ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dwight Howard was much more likable as a high school senior, a kid wearing braces, a dreamer who wanted to become the first African-American president of the United States.
He was something of an underdog back then, a relatively anonymous class valedictorian in 2004, otherwise known as Year 1 A.B. -- After Bron. LeBron James was preparing to play a game in Philly early in his rookie year with Cleveland when I started a locker room conversation with him about the prom kings preparing to follow his lead.
James knew a bit about the center from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. Just a bit. "Dwight Something," he called him.
Dwight Something grew into a somebody, a big somebody, too big for his own good. Thursday, it all ended for Howard. His innocence -- or whatever remained of it -- was shattered like a glass backboard even before he embarrassed himself against the New York Knicks.
Seven hours before tipoff, before Howard went scoreless for the first 35 minutes and 56.5 seconds of a 96-80 loss to the Knicks, Stan Van Gundy disclosed that his bosses had told him Howard did indeed ask for his head. The franchise player suddenly appeared out of left field, clueless to what Van Gundy had just told reporters, and wrapped an arm around his man.
Howard thought this would be just another us-against-them moment, just another case of an embattled jock and an embattled coach finding a common and convenient enemy in the news media. The center all but broke out his world-famous Stan Van impression in an effort to lighten the mood and mock the report that he'd pulled the ol' him-or-me stunt with management.
Only Van Gundy wasn't about to laugh along. He got out of there as quickly as he could and left Howard alone to absorb the same kind of sucker punch he threw at his coach behind closed doors.
"Stan just didn't want to lie anymore," said one league source close to the situation. "Letting this linger has already ruined the season, and there's so much more beyond this that's going on behind closed doors. If nothing else, by exposing Dwight, Stan did the next head coach a huge favor. Now Howard has to be on his best behavior in Orlando, at least until he leaves."
And yes, after all that opt-in, opt-out, opt-back-in drama, Howard will almost certainly leave the Magic sometime next year, probably for the Nets. Most superstars get to kill off only one coach, "and Dwight was also in on Brian Hill," the league source said. "People forget that. Stan is the second coach he's running out of there."
Brooklyn, beware. Hand your new franchise and new arena to this disruptive force at your own peril.
"We've just got to stay together," Howard said after delivering eight garbage-time points in 40 lousy minutes. "We can't let anything from the outside tear us apart."
This might've been the most absurd thing said on an absurd day and night. We can't let anything from the outside tear us apart?
These are self-inflicted wounds, all of them, and Howard knows it.
When Orlando's fifth consecutive loss was complete, Van Gundy explained that he "simply clarified a situation" when confirming his center wants him out. The coach had met with Howard and Magic GM Otis Smith before the game, and the three agreed -- at least for now -- that the mutual loathing had to be boxed up again and stored behind closed doors.
"I don't want to talk about it," Howard said when asked about Van Gundy. In the losing locker room, all Howard would talk about was Orlando's need to weather this storm.
"Everybody's expecting us to fall apart," he said, "and we have to stay together. No pointing the finger, no blaming anybody "
More stand-up genius from the guy whose index finger leads the league in flagrants.
Thursday night, after the longest day of his career, Howard should've taken out his frustration on the Knicks, the team that crushed him in the Garden ("a horrendous, inexcusable game," Van Gundy called it) after Howard and teammates reportedly partied late into the night. Here was the big man's big chance to even the score.
But instead Howard appeared disengaged, even willing to concede defeat. In the first half he took all of two shots, didn't get to the foul line and allowed Carmelo Anthony to outscore him 17-0. If Howard was trying to make up with Van Gundy, he had the funniest way of showing it.
He finally scored with 3.5 seconds left in the third quarter, on an uncontested dunk. "I thought Dwight played really, really hard," Van Gundy actually said, if only because he'd already shredded his center enough.
The Knicks made 13 of their 25 3-point attempts, and after their collapse in Indy, they suddenly looked alive again.
"I don't think anybody would want to play New York [in the playoffs]," Van Gundy had said after his shootaround for the ages. "Any team that's got Carmelo Anthony is going to scare the hell out of you."
And any team that's got Dwight Howard is going to scare the hell out of its coach.
Sure, there's a long, not-so-proud tradition of stars firing coaches in the NBA. But if you're going to do what Magic Johnson did -- lead Paul Westhead's fast break out of L.A. -- then you have to be worth the trouble, like Magic.
Howard hasn't been worth the trouble, and that's a shame. The kid I remember meeting for the first time in a high school locker room in Delaware was a "Finding Nemo" fan who drove a 1984 Ford Crown Victoria, the perfect antidote to LeBron's Hummer.
Howard was a do-gooding son of a state trooper, and he generated controversy only when he stated his pre-Tebow hope that Christ's crucifix would someday be part of the NBA's logo.
Oh, and young Howard had this to say of LeBron James: "I think I can surpass him."
Against the odds, Howard has surpassed James as a villain. As a self-appointed Superman with video-game muscles, Howard wanted to be known for his red cape, not his black hat.
He'll wear both into Brooklyn at some point, long after Stan Van Gundy is going, going, gone.