It seems like only yesterday that Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard was among the NBA's most popular superstars. A lovable giant with an electric smile and fun-filled personality, Howard was one of the league's "good guys."
But then this season turned into a drawn-out soap opera, As Dwight Turns, with Howard vacillating between wanting to stay and wanting to leave. He made a last-minute decision at trade deadline in late March, deciding to stick around for at least one more year, with no guarantee that the scenario won't be repeated next season.
Instead of a decrease in drama after Howard signed the necessary paperwork, the adventure continued and the dysfunction escalated. Two weeks ago embattled coach Stan Van Gundy confirmed reports that Howard told management that he wants the coach fired. Then Howard tried to save face in a TV interview but did himself no favors by admitting that he has requested Van Gundy's firing in the past.
Howard went from being the face of the NBA to being a lower body part on the opposite side. The bottom fell out Thursday, one week before the playoffs begin, when an Orlando TV station reported that Howard won't play for Van Gundy anymore. Other media outlets shot down the report, but the damage was done in the court of public opinion. He was ripped for being a quitter and would-be coach killer.
But as it turns out, Howard can't play anyway. He underwent surgery Friday for a herniated disk in his back that has sidelined him since April 7.
"After consulting with the two doctors, it's in his best interests to have surgery sooner rather than later," Magic General Manager Otis Smith told the Orlando Sentinel. "Basically, the situation is not getting better. I'm not saying it got worse. It's just not getting better."
Howard's camp had been adamant in maintaining that the center wanted to return for the playoffs, which made the disputed TV report so odd. But since Howard had flip-flopped all season on staying or leaving, he didn't have much credibility with fans and media. At least the back operation proves that he's not dogging it to avoid playing for Van Gundy.
"It hurts [emotionally]," Howard told ESPN about having surgery. "That's the first thing — it hurts. And then with people saying and thinking I'm quitting on my team. This is a real issue. I tried to play through it, and it just made my back worse."
Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, said that it was ridiculous to suggest that Howard's back problem wasn't serious and he was using it as an excuse. "Dwight has never laid down once in his entire career," Fegan said. "It's absurd that some publicly, and others privately, speculated that Dwight was laying down or quitting. In fact, he was working his hardest to play through an injury which now requires surgery."
As one Orlando columnist wrote: "Never before has an aching back done so much to heal an ailing image."