SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The Orlando Magic are out of time waiting for Superman.
The trade deadline is here. And unless Dwight Howard changes his mind by Thursday afternoon, the franchise that lost Shaquille O'Neal could very well send packing another once-in-a-generation big man by the end of the day.
Howard lost Wednesday night what might have been his last game with Orlando. He told the front office before tipoff that he wants the right to be a free agent this summer, a decision that may weaken Orlando's hesitation to trade their superstar.
Howard wants the Magic to gamble that he'll stay, and not trade him by the 3 p.m. deadline.
"They took a chance on me at 18, when everybody else said, `No, don't do it,'" said Howard, whom the Magic drafted with the top pick out of high school in 2004. "They look stupid at first, but look now. It's the same situation. That's it. I understand their situation. I understand mine, too."
Neither general manager Otis Smith nor team president Alex Martins made the trip to Texas.
Coach Stan Van Gundy, hounded by questions all season about Howard's future, refused to entertain any more on the eve of the trade deadline.
"I don't even want to talk about it. It's so tiresome," Van Gundy said. "I've been dealing with this for three months. Nothing's fresh to me. Talk to somebody else about it."
Before losing 122-111 to the San Antonio Spurs, Howard called a players-only meeting. His teammates divulged few details about what was discussed, only that Howard reiterated his belief that the Magic are poised to contend for their first title this season.
Yet Howard is making no firm commitment to the Magic beyond that.
Magic spokesman George Galante confirmed that Howard informed the team before Wednesday night's game against the Spurs that he will not waive the early termination clause in his contact, which would have guaranteed Howard sticking around at least one more season.
Howard, who had 22 points and 12 rebounds, said he didn't know if he played his last game with the Magic.
"They know how I feel. I've expressed that to my teammates. I expressed that to the ownership. It's on them now," Howard said. "I've done my job. I haven't changed and despite whatever is being said, I'm still that same person. So, if you want to scrutinize me for taking care of Dwight, that's fine."
As the hours leading up to the trade deadline tick down, the Magic are looking for stronger assurances they can realistically hang onto the NBA's most dominant big man. If the Magic don't trade Howard, they risk the 26-year-old signing elsewhere and getting nothing in return for a perennial All-Star hitting his prime.
It's a scenario the franchise is loath to repeat after O'Neal did the same in 1996.
Howard asked the Magic to trade him before the season, but has since rescinded that request. He said after Tuesday's night overtime win against Miami that his change of heart wasn't new.
The Magic are 28-16 and 7 games behind first-place Chicago. Howard is averaging 21.2 points and a career-best 15.2 rebounds.
"They know how I feel about the city. I've sat down with them on numerous occasions and talked about what we can do together, but I can't do it all by myself," Howard said about his teammates. "You know, I want them to help. I want them to be involved with changing Orlando. That's always been my goal."
Provisions in the league's new collective bargaining agreement give the Magic the ability to offer Howard $30 million more than any other team if he becomes a free agent. Orlando can offer him a five-year contract extension with 7.5 percent annual raises, while other teams are tapped out at offering a four-year pact with only 4.5 percent raises.
"They took a chance on me at 18. And what did I do? I gave them everything I had for eight years," Howard said. "Take a chance again. I go out every night and play hard. If I didn't want to win, I would have dogged it. But that's not who I am. And look where we are. We're in a great position."
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