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Well, it finally happened. Dwight Howard finally broke and said something to chum the waters for the rest of his career. After months of frustrating indecision which was not exactly helping Howard’s image, he finally provided his detractors some quotable ammunition, saying of his discussions with the Magic:
“I told them I want to finish this season out and give our team, give our fans some hope for the future. But I feel they have to roll the dice. It might be tough, but I feel we’ve got a great opportunity. But they’ve got to roll it.”
That comment is … uh, tonedeaf. And narcissistic. And while I truly don’t think Howard is as shallow as the remark sounds, it’s the sort of thing he’ll be answering for for years.
However, what is distressing to me is not the comment itself — what, you’re telling me a 26-year-old millionaire being catered to by an incompetent business has a little much self-regard? — but the way the comment is being processed and that reaching this point was just about inevitable.
Individual labor issues in the NBA now are a media-powered gotcha game: you’re either re-upping with the home team on Twitter FROM THE INSIDE OF YOUR BACKPACK or you’re a delusional mini-tyrant who demands to be flanked with yes men and given your own in-season reality television saga.
By all accounts, Dwight Howard is pretty close to what his public persona has always been: he’s youthful to the point of being juvenile, he’s image-minded but not always image-savvy, he’s warm and kind, and sort of a goof. But the reactions I’ve noticed since Dwight made his remark have not been that the Magic have dug their own grave and allowed things to come to this point, but that Dwight is revealing the extent of his own self-interest at the expense of the team.
It’s old news how undervalued superstars are on a max contract, yet so much of this discussion is about how Dwight Howard is screwing the franchise by insisting on leaving at the end of the season rather than allowing the Magic to get something back in a trade. If he cared about the team, the line goes, he’d let them deal him to the Bulls, or at least the Lakers, or even to the Nets for their middling offer. This argument keeps coming up in free agency news cycles but I’ll make it again: what, precisely, does Dwight Howard owe to the Magic?
Look, Howard has been wishy-washy this season and his public indecision has made his team’s bargaining position a little worse. But he hasn’t hurt the Magic’s bargaining position nearly as much as the Magic have hurt his championship-winning position or however you want to put it. He certainly didn’t mandate that the franchise create so unstable an environment that his every whim create waves. If you want to go apportioning responsibility for this fiasco, it starts with the Magic organization for failing to develop a core vision beyond a scattershot attempt to appease an inconstant star.
It’s a bizarre cycle we’re locked into with the league’s dominant personalities, what with this new archetype of free agency. In a certain sense, we do the same things to athletes that Dwight is doing to the Magic with comments like “roll the dice.” “Here’s our attention,” we say, “which we’re lending you to judge how you handle attention.”
Basically what we do is we tell athletes that they’re on trial because we’re going to try them; the entire dichotomy of the quiet franchise cornerstone and the media-courting franchise puppeteer relies on readers and viewers responding to the manufactured stories, which is the same sort of indulgent tautology Dwight is being accused of.
It’s a new twist on an old story. Sports fans are increasingly inured to the fact that financial realities trump sentiment on the grand scale, but for some reason this pearl-clutching fascination with free agency is thriving. The hysteria over the game’s best players shaping their professional environment has created the sort of atmosphere where failure is expected — LeBron, we will follow you for months and months for hours a day but don’t you dare act like your decision is a big deal.
Dwight, your franchise has publicly made itself a joke and demonstrated that it will do anything to appease you, but it’s repulsive of you to say so. It’s an odd hypocrisy and I doubt it’s going anywhere.