Reality hits the Magic and their fans Sunday in Mexico, square in the la cara (face).
The club will take the floor not only to officially begin their rebuilding process. But for the first time since 2004, the Magic will start a season with somebody in the middle not named Dwight Howard.
Say hola to the replacement centers.
Maybe it's just as well that the team's preseason opener is across the border and can only be seen on NBA TV on an NFL Sunday.
For some folks, this is going to take some getting used to, tough to digest.
No matter, the battle to inherit Dwight's spot is one of the most intriguing storylines this season.
The Magic tip off against the New Orleans Hornets at 2:30 p.m. in Mexico City with Mexico native Gustavo Ayon at center, wearing No. 19.
Coach Jacque Vaughn, in a classy gesture, awarded Ayon, 27, with the start to thrill the fans of his homeland.
But the guess here is that Nikola Vucevic, 21, a native of Montenegro, will start the regular season at Howard's old haunt.
The Magic like the 6-11 Vucevic's versatile offensive skill set. They view the 6-10 Ayon as an Energizer Bunny off the bench.
"I'm not here to replace Dwight," said Vucevic, who arrived in the mammoth Howard trade, through the Philadelphia 76ers. "Dwight's specific in his way. I'm totally different. I'm more of a skilled player with a high basketball IQ.
"I can shoot the ball and pass the ball. I think I do a lot of things fans won't see."
Vaughn was raving about Vucevic after Friday's morning practice/scrimmage, recalling how he made passes with his left and right hands for assists.
Vucevic comes from a basketball family. His father, Borislav, was a 6-6 star in Europe for 24 years. His mother, Ljiljana, 6-2, was a forward for the Yugoslavia national team.
Nikola gave up soccer to pursue basketball. Instead of staying in Europe as a teenager, he came to the U.S. to play in high school before starring at USC. The 76ers selected him at No. 16 in the 2011 draft.
"When you're 18, playing in Europe, you are playing against grown men and they don't play young guys," Vucevic said. "It's hard to get a chance to play."
After only four days of Camp Jacque, it's apparent that Vucevic and Ayon will share the position this season.
Vaughn said that Glen "Big Baby" Davis has been playing almost exclusively at power forward in practice. Davis backed up Howard last season and took over as the starter after Dwight sustained a season-ending back injury before the playoffs.
Davis played well in the Magic's postseason series loss to the Indiana Pacers. But the acquisitions of Ayon and Vucevic returns Big Baby to the 4, where he has played for most of his career.
J.J. Redick says the Magic are actually "deeper on the front line" than last season. And that's true, considering the club added veteran Al Harrington and rookie forwards Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn along with Ayon and Vucevic.
"I didn't expect to be traded, not at all," Vucevic said. "But I'm happy I'm here."
Shaq's act still plays
After all this time, everybody still falls for Shaq's Don Rickles act.
I mean, everyone: Shaq's intended target, the media, the fans.
O'Neal said when he broke into the league making outrageous statements and jabbing opponents that it was all "entertainment," like pro wrestling.
Shaq continues to throw barbs, especially Dwight Howard's way. He says Andrew Bynum and Brook Lopez (Brook Lopez!) are better offensive players than Dwight.
"I don't care what Shaq says," Howard said. "Shaq played the game and he is done. It's time to move on. He hated the fact when he played that older guys were talking about him and how he played. Now he's doing the exact same thing. Just let it go. There's no sense for him to be talking trash to me. He did his thing in the league. Sit back and relax. Your time is up."
Kobe: It's my team
It took one day for Kobe Bryant to remind Dwight Howard and the public just who has command of the Lakers. He does.
"I got a question earlier about whose team this is," Bryant said at Lakers' media day Monday.
"I don't want to get into the, 'Well, we share ...' No, it's my team. But I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his. I want to teach him everything I possibly know so that when I step away this organization can ride on as if I never left."
It's way too early to predict if Orlando's former alpha dog will happily take a back seat all season. Way back.
"I think learning from a guy like Kobe, I know he's going to be tough on me, but I expect that and I want him to do that," Dwight said. "So, I'll take all the heat that he's going to give me because I know at the end of the day that's going to make me a better player and a better person and it's going to make this team better."
This 'n' That
Former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy was set to accept an ESPN studio job, but then things fell apart. With the network and the NBA in bed together, could Commissioner David Stern have squashed outspoken Stan's gig, given their history? Stern must have figured two Van Gundys on TV would provide too much candor…. Fining NBA millionaires for flopping is silly. Call technicals, awarding the other team…Where was the NBA when Dwight was (flip-)flopping in Orlando last season?
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