The cloud that hovered over the Orlando Magic evaporated early Thursday somewhere in the clouds between San Antonio and Orlando.
After months of agonizing over his future, and with the NBA trade deadline just hours away, All-Star center Dwight Howard decided to commit to the Magic for at least one more season. He waived his contract's early termination option and ensured he will remain with the franchise for the 2012-13 season.
"It's been very tough for me the past couple of months to make a decision. I've gone back and forth. It's not as easy as what people think. It's very hard when you're talking about a career-changing event, and most people wouldn't see that."
His decision ended a high-stakes game of chicken against the Magic. If Howard had not eliminated his early termination option, commonly known as an "out clause," team officials said they would have traded him before Thursday's 3 p.m. NBA trade deadline.
Magic officials had determined they would not allow Howard to become a free agent this summer because he would have been able to sign elsewhere and leave the team without anyone in return. The franchise had been down that road before. In 1996, Shaquille O'Nealsigned with the Los Angeles Lakers, and O'Neal's departure had disastrous consequences.
In December, Howard and his agent, Beverly Hills-based Dan Fegan, notified the Magic that Howard wanted a trade. Three teams were listed as Howard's preferred trade destinations: the Brooklyn-bound New Jersey Nets, the Dallas Mavericks and the Lakers.
Howard's first choice was the Nets. He felt the lure of a larger market, the chance to play alongside point guard Deron Williams and the prospects of more money in endorsements, particularly when his contract with adidas was up for renewal.
But he felt pressure, too.
Howard, 26, revealed Thursday that he had felt so much pressure that he often did not sleep and did not eat.
Magic officials pulled at him. Martins, promoted to CEO in December, communicated with Howard almost every day. Rich DeVos, the team's 86-year-old, wheelchair-bound owner, spoke often with Howard.
Meanwhile, the team flourished. Despite all the distractions and trade rumors, the Magic have compiled a 28-16 record and the league's fifth-best winning percentage.
"It's incredibly commendable what this team has done with this question that's been hanging around our organization for the last year," Martins said.
On Wednesday night, just before the Magic's 122-111 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Howard notified Magic officials that he would not waive his out clause.
After the game, he said nothing had changed. He continued to say he should not be traded and that the organization should "take a chance" he would sign elsewhere during the offseason.
But something changed during the flight home.
He told team officials he wanted to waive his out clause, but Smith advised Howard to sleep on it.
"I'd have been less of a man if I had done anything before that," Smith said.
Howard signed the paperwork at midday Thursday.
"He is giving up all of his leverage and his free agency in a show of commitment to his team and most importantly the fans of Orlando," said Kevin Samples, Howard's cousin and manager.
Some people around the league scoffed at Howard's decision.
Others thought Howard simply didn't want to risk being traded to the Lakers because it would draw comparisons to O'Neal's career trajectory.
But Howard sounded relieved.
He will earn $19.5 million from the Magic next season.
"I want this city to know I love them, and I love this team and I want them to believe in us and believe in what we can accomplish," Howard said.
Some members of the Magic organization worry people will start speculating about Howard's future as soon as the postseason ends, if not sooner.
Martins said the team will try to sign Howard for the long-term.
And the recruitment process was scheduled to begin Thursday.
After the press conference ended.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun