Howard ‘grew up here,’ fondly re­calls Or­lando

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS WEEKEND - By Chris Hays

From high above the floor Fri­day morn­ing, long­time se­cu­rity guard Marie yelled down to the play­ers and me­dia mem­bers con­gre­gat­ing around the Amway Arena court wait­ing for Dwight Howard to fin­ish up his prac­tice ses­sion with the Wash­ing­ton Wizards.

It’s been six years since Howard wore the blue and white pin­stripes of the Or­lando Magic, but they still haven’t for­got­ten the man who helped lead them to the 2009 NBA Fi­nals.

“Hi, Dwight,” hollered Marie, an arena se­cu­rity guard for the past 14 years dat­ing to the team’s time at the old O-Rena.

Howard looked up, and even way up in the cheap­seat sec­tion where Marie was mak­ing rounds he rec­og­nized the woman be­hind the voice.

“I’ve been know­ing her since I was a baby,” Howard laughed.

He was be­ing a bit face­tious, of course, but he was not al­to­gether in­cor­rect. Howard grew up as an NBA player in Or­lando, and he re­mem­bers the time as fondly as do those who watched him play. He still en­joys com­ing back and his chil­dren live here, so that’s an­other big pos­i­tive about vis­it­ing dur­ing the sea­son.

“It’s just like when you go back to your home­town as a kid. I grew up here … I think a lot of peo­ple saw me grow up,” Howard said. “Any­time we see each other it’s like, ‘Hey man, I re­mem­ber when you came here, you ate at our restau­rant.’ … A lot of times peo­ple send me pic­tures of me in that restau­rant or ho­tel and some­body took a pic­ture. … It’s cool. It’s an awe­some feel­ing.

“In my house in At­lanta, I have a lot of the pic­tures of the peo­ple here in Or­lando who made a big dif­fer­ence in my life. I just keep that with me … and I look at it al­most ev­ery day any­time I’m at home dur­ing the sum­mer. I look at the dif­fer­ent pic­tures and stuff of my time here in Or­lando.

“I have an op­por­tu­nity to see my kids while I’m here.”

And of course there were plenty of pic­tures and mem­o­ries made dur­ing that near-cham­pi­onship run that was de­railed by Kobe Bryant and the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers dur­ing five games in 2009.

“As far as bas­ket­ball, we al­ways talk about the team we that had here and how we were com­mit­ted to win­ning, how we were com­mit­ted to mak­ing this city bet­ter,” Howard said, “… How we were try­ing to change the per­cep­tion of the Or­lando Magic. When teams came, the fo­cus was, ‘Let’s go to Dis­ney or Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios and have some fun be­cause the Magic were gonna be easy.’ We wanted to change that.”

Howard parted ways with the Magic in 2012 as a free agent, sign­ing with the Lak­ers much like Shaquille O’Neal did to the dis­may of fans in 1996.

“I would never say any­thing bad about this team or this city, es­pe­cially this city. More so the city than the team,” Howard said. “I’ll al­ways be grate­ful for this or­ga­ni­za­tion, for this city. We went through some tough times to­gether and I re­ally got a chance to learn Or­lando, pretty much this whole area … not from just com­ing and play­ing games here, but just be­ing out in the com­mu­nity, do­ing dif­fer­ent events, the bar­be­cues we used to have just to get to know the fans.”

Howard re­mem­bered Magic head coach Steve Clif­ford back in that 2009 Fi­nals sea­son when Clif­ford was an as­sis­tant to Stan Van Gundy.

“You have Stan, who is a very an­i­mated coach, and then you have Cliff, who when he be­came a head coach, he be­came like a Stan, but when he was as­sis­tant coach, he was more so the quiet one,” Howard said. “Stan would be the one who was yelling and try­ing to get at you from that stand­point and with [Clif­ford], he just wanted to be that voice in your ear, ‘Hey, it’s OK, we’re gonna get it done.’ He’s one of those guys. Him and Stan com­ple­mented each other very well.”

Howard also talked briefly about con­ver­sa­tions he had with Magic rookie cen­ter Mo­hamed Bamba.

“He hit me up a few times ask­ing about the city of Or­lando,” Howard re­called. “He’s gonna be a very great player for this team, this city. I told him just to en­joy it, re­ally em­brace the com­mu­nity here, they’ll em­brace you back. I think he’s gonna be awe­some.”

JOHN RAOUX/AP

The Wash­ing­ton Wizards’ Dwight Howard, right, goes up for a shot against the Or­lando Magic’s Wes­ley Iwundu (25) on Fri­day at Amway Cen­ter. Howard started his ca­reer with the Magic and still has fond mem­o­ries of Or­lando.

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