Dwight Howard accomplished something on Sunday night.
At a time when fans are blaming players and owners for the NBA’s bitter labor dispute, he lured about 8,000 basketball-starved fans into UCF Arena for a glorified exhibition and made them cheer pro hoops again.
“Look at the turnout,” Howard marveled after the night ended. “It’s just great, not only for Orlando but for us Magic players and the guys who play. Just to see people come out and be together was great.”
No one will remember the final score of the D12 All-Star Game, a group of “Old School” Magic players won 114-102 over a team of guys who finished last season with the team.
Instead, Sunday might be remembered for the way the crowd responded at a difficult time for the NBA.
Penny Hardaway, who left the Magic under difficult circumstances, received a huge ovation when he was introduced before tipoff. And, afterward, Howard suggested that the franchise retire Hardaway’s old jersey number.
“I felt great because I hadn’t been back here, especially in this type of atmosphere, since I left the Magic,” Hardaway said. “And I thank Dwight for doing that because I don’t know if it would ever have happened otherwise. So he kind of broke the ice sort of for me coming back here.”
The crowd only booed once all night: as Howard was on the public-address system introducing controversial boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., who was a celebrity coach.
Howard immediately admonished the fans, shouting, “Hey, hey, hey, we don’t do no booing in here!”
They stopped jeering and cheered the rest of the night.
Of course, it would be folly to say that there aren’t plenty of sports fans in Central Florida who’ve soured on the NBA during this labor stoppage. Those folks almost certainly stayed away.
But those who paid anywhere from $20 to $120 for a ticket seemed to enjoy themselves.
Neither team played any defense, and the referees didn’t bother to blow their whistles when players dribbling the ball stepped out of bounds.
The entire exhibition was so low-key that it was difficult to gauge players’ fitness and their readiness for an abbreviated training camp.
But current players said they’d get back into the swing of things quickly if the lockout ends soon.
“I think a week or two,” said Brandon Bass, who had at least five dunks in the first half and smiled broadly when asked what it was like to share a sideline with his celebrity coach, hip-hop superstar Lil’ Wayne.
Gilbert Arenas looked fit — he has lost weight — but it appears that his troublesome left leg still gives him problems. Arenas looked as immobile as he did toward the end of his first season with Orlando.
For one night, the NBA’s ongoing labor dispute was out-of-sight, out-of-mind, even with the lockout now 136 days old and counting.
Chris Duhon, the Magic’s representative to the players’ association, had to withdraw from the game because he traveled to Manhattan for Monday’s crucial union meeting.
Vince Carter and Jason Richardson, who had committed to play, were no-shows.
Howard would not discuss the lockout directly. One of his foundation’s PR folks cut off a question at Howard’s pre-game press conference about the impasse.
And Howard deftly deflected a question about his long-term contract status, saying he only was concentrating on the exhibition.
“That’s the only thing that should matter right now,” Howard said. “I’m not about free agency or whatever. There is no basketball right now. This is basketball, something like this. So let’s not dwell on all the other stuff.”
Howard did that.
He took some people’s minds off the lockout — no small accomplishment, even if it was just for a little while.
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