Up until recently, Dwight Howard was having a blast playing professional basketball.
The costume-wearing, sticker-slapping, ball-palming, high-flying, larger-than-life, freak of an athlete was doing remarkable things on a nightly basis, all while maintaining his gregarious demeanor and affable grin.
Before now, there were no cries for better teammates, bothersome off-court antics or any of the character flaws that can turn heroes to villains.
But the audience wanted more. We wanted to believe basketball wasn't just a game to Howard, but also his entire life.
Smiles and dunks always went over well, but fans hoped Howard would take the next step. It was time to carry his teammates to the next level, all while maintaining that youthful exuberance.
On our terms, Howard finds a way to fix the discombobulated Magic—coming off a humiliating first-round playoff exit courtesy of the Atlanta Hawks—and writes a storybook ending, culminating with a ring.
However, Howard's impending free agency changed the story.
Orlando now has to start discussing contingency plans, something they hoped to avoid, because it looks like Howard is poised to take the easy way out.
In an interview with Scott Howard Cooper of NBA.com, Howard said, “I don’t have side goals or agendas. My main goal is to win a championship. I want to have 14 other guys who feel the same way.”
Translation: If we can’t get the job done, I can easily pass the blame onto management and teammates, rather than tough it out and swallow the inevitable criticism.
Too much to handle? Kobe took out the trash; Dirk swallowed the humility pill.
Howard’s message isn't surprising, unless you're a fan who sets unrealistic expectations for your stars.
In late May, Howard told the Orlando Sentinel: “I want to start my own path, and I want people to follow my path and not just follow somebody else’s path. I want to have my own path, and I want to start that here in Orlando.”
Funny how his message became muddier in just a few weeks, and Howard staying in Orlando turned from likely to improbable.
A man-child with unmatchable paint presence, Howard knows exactly what free agency has in store: maximum deals offered by several headliner-starved franchises.
Welcome to the new normal, where getting attached to a player is a one-way ticket to regret.
When a relationship between a player and management breaks down, no one thinks of salvaging things for the sake of the fans.
Howard could stay in Orlando, wait out the egregious contracts of Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas—both locked in until 2013-14—and work with management to help formulate a lineup that fits his needs, or he can take the easy way out.
Why take responsibility for your team’s failures, when you've done everything humanly possible to win?
At least, that’s the theory.
Ditching his hometown followers in Cleveland, Lebron James inadvertently left us with an additional lesson, aside from showing us that people don't take kindly to athletes leaving former fans heartbroken on national television.
It's outright insulting to suggest you're the only player on your team who is bleeding night in and night out.
Embedded in his latest remarks, Howard lays the groundwork for a King James-like exit from the team that drafted him first overall in 2004.
Orlando fans are going to sour on the phenom—it used to be that he didn't care enough, and now he claims to be the only person willing to do what it takes to win.
Picture Howard, hulking down the floor alongside an all-star or two; the pressure is off, and his smile is a bright as ever.
A once-revered figure whose only flaw was playoff flameouts is now just the next in line of NBA figures who were made out be A-pluses, but are deep down barely worthy of an A.
Strangely, just days after Nowitzki toppled the detested King, Howard finds himself following James’ cookie crumbs on the way to grandma’s house—a mauling by the big bad wolf awaits.
Like James, if Howard leaves and eventually captures that vaunted championship, he will always know he took the easy way out.