New Jersey, his preferred destination, would have the cap space to sign him outright over the summer and in doing so wouldn't lose the young role players it would have to give up in a trade to the Magic. And of course Howard would want to stay with the Magic this season, reports said, he doesn't want to watch the playoffs this spring from home and the Nets won't make it. In the national media it began to take shape a ploy by a spoiled superstar, whose plea to the Magic to "roll the dice" showed only how out of touch he truly was.
But by 3:37 PM the next day, Christian Bruey with WFTV Channel 9 confirmed with sources that Howard and the Magic had agreed to a deal where Howard would waive his early termination option. In the WFTV building they announced Bruey's success in breaking the story over the PA system, asking the other employees in the building to congratulate him.
In the roller coaster hours that followed, Feagan and the Orlando Magic retracted that statement, saying Howard was unaware of the consequences of waiving his ETO and would refrain from doing so. A source close to Howard claimed that he had agreed to do so only under unrelenting pressure from the Magic brass that he would be traded otherwise.
Wednesday night at the end of the Magic's 111-122 loss to the Spurs, in which Howard tallied 22 points and 12 rebounds, the cameras caught Tim Duncan and Howard hugging. It was a poignant moment as Howard stood next to a champion equally as famous for his commitment to a small-market franchise as for his stellar post game, defense, and rebounding. As the TV cameras held onto them, the moment seemed to rise. Was that Duncan advising to Howard that he ought to stay with the team who had drafted him out of high school and developed him? Or was it just two NBA players exchanging postgame pleasantries?
At nearly 4:00 AM Thursday morning the website RealGM.com posted an article detailing a conversation with Howard, where the Magic superstar confirmed that he would indeed waive his ETO and stay in Orlando for at least the 2012-2013 season. Howard also apologized for the uncertainty and difficulty that his indecision has wrought.
"I've gotten some bad advice," Howard reportedly said, as rumors swirled that he was in the process of firing his agent, "I apologize for this circus I caused for the fans of our city. They didn't deserve none of this. I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart. I will do whatever I can to make this right and do what I was put in Orlando to do."
Since then Howard has reportedly signed an agreement that he will forfeit the early termination clause in his contract, although his agent Dan Feagan, who will lose millions in commission if Howard does not sign an extension or new contract elsewhere, has not.
So what is there to make of Howard's ballyhooed indecision? What should we make of his trade demands? Howard wouldn't be the first superstar to ask for a trade in the face of adversity, and he likely won't be the last. But he's also shown that he truly does care about being an integral part of the Orlando community. We may never know what goes on behind those closed doors, but it's clear that Howard at the very least has a sense what goes on outside of them.