- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- With about three minutes remaining in Friday's game against the New Jersey Nets, Jason Richardson tossed a lob pass off the backboard in anticipation that Dwight Howard would be there for the emphatic finish.
The ball slipped through Howard's hands, ruining what would have been a fitting exclamation point to the night. Yet it still was sort of fitting, considering how the week has gone in Orlando.
Very little between Howard and the Orlando Magic could be seen as a slam dunk.
But that all changed when Howard, after months of waffling between wanting to stay in Orlando and requesting a trade to a larger-market team, ended the drama by committing to the Magic for the rest of this season in addition to the final year on his contract next season.
Getting through Thursday's emotional trade deadline made Friday's game against the Nets more of a celebration for Orlando's fans and a night to exhale for their franchise player.
Howard probably expended more energy in his prolonged dancing ritual during pregame introductions amid a raucous standing ovation than he did at any point during the Magic's 86-70 victory over the Deron Williams-less Nets at the Amway Center. He finished with 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 32 minutes, and he spent part of the night smiling and gesturing to teammates and the crowd.
"You guys act like I went to another team and came back," Howard told reporters afterward.
Well, he almost did.
Howard was as close to gone Thursday morning as he would be to dunking that pass from Richardson some 24 hours later. More details emerged Friday night about how close the Magic actually came to the reality of trading Howard to one of a couple of teams that had deals in place, including the Nets.
In essence, there was a chance Howard would have ended up facing the Magic just 48 hours after he played what would have been his final game with them, Wednesday in San Antonio.
But 86-year-old Magic owner Rich DeVos confirmed Friday that an 11th-hour conference call he had with Howard on Wednesday night played a role in keeping the league's best center in Orlando. It was during that call, as the Magic were in San Antonio to play the Spurs, when as many as 17 people were on the line. That group included DeVos' grandchildren, one as young as age 16, who weighed in on the ordeal.
Orlando's front-office executives also participated. It was during a 15-minute segment of the call when DeVos finally informed Howard that unless he was willing to stay through next season, he would otherwise be traded in the next few hours.
"I think that's when he realized," DeVos, bound to a wheelchair, said of the conversation while sitting in the locker room after Friday's win. "He wanted to talk to each and every one of us. He talked to everybody in the family. That's the way he's always been."
Even as the executives DeVos has entrusted to run his franchise were finalizing paperwork on potential trades, the billionaire patriarch of the organization was still holding hope that he could somehow talk Howard into staying -- at least for a little while longer.
Some might see DeVos as a figurehead at this stage, but he reiterated Friday that he still holds the power that could have vetoed a deal to trade Howard.
"I think you all didn't think we could do it," DeVos told reporters in the locker room. "I never felt that way. That doesn't mean I'm right. But I overcome my doubts with a positive attitude."
Howard conceded that the conference call did sway his decision. By the time the Magic's chartered plane landed in Orlando in the wee hours Thursday, Howard had informed the team he would bypass the early termination option in his contract.
Instead of spending Thursday amid the doom and gloom of dealing Howard, the Magic were celebrating the fact they dodged another potential franchise-crippling departure. Again, for now.
"I've been talking to the family for the past couple of weeks now [about] how we can make this a better place, not just for the team, but for everybody here in Orlando," Howard said. "That's what our goal is, and I think we're going to work together to do that. I just wanted to meet with them again. They're on board. Everybody's on board. We just want to make it a great situation for everybody."
And that's what made Friday a lot more festive. Well, for everyone except Magic coach Scrooge, er, Stan Van Gundy.
"It didn't seem different to me, but then again, I'm not really paying attention to that," Van Gundy said when asked if the energy in the arena seemed different and more lively than usual, considering the circumstances. "You guys would notice that stuff a lot more than I would. I pretty much notice the 10 guys on the floor."
Earlier in the day, Van Gundy downplayed Howard's decision and joked that it wasn't the kind of moment he'd remember for the rest of his life.
"The players are relieved," Van Gundy said. "But then, we're set up to go through it all again next year. We've done it once, and we'll do it again."
There was a much different vibe the moment Howard hit the court for warm-ups Friday. Fans held signs with messages in support of Howard, including one man who sat courtside with a cardboard that read: "I've got 99 problems, but Dwight ain't one."
Fans stood and cheered when Howard was introduced last in the starting lineup, nearly drowning out the public address announcer. Howard responded by posing, prancing and dancing in the middle of a circle of teammates. Need a visual?
In other words, it was awkward. It was clumsy. It probably lasted a few seconds too long. But it couldn't have been a more appropriate gesture from Howard, who seemed to finally get back to the playful, joyful oversized kid he was before all this serious business about his future burdened him.
"I do that all the time," Howard said of his extended dance routine. "You guys aren't on the road with us. Usually the lights are off when I do it. That's what I do all the time. I just put a little [more] in it."
The actual competition on the court didn't last long. But the coronation did.
Confetti fell from behind the basket after Howard dunked for the Magic's first points of the game. Orlando took the lead for good after Howard blocked a dunk attempt on one end and triggered a fast break that ended with a Richardson dunk in transition.
There were "M-V-P" chants later in the game when Howard attempted free throws.
"We kind of didn't know what to expect, other than the crowd being excited," point guard Jameer Nelson said. "Whatever decision he made, people were going to say good and bad things about it. But the only people that matter are the people in this organization, the people in this locker room and the fans. Human nature is that it would bother certain guys more than others. I just tried to talk to him about things that weren't involving the situation and tried to be one of the outlets."
"We felt a certain way, because you didn't know what was going to happen," Davis said. "But it's like you can breathe again. Dwight did a great job trying to make us feel like nothing was really going on. He hides his emotion through his laughter despite what he was dealing with."
Davis described the level of relief he felt when he knew Howard was staying.
"I was like, 'Yeah,'" Davis said, "'maybe I can go buy me a house now.'"
Howard also cleared up a few other matters Friday. Despite speculation of a rift, Howard said he has not parted with agent Dan Fegan. He also said he has remained in contact with Williams, his close friend and the Nets' star point guard who insisted earlier Friday he would opt out of the final season of his contract to enter free agency this summer.
The Magic could target Williams, but with their current contracts it would be an extreme long shot to clear enough space under the salary cap to make a legitimate run.
But that's all in the future. The only thing that mattered to Howard and the Magic on Friday was the present and moving beyond a potentially painful past few days.
"I've been able to deflect a lot of it," Howard said of no longer having to deal with trade talk. "Now nobody has to ask any questions about trades or whatever. That part of the year is over with."
For now, at least.
That much is a slam dunk.
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