PORTLAND, Ore. — When Dwight Howard's trade request became public, the superstar center pledged he would play as hard as he could and remain focused while he remained with the Orlando Magic.
It appears Howard has kept that promise.
The win Sunday over the Sacramento Kings provided a case in point.
Midway through the third quarter, Howard sat on the Magic bench with four fouls, no points and no rebounds and his team trailing 70-66. Howard could have tuned out, but he didn't. When Glen Davis drew a charge against J.J. Hickson, Howard jumped off his seat as if a bungee cord had pulled him upward. Howard pumped his right fist.
"The only thing that I can control is how I play and how I respond to my teammates and how I treat them," Howard said before the game tipped off. "You can go around the room and ask the guys how I've been this year. I think I've been more vocal and a better leader on and off the court for my teammates."
The way Howard and his teammates interact always has been a critical Magic storyline, but never more than this season. With his trade request on the table, with speculation rampant about his future, the situation could have devolved quickly into dysfunction. But it has not.
"He's obviously in — all-in and committed — and wants the team to do well, playing his [butt] off," coach Stan Van Gundy said. "He's been great with the other guys. He couldn't be any better. The issue's still there. It's still there. And we all know it's still there. But in the meantime, you've got to play."
More difficult tests loom ahead.
Although Orlando have started its season 6-3, each win came against teams that have losing records. And in two of the losses, the Magic lost convincingly to elite teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Chicago Bulls.
The schedule will grow tougher Wednesday night, when the Magic face the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden, the site of one of Orlando's ugliest losses last season. After his team fell 97-83 on Dec. 9, 2010, in Portland, Howard could not contain his frustration, saying, "Until everybody steps up on the team and mans up, then teams are going to throw their best punch at us and we're going to fold."
Van Gundy insists he has spoken just once with Howard about Howard's long-term future. Van Gundy said he explained to Howard that he would not try to recruit Howard and that he would leave the issue between Howard's agent and the Magic front office.
The situation also was discussed once in a team meeting before the regular season started, but that was part of a larger discussion about how everyone would attempt to deal with distractions.
"I know it's harder than most, but the bottom line is that every team in this league is facing some issue, some sort of distraction," Van Gundy said after the win over Sacramento.
"So you can either make excuses about that and get distracted about it, or you can overcome it. Now, ours is a little tougher because it's drawn a lot of attention, and it's not like your ninth man being [ticked] off about playing time."
So far, the Magic appear have overcome the distraction.
Howard always has been someone who can get distracted temporarily. His outgoing nature practically compels him to interact with fans, even during games.
On Jan. 1, in the middle of the third quarter of the Magic's home game against the Toronto Raptors, Howard responded to a heckler after teammate Jason Richardson was fouled by DeMar DeRozan.
As Richardson stood at the foul line, Richardson interjected by saying calmly, "Hey. Us. Us."
And Howard immediately regained his focus.
Howard played the entire fourth quarter — scoring six points, collecting four rebounds and blocking two shots in the period — as Orlando overcame a 13-point deficit.
Howard kept his pledge.
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