Many years ago, the Orlando Magic were a team on the rise.
Heralded as the next great franchise in the NBA, the team had beaten Michael Jordan's Bulls squad in the playoffs en route to the franchise's first Finals appearance in 1996-97. Orlando housed perhaps the most dominant big man in the league in Shaquille O'Neal, a superb second-fiddle in Penny Hardaway and outstanding role players such as Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott.
After consecutive 50, 57 and 60 win seasons, the Magic seemed to be fulfilling the promise of their potential. They were a fun team to watch. They played winning basketball. Hardaway and O'Neal were a match made in heaven by the basketball gods.
With those two stars being 24 and 23 years old respectively, it seemed like the Magic would be top contenders for years to come.
Quietly, during the 1996 off-season, Shaquille O'Neal signed with the team he had always wanted to play for: the Los Angeles Lakers. He was quoted as saying that he was making a decision between Hollywood and a "dried-up pond."
Magic fans were devastated, and the team was thrown into a state of flux.
Soon after, Penny Hardaway's career was ruined by injuries and the team reeked of an era that had concluded abruptly. Wholesale changes had to be made.
Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady were brought in to start a new era. However, due to Hill's constant problems with injuries and the inability to add anyone of note because of the duo's massive contracts, the Magic floundered in the first round for the next three years before finally hitting rock bottom with a 21-61 season.
By virtue of luck, the Magic won the draft lottery in the 2004 offseason and had a tough decision to make between high school phenom Dwight Howard and UConn standout junior Emeka Okafor.
Presently, it doesn't seem like this would be much of a debate, but at the time, no one knew what Dwight Howard could become. More than one scouting report had his game completely wrong. Presumably doing lots of homework on the issue, the Magic drafted Howard and set off upon the task of developing their new franchise big man.
Fast forwarding through the recent history, it's easy to say that Howard has become the most dominant center currently playing in the NBA. His development into a one-man defensive powerhouse and an admirable offensive option has single-handedly reshaped the Magic into a contender, resulting in the franchise's second Finals appearance.
However, we as Magic fans are perhaps heading into all too familiar territory with yet another franchise center.
Dwight has shown some resentment towards the notion that he is leaving Orlando, being quoted as saying, "I'm really tired of it. I am annoyed by it. I can't sign a contract this year. I can't sign anything this summer, so why keep bringing it up?''
It's a fair point, but Howard simply cannot overlook the historical precedent already set by Shaq. Is it really that unbelievable that those who care about this franchise would be antsy about whether or not the best player the franchise has seen in years would re-sign? After all, the city—no, the entire region of central Florida—has been already been burned once.
Dwight has recently come out and expressed love for Orlando, saying things like, "I am going to do whatever I can to lead my city, I love Orlando."
Nonetheless, in the last half of this season and into the embarrassing series lost to the Atlanta Hawks, Dwight seemed a bit aloof from his teammates, almost seeming disinterested in games at times.
One has to ponder the cause; is it a strained relationship with coach Stan Van Gundy? Is it a lack of faith in the team around him? Are we projecting our own doubt upon Dwight? Or has he already mentally checked out on Orlando?
I just hope we don't find out the answer too late.