ORLANDO, Fla. -- For anyone trying to read between the lines of Dwight Howard's body language this All-Star Weekend, here's a tip: Don't waste your time.
Howard, the league's most dominant big man and the Orlando Magic's only hope for remaining a championship contender, is at his defensive best right now. Forget, for a moment, his prowess on the basketball court. That's nothing compared to what happens when he's holding court -- like he'll do all weekend with the league's glaring spotlight focused on his town and the ultimate decision his team continues to tiptoe around as the March 15 trade deadline looms.
If Howard truly wants to remain a member of the Magic and anchor this franchise for the rest of this decade, there would be no better time to make that message clear than right now. Instead, his only plan this weekend is to express his unconditional love for the city and the pride he has in what the team has built since he arrived eight years ago.
I've got no problem with that. But the only thing obvious between Howard and the Magic these days is that love and commitment remain mutually exclusive components.
For now, Howard's defensive mastery extends to rejecting all questions about his future as the league's soon-to-be pre-eminent free agent. He's relentlessly rebounding from the perception that he already has one massive size 18 shoe out of the I-4 corridor. And he's shutting down conventional wisdom that suggests his mood swings are holding the franchise hostage until he decides whether to force his way out of Orlando in the coming weeks or commit long-term like Mickey.
"The situation right now is [that it's] All-Star Weekend," Howard said in his 35-minute session with a sea of reporters surrounding him during Friday's media day. "That's the only thing that matters right now. All that stuff can go on after All-Star Weekend. But for right now, my focus is on being a great host to all the guys here. We're not going to talk about it right now."
What Howard fails to acknowledge is that his future is the only subject that matters. Despite his refusal to deflect attention from Sunday's game and his desire to help showcase the small businesses around the arena that stand to gain a windfall from All-Star events, there's no denying what's at stake here.
The literal countdown to the biggest stare-down in the history of NBA free agency has commenced. But for now, Howard the ambassador and the host Magic will spend the rest of the weekend winking at one another as if somehow this is some sort of back-burner issue. Howard and the Magic can spruce up the city, smile for the cameras and embrace the red-carpet treatment from the league.
But underneath it all, one can't help but feel that this is an outfit dressed to depress. It's the equivalent of a married couple on the outs attempting to patch things up long enough to attend one more family reunion. But there's is no way to electric-slide your way through this.
One side -- Howard -- is partying and preening as a proud host this weekend. The other side -- the Magic franchise -- is pleading and preparing for the possibility that the best thing it has going wants to go elsewhere. Magic owner Rich DeVos told the Orlando Sentinel on Friday night he feels his franchise still has a chance to keep Howard in Orlando. Last month, team vice president Pat Williams set those chances at about 50-50.
Of course, Howard isn't revealing his odds. But he's holding all the cards.
And he's been determined not to tip his hand.
"Just go out there and be myself," Howard said of his All-Star itinerary. "Have fun. This is my city. Everybody wants to know where to go, what to eat, the clubs to go to. My job is just to make sure everybody has a great time. I don't care about none of the other stuff that's being said. All the other stuff can wait."
My job is just to make sure everybody has a great time. I don't care about none of the other stuff that's being said. All the other stuff can wait.
”-- Dwight Howard
Howard joked that his only plans at the present are to get to know Jeremy Lin and show Magic teammate Ryan Anderson a few tips to prepare for Saturday night's 3-point shooting competition. Howard won't allow himself to be distracted by the trade speculation Carmelo Anthony faced during All-Star Weekend last year, the ones LeBron James dealt with the year before that, or the ones Amare Stoudemire, Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and others were subjected to the previous years.
But that won't -- and hasn't -- stopped the questions from coming.
How have fans treated Howard in Orlando amid all the talk of his potential departure?
"Actually, you know, a lot of the fans here [say], 'Whatever you decide to do, we're behind you 100 percent.' They've been great. The fans have always been great to me. I appreciate it. They've showed me nothing but love from day one. That's the same from me."
But could he really love them and leave them?
"This is always going to be my home," Howard said, speaking generally of course before diverting back to his self-imposed gag order. "If it's not about All-Star Weekend, I don't want to talk about it."
When Howard did open up a bit about how difficult it's been to focus on helping the Magic win amid all the trade talk, he speaks as if all of this was somehow created by an outside force. As if it didn't start with his people notifying the Magic that there were specific destinations he had in mind. That, of course, led to Orlando granting Howard's agent permission to discuss potential deals with the New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks.
But he also hasn't ruled out signing a long-term extension to remain with the Magic, a team that has fought through all these issues to win seven of the past 10 games and is in position to move into third place behind Miami and Chicago in the conference.
"I'm happy to see that we're staying together despite everything that's going on around us," Howard said. "We went through a stretch where we lost a couple of games [and] everybody thought we were falling apart. We didn't. Our goal for the second half of the season is to play with the same intensity and effort every night and see how it goes."
That's about as much of a commitment as Howard is giving these days.
How it goes for the Magic from here is predicated on if he goes.
The only directions he's giving are to his favorite local hangouts, like the Italian ice spot in Lake Mary.
"Go there and tell them Dwight sent you," Howard said. "And if you want to take somebody on a date, there's an Italian restaurant called Christini's."
Perhaps when this weekend is over, Howard and the Magic can go there to work this out.
Or the only other date that matters will be March 15.