ORLANDO — At the end of a long and entertaining All-Star weekend, Dwight Howard could sit back and survey all that he had done and know that his mission was accomplished.
He put on a show for his city, made sure the stars turned out here and covered all of the All-Star weekend bases with parties, events and all the bells and whistles revelers have become accustomed to with the NBA’s version of the Super Bowl, or as NBA Commissioner David Stern called it on the Hang Time Podcast last week, “the best three and a half days in sports.”
Howard was the perfect host all the way through Sunday night’s pregame announcement at Amway Center, when he greeted the crowd and thanked them for helping make the event what it was.
And then he promptly vanished into the ether for the next three hours. The game itself, a tight-in-the-final-minutes 152-149 win for the Western Conference, was played with Howard as little more than a set piece. His Eastern Conference teammates did their best to keep him involved and Howard flashed his trademark smile aplenty, but it was a largely forgettable performance from the big man on his home floor and in the splendid building built in his honor.
It was the strangest thing I saw all weekend, and that includes Nikki Minaj‘s space age pregame performance that included six or seven wig changes before the All Stars took the floor for the game. After spending 72 straight hours as the non-stop life of the party, it was like someone flipped a switch and turned Howard off once the game tipped off.
Howard had every right to push back on questions regarding his future and the potentially landscape altering decisions that both he and the Magic organization have to make with the March 15 trade deadline looming.
Still, there was an uneasy feeling surrounding Howard’s presence from the moment the Hang Time crew set foot in town last Wednesday. Howard came through our lair and spent some quality time with comedian JB Smoove in what turned out to be one of the most genuinely hilarious moments of the entire affair.
Even though he was in the middle of the action from start to finish, Howard had a vacant look about him the entire time. His explanation for not wanting to impose himself on the game in particular was more than reasonable.
“I just wanted to have fun, get out there and make the game interesting,” he said. “You know, for me, this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t really care about getting the ball. I get the ball with my team. That’s what matters.”
But if this was one of his last showcase games in this city and arena, if he does end up being traded in a couple of weeks, that eerie feeling I had watching him on the final night of All-Star weekend will be on my mind.
As we packed up our things at game’s end and surveyed the emptying arena, I stopped and chatted with an Amway Center official about the end of what was surely an exhausting weekend for he and his colleagues and about how impressed I was with palace that is Howard’s current building.
“This place is a shrine,” he told me. “I know there are some other fine arenas around the NBA. But can any of them boast the amenities you see here?”
I pointed out a couple of my favorites, reminded him that Madison Square Garden has been refurbished and that the Staples Center never fails to impress and that all of the newer arenas contain the contemporary amenities the ticket buying public demand.
“They don’t look like this, though,” he said. “We have the best of it all right here. And we built this for Dwight. Why would he want to go to Brooklyn or Los Angeles when he’s got all of this right here? The idea of losing him makes me sick to my stomach.”
He had that same vacant look Howard has been wearing for weeks when he said it.