Dwight Howard adopts villain label shed by Miami Heat’s LeBron James

LeBron James has become a lousy bad guy. Championship redemption fits him; if one can wear a crown humbly, he has. Relaxed, smiling (but never gloating), he emotes warmly with Oprah and joshes gently with David Letterman — whose audience gave him a standing ovation. Now, critics and foes who remain will further thin and be disarmed as James proudly wins gold for the United States in the summer’s London Olympics.

Booing LeBron, Vindicated Hero, American Patriot, is out of favor now. It’s like heckling a nun. Maybe in parts of Cleveland they’d still heckle a nun, but that’s about it.

Clearly America needs a new sports villain.

Sure, aging love-to-hate athletes such as Alex Rodriguez and Kobe Bryant are still around, and so are retired, vintage villains such as Barry Bonds. But we need fresh blood! A new up-and-coming villain offering fresh evidence of reprobate tendencies.

Luckily one is waiting, a perfect candidate.

Welcome, Dwight Howard.

LeBron is happy to hand you the dubious baton that was his for two years, and surely you are a worthy successor to national disdain. Visiting arenas across the NBA await you with vitriol and animus. Orlando? It’s the New Cleveland. Magic fans now call you their “Dwightmare.” Hero to hatred can be such a dizzyingly short hop, can’t it?

James had The Decision.

Howard has had “The Indecision,” months and months of waffling and conflicting intentions that have torn apart Orlando and turned fans against him. In terms of public image the Magical powers have left the player who calls himself Superman. Dwight still has one of sports’ great smiles, but now you see deceit and disingenuousness behind it.

While Miami spends this free agency period quietly trying to lure Ray Allen into a Heat uniform, Orlando tries to figure the best way to save face in the mess Howard has orchestrated.

James’ villain’s résumé was writ over a month’s free agency in 2010 culminating in one infamously misplayed departure from his old team.

Howard’s villain’s cred has unfolded more gradually and hasn’t been as neat.

For sure, nothing about how Dwight is leaving Orlando has been neat.

Starting in December and all last season Howard, 26 — the league’s best center and probably next-best all-round player to LeBron — harped to be traded. But that suddenly seemed less likely in March when, just before the trade deadline, Howard agreed to forgo his early termination option, meaning he would not be a free agent this summer, instead remaining in Orlando at least another season and perhaps much longer.

It seemed to be a recommitment to the Magic.

Orlando fans were thrilled. Instantly his sneaker company trotted out a line of Dwight Howard T-shirts that trumpeted the word, loyalty.

About the same time Howard trotted out a line of bull to, saying: “Man, listen, you know my heart, my soul and everything I have is in Orlando,” he said of his eight-year NBA home. “I just can’t leave it behind. I apologize for this circus I have caused to the fans of our city. They didn’t deserve none of this. I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart. I will do whatever I can to make this right and do what I was put in Orlando to do.”

He meant win a championship.

That was just before Mr. Loyalty was reported by ESPN to have claimed the team “blackmailed” him in March into waiving his option to become a free agent this summer. Howard approached the NBA players association about possible legal recourse.

“The Indecision” was back in play again.

Apparently Dwight wanted out again.

Sidelined late in the season by back surgery, Howard plied leverage behind the scenes, maneuvering to get a quality head coach who deserved better, Stan Van Gundy, fired. In an extraordinary news conference on April 5, the always-honest Van Gundy stated flatly someone in management told him Howard wanted him fired.

On May 21, Van Gundy was fired.

The implication was that the sought-after coaching change might coax Howard to sign a contract extension and remain in Orlando.

But that was before late last week, when Howard not only reiterated his trade demand but reportedly insisted he be traded only to the Brooklyn ( nee New Jersey) Nets. No matter that Howard has no clause in his contract that allows him to say where he could be traded. And no matter that such a specific demand ruins Orlando’s bargaining power to get the best deal for itself.

The thing is, the Nets show indications of moving on past a possible Howard trade. They hope to re-sign free agent point guard Deron Williams to a maximum contract and re-signed forward Gerald Wallace to a four-year $40 million deal.

Other teams interested in Howard with the wherewithal to acquire him — Rockets and Lakers, maybe Warriors or Mavericks — might naturally be dissuaded to spend big to rent Howard for one season before he then would become a free agent, especially knowing he preferred to play elsewhere.

So what have we?

The repercussions of Howard’s one-man drama, “The Indecision,” have decimated the Magic, playing a role in the departure of 17 front-office folks from the CEO to the general manager to the coach.

And now comes the possibility that Howard could be back for one more season with the team he helped ruin, an unwilling superstar in a city he demands to leave, a formerly beloved player now scorned by fans.

Not even Superman is strong enough to make this botchery go away.

Meanwhile, LeBron James just looks better and better, not only as a champion, but by comparison.

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