ORLANDO, Fla. — As Dwight Howard stayed on the court ironing out his free throws and jump shooting, so many signs lingered around Amway Arena that suggested his return to Orlando will become anything but ordinary.
A media horde reserved for large markets and large sporting events surrounded the edge of the court. That’s why Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni couldn’t but resist at a jab.
“Earl Clark’s here if you want him,” D’Antoni said, referring to the Lakers’ emerging forward that was nothing but a throw-in in the Howard deal that Orlando shipped this offseason to the Lakers in a four-team, 12-player trade. Of course, everyone was waiting for Howard.
“This is the longest Dwight’s worked on his game after practice,” Lakers guard Steve Nash joked.
In fact, Howard often stays late after shootaround working on his free throws, conditioning and post moves. Even with the likely animosity that will greet him here tonight, Howard maintains he’ll keep the same mindset tonight against the Magic.
“I come in and do what I do every night,” Howard said. “That’s the only thing I can do. I just go out there and play. That’s the biggest thing. We’re playing great basketball. I want to continue to do that. We don’t have to do anything extra, just play the way we’re playing the last couple of games and come out here with a win.”
The Lakers (33-31) have won 17 of their last 22 games, but are currently out of the playoff picture considering the Utah Jazz (33-31) hold the season tie-breaker. Whether the Lakers catch more ground could hinge on how Howard handles his return to Orlando.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Howard said.
But he reiterated that his departure from the Orlando Magic had nothing to do with its supporters.
“I have nothing but love for the fans in Orlando,” Howard said. “They made me into the player I am today and I will be thankful for that. I came here a boy and left a man. It made a better person. Thank you to the fans supporting me even throguh the bad times, theres a lot ofpeople who supported me.”
Howard said he didn’t interact with fans, though, since arriving in Orlando on Monday afternoon in what marked his first time here since having surgery last April to treat a herniated disk in his back. Howard said he only ate at his favorite eatery Waffle House, though his favorite server named Ms. Marsha wasn’t there. Howard then said he stayed at his home in Semincole County, Fla.
But he hopes Magic fans views Howard’s eight-year career in Orlando beyond last season’s so-called “Dwightmare” that entailed constant twists and regarding his intentions to stay here. Howard won three NBA defensive player of the years, led Orlando to the 2009 NBA Finals, three division championships, two Eastern Conference Finals appearances and five playoff stints.
“We have a lot of great memories here,” Howard said. “It will never be taken away from me or from the people who supported us. I had eight great years and did a lot of great things. I saw a city go from a team where nobody was in the stands to we had a new arena and a packed house every night to see our team play.”
The Magic (18-46) are far from that picture these days.
Its massive rebuilding stemmed from the Howard trade features only three players from last year’s roster, including Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu.
“I haven’t really paid attention too much to ant other team but ours,” Howard said. “But Jameer is the last one here and other guys are hurt. I’m happy to see Jameer still playing.”
Moments later, eccentric Lakers forward Metta World Peace entered the media scrum and sat next to Howard, saying he wanted “TV time.”
“I’m going to promote my Twitter,” World Peace said. “I’m @MettaWorldPeace. I need a million followers.”
It’s unlikely Howard has such popularity in Orlando.
But he refused to “go back and forth,” as he put it regarding his departure and how he may have handled things differently.
“All that stuff is over with now,” Howard said. “Today is a new day. Whatever happened in the past, I’m going to leave behind me. I have nothing but love for the fans here. They treated me well. It didn’t end right. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end. But I’m in a better place. Everybody has to move on.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org