All-Star Game puts focus on Orlando

Published 5:06 pm Saturday, February 25, 2012

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Orlando waited 20 years to host All-Star weekend again, and Dwight Howard wants nothing to spoil the party.

So forget that trade request, Magic fans. Ignore the rapidly approaching deadline for deals.

“All the other stuff can wait,” Howard said Friday. “I just want people to have fun and enjoy themselves. This is All-Star weekend. This is a time of celebration for guys who’ve had great first halves and guys who have never even seen this.”

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Jeremy Lin has been the NBA’s biggest story this month, but the focus shifted back to Howard, where it began this season, with the NBA’s midseason event in the city he insists he loves but wants to leave.

That meant a wall of reporters and cameras surrounding him, asking the same questions Carmelo Anthony was peppered with last year during All-Star Friday, just before his trade request from Denver was granted.

“Thank you, Dwight!” Anthony yelled when he spotted the swarm. “It’s your turn!”

Howard has asked for a trade, but he’s still here and there’s no telling for how much longer. The Magic could deal their center before the March 15 trade deadline, or hold onto him all season and risk losing him while getting nothing back in July.

Howard’s table was between Anthony and LeBron James, two of the league’s best-known stars. Yet neither had anywhere near the attention of Howard, and Anthony was glad to yield the spotlight after his status overshadowed last year’s festivities in Los Angeles.

“I’m glad it’s not me anymore,” Anthony said.

James went through the free agency circus the season before, and acknowledged that it wore on him.

“Yeah, absolutely,” James said. “I know exactly what he’s going through. It’s a tough situation but he’s going to handle it. He’s a man. He’s going to handle it. He’s going to do what’s best for him.”

Lin wasn’t forgotten, even after James and the Heat on Thursday forced him into the worst game since he became the Knicks’ starter earlier this month. Many All-Stars were asked about Lin, who was playing only in Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge featuring rookies and second-year players yet was given his own evening press conference to accommodate the large media interest.

Howard said every time he watches TV, he sees something about Lin, the NBA’s first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. He was asked if there was anything that could stop the undrafted guard from Harvard.

“Uh, he hasn’t gone up against the Great Wall of Orlando yet,” Howard said.

This wall may be moveable.

The Magic have given Howard’s agent permission to discuss deals with the Nets, Lakers and Dallas Mavericks, and there was plenty of speculation he could be dealt even before the season began, just as Chris Paul was.

That would have created an awkward All-Star reunion.

Howard literally towers over this city, his face pictured on billboards overlooking the interstate and on a giant Adidas ad high atop the outside of the Amway Center. This region caters to visitors, but didn’t have to consider how it would have welcomed Howard.

“I’m here, so it doesn’t matter what would’ve or should’ve happened,” he said. “But you know I’m here and we want to have a great time. I’m looking forward to all the events and showing everybody my city.”

With its new arena in just its second season, Orlando is hosting the All-Star game for the first time since 1992, one of the NBA’s most memorable. Magic Johnson won MVP honors only a few months following his retirement after contracting the HIV virus.

Even Shaquille O’Neal, who has been critical of Howard in the past, says he hopes the MVP this time goes to Howard. O’Neal started his career with the Magic before bolting as a free agent, and he said recently it would be a “travesty” if Howard leaves.

If fans fear Howard following Shaq’s path, he said they never tell him.

“Whatever you decide to do, we’re behind you 100 percent,” they say, according to Howard.

“They’ve been great,” Howard added. “Despite what people may say or think, the fans here have always been great to me. I really appreciate it. They’ve showed me nothing but love from Day 1 and I’ve done the same thing. This city means a lot to me.”

Howard said he was looking forward to playing this weekend with James, Anthony and Dwyane Wade, who join league MVP Derrick Rose in the powerful Eastern Conference starting lineup.

The West is an L.A. story, with Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum of the Lakers joining the Clippers’ Paul and Blake Griffin. Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant rounds out the first five.

The All-Star weekend would have been in jeopardy had the lockout lasted much longer. An agreement was reached during Thanksgiving weekend and the season opened on Christmas, allowing for a 66-game schedule.

The play has been sloppy and injuries have piled up as players navigate a schedule that forced them to play on three straight nights for the first time since 1999, following the last work stoppage. All the All-Stars said they were eager to be here, even though many probably would benefit from the rest.

And Wade said ugly play won’t be a problem Sunday night.

“I think Sunday is going to be great,” he said. “I think players are obviously with all these games, the body is feeling a little certain way right now. We’re going to enjoying this break, but Sunday’s going to be just competitive. It’s going to be exciting for the fans to watch.”


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