By Josh Robbins, Orlando Sentinel
5:46 PM EDT, October 15, 2013
HOUSTON — Dwight Howard knows what people think.
In Central Florida, many people who once adored him now regard him as a villain because he forced the Orlando Magic to trade him in 2012. In Southern California, many call him a "coward" because he left the Los Angeles Lakers via free agency and signed with the Houston Rockets.
But here's the thing: Even though he still cares what people think, he didn't let that stop him from doing what will make him happiest.
Houston, he said, is the best place for him, and when he chose the Rockets, he didn't repeat the mistakes he made during his painful, drawn-out final year with the Magic.
"Everybody's saying I was a 'coward' for leaving [the Lakers], and I knew I was going to get that," Howard said Tuesday. "But I think with the situation I had to do what was best for Dwight.
"I know when I wanted to leave Orlando, and I decided to stay, I wasn't happy on the inside. I wanted to please everybody else and ended up hurting a lot of people by doing it the way I did. So, this time it's like I had a second chance.
"I said, 'You know what? People are going to hate me for whatever reason, so I can't allow that to stop me from making my decision.' I thought that my decision took a lot of guts because everybody's saying, 'How could you leave the Lakers and six billion fans?' But I don't care about being an outcast or about being somebody that may look bad. All I've got to do is win now, and I'm in the right situation."
On Wednesday night, Howard and the Rockets will face the Magic in a preseason exhibition.
Some of the old hurts seem to have faded for Howard and the Magic.
Of the four franchises that participated in the blockbuster Aug. 2012 trade that sent Howard to L.A., the Magic are the only team to still have any tangible, long-term assets from that deal. Orlando netted center Nik Vucevic, swingman Maurice Harkless, swingman Arron Afflalo and several protected future draft picks.
Still, Howard's departure sent the Magic on a clear rebuilding path — a complete teardown that left Orlando with the NBA's worst record last season.
"I would say they did some good things," Howard said of the Magic.
"They're very young right now. Once those guys learn how to play the game and grow into their games, they'll be fine."
Howard expressed regret for how he handled his departure from the Magic. He alluded to his decision on March 15, 2012, to waive a clause in his contract that would've allowed him to become a free agent during the summer of 2012.
Everything collapsed shortly after that.
On April 5, 2012, coach Stan Van Gundy, answering a direct question, acknowledged after a Magic shootaround that Howard wanted him fired. The situation devolved into one of the most bizarre moments in team history when Howard, not knowing what Van Gundy had said minutes earlier, walked into a media scrum and put his arm around Van Gundy.
The situation — and Magic executives' decision not to defend him — infuriated Howard.
In the weeks that followed, Howard had surgery in Southern California to repair a herniated disk in his lower back and remove disk fragments.
In May, Van Gundy was fired.
The Magic traded Howard after Howard continued to insist on a trade and Howard's camp intimated that Howard might not show up for training camp if he was still on the Magic.
Despite public statements to the contrary, Howard wasn't happy with the Lakers, either. He didn't mesh with Kobe Bryant, wished the Lakers had hired Phil Jackson instead of Mike D'Antoni and was hampered by his back and a shoulder injury.
"There were some things that I missed about Orlando," Howard said. "There's a lot of situations that nobody really knows that I kept on the inside, but there's some things about Orlando that I missed. I'd say that getting out in the community and doing a lot of stuff that I did, I miss doing that stuff in Orlando and the relationships that I built with a lot of people over there in Orlando. I miss that.
"But I have no regrets. I'm happy everything happened the way it happened. Even though I got hurt in the process and I had to go through a tough time, it made me a better person. I'm more mature now. I know how to handle situations different than I did back then."
Howard views the Rockets as a championship contender.
He thinks Houston has similar talent to the 2008-09 Magic squad he led to the NBA Finals.
On Tuesday, Howard compared Rockets small forward Chandler Parsons to Hedo Turkoglu and Rockets shooting guard James Harden to Courtney Lee but also added that Harden has more scoring ability. He compared Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley to Rafer Alston and Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin to Anthony Johnson.
Howard said he was disappointed that, last February, after the Magic acquired Tobias Harris in a trade, the team granted Harris' request to wear No. 12, Howard's old number.
"I just think that despite whatever happened, there was a lot of things that I did and that we did as a team, and that number was special down there," Howard said. "And I was a little bit upset about that."
(Howard likely didn't know, and perhaps still doesn't know, that Harris wanted to wear No. 12 as a tribute to a close friend who had died of leukemia at 17 years old.)
Still, Howard indicated he's focused more on the present than the past.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Houston TV reporter asked Howard whether he's a true Texan now.
Howard responded he has a cowboy hat at his new home and some chaps to wear over jeans. He added he plans to order some cowboy boots in his size.
The reporter asked if Howard will wear that outfit one day.
"I'll say this," Howard responded. "If we're in The Finals, I'll wear my outfit to the game. And I'll wear it after we win."
email@example.com. Read his blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/magicblog and follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaBRobbins.
Copyright © 2014, Orlando Sentinel