ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — When Magic star Dwight Howard signed a contract extension in 2007, he joked that he and Mickey Mouse would be in Orlando forever.
Now Howard wants out, putting one of the NBA’s most dominant big men on the block at the start of training camp.
Howard acknowledged for the first time Saturday that he has formally requested a trade. It came a day after the team granted New Jersey, Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers permission to talk to Howard’s agent, Dan Fegan, about possible deals.
The All-Star center is eligible to opt out of his current contract in July 2012.
Wearing a retro Magic hat, Howard spent a stoic half-hour explaining his reasoning and expressed empathy for a fan base that had to watch Shaquille O’Neal depart for the Lakers in 1996. Howard likened his trade request to a divorce that only one party wants.
“I’ve done everything for this city. I don’t think people understand the magnitude of love I have just for this city,” he said. “It’s beyond basketball. I think people, anybody should understand that. For me this has just not been a city I enjoy playing basketball in. I love everybody here, that’s why it’s been so tough.”
He said the decision went deeper than what happened on the court, but also said recent playoff disappointments played a role. He alluded to the hurt he felt as he watched the Lakers celebrate their 2009 NBA championship on the Magic’s home floor.
“I’ve been back and forth,” he said. “Mainly because the people here really care for the city. Nobody’s gonna understand that. And if you hate me because of a jersey, then you never really loved me. That’ how I feel.”
Magic general manager Otis Smith said he would still like to see Howard eventually decide to stay in Orlando, but in the meantime they would explore options that were in the best interests of the Magic.
“When you invest seven years in a player and that’s what he decides, then you have to deal with that from that angle. But it’s not the end of the world,” Smith said. “Like I said before, the Orlando Magic franchise is what it’s about. We like to make this into an individual game, but the fact of the matter is it’s a team sport. And we’ll continue to move forward. ”
Smith said there is no timetable or deadline for a trade. Likewise, he said he hasn’t allowed himself to get caught up on how the team might adjust if Howard does depart.
“Anytime you lose the best player on your team you have to adjust to that,” Smith said.
Talk of Howard’s possible departure from Orlando exploded Friday after the center denied an ESPN report that he met with Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and general manager Billy King on Thursday in Miami without the Magic’s permission. It followed reports that Howard planned to request a trade to the Nets.
Fegan said in a statement that any claims of tampering are false.
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said the team is going about business as usual, despite the circus-like atmosphere that has surrounded the franchise over the past two days.
Van Gundy said Howard’s approach and demeanor in practice were the same on Saturday.
“I think again, it’s not an easy situation,” Van Gundy said. “But just like I’m doing I’d like our other players to do — stay out of it. My issue is to go out and coach the guys that are here every day, which includes Dwight. And their issue is to come out and focus and play basketball every day.”
Howard said he thought about the situation all summer and spoke to Magic CEO Alex Martins again on Saturday about it. He declined to go into specifics on those discussions or what he said when he originally conveyed the news to Smith.
“The last couple of weeks before training camp were very tough,” Howard said. “Just stressed out about it. Got sick, couldn’t sleep. It was a very stressful time. After I said what I said to Otis, got it out — I started feeling better.”
Howard maintains his decision was multifaceted and came down to feeling he didn’t have an ideal situation to pursue an NBA title.
Specifically, Howard said overall he didn’t feel satisfied with the talent around him and he would like to be in the kind of personnel input he said Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki enjoys.
“If Dirk told (Dallas owner) Mark (Cuban) ‘Hey, I think this is the direction our team is going, this is what we need in the locker room and these are the kind of players we need,’ I think Mark would listen,” Howard said. “That doesn’t mean Mark has to say, OK, we’ll make a rash decision. But I think he would listen and really found out what the player needs around him in order to win.”
Smith said the team’s free agency approach also hasn’t changed since Howard’s request.
He said the team is close to working out a deal to retain shooting guard Jason Richardson, who is eligible for free agency.
“Actually Jason and I are close to terms, with Dan (Fegan) we are close to terms,” he said. “He’s expected in camp if not tomorrow, then Monday.”
The Magic are waiting on final paperwork before finalizing a trade that will send Brandon Bass to Boston in exchange for Glen Davis. They also are working on a separate deal to acquire guard Von Wafer, who spent time playing in Europe this summer.
Once that paperwork is complete, they too will begin practicing with the Magic. According to Davis’ Twitter account, he is already in Florida.
Along with the recent developments with Howard, Smith also had what he called a tough meeting with former Magic guard Gilbert Arenas on Friday.
The Magic decided to use the new amnesty provision in the recently ratified labor agreement that allows teams a one-time option to waive a player’s remaining contract from the salary cap and luxury tax.
After coming over from the Washington Wizards in a trade for Rashard Lewis last season, the 29-year-old Arenas struggled to make an impact in Orlando. He had about $62 million remaining on the final three years of his six-year, $111 million deal.
“It was rough, it was rough,” said Smith, who has been close to Arenas for years. “It was rough to come out of my mouth and it was rough for him to receive it.”
But the biggest story for the Magic continues to be Howard.
“I’ve been here since I was 18,” Howard said. “All I know is Orlando. All I know is this city. When I got down here it was the biggest place in the world to me. … That’s why it’s tough. Very tough.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.