ORLANDO, Fla. -- Responding to speculation that he wants to jump to a bigger market when he can became a free agent next year, superstar center Dwight Howard indicated Monday that his strong preference is to remain with the Orlando Magic for the long term.
"I'm not trying to run behind nobody like Shaq or be behind somebody else," Howard said, referencing Shaquille O'Neal's decision to leave the Magic following the 1995-96 season and sign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I want to start my own path and I want people to follow my path and not just follow somebody else's path. I want to have my own path, and I want to start that here in Orlando. But I can't do it alone. Not only do I need the right teammates, but I need the city behind me. That's the only way it's going to get done. We can change this small city that we have -- this small market that we have -- and we can make it a big market."
Howard made his comments in a one-on-one interview with the Orlando Sentinel during a free barbecue that he held for fans Monday afternoon at Bill Frederick Park at Turkey Lake. Howard came up with the idea for the event around 1 a.m. Monday; one of his goals, he said, was to ease fans' concerns that he might leave the team.
Howard's current contract with the Magic runs through the 2012-13 season. But Howard can terminate the deal one year early and become a free agent during the summer of 2012.
On Monday, Howard stopped short of saying that he will remain with the team for the long haul.
Indeed, Orlando's first-round playoff defeat last month appeared to show that Howard needs a better supporting cast for the Magic to be a true title contender. The early postseason exit reignited speculation that Howard would want to leave the team and join a franchise that boasts another superstar.
But Howard said Monday that he has not told the Magic front office that he has any plans or desire to leave the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2004.
"As of right now, I'm a part of the Orlando Magic and I plan to be here," Howard said.
"And I want the Magic to do whatever they can to make sure that we can get our city behind us. That's the only thing that I want to happen: just to have the city behind me and the support of our fans. I never said I was leaving. I never, ever thought about leaving. That's basically where my head is right now. I never said anything to them (the Magic) about what my plans were because that's not what I'm focused on right now."
He already has a busy summer planned.
In addition to traveling to Europe and Asia on adidas promotional tours and to Africa to donate a school, Howard said he plans to hire a shooting coach to help him improve his midrange game and his notoriously poor free-throw shooting.
Last year, Howard spent a few days in Texas working on his footwork and low-post moves with former Houston Rockets all-star Hakeem Olajuwon. Howard wants to work with Olajuwon more extensively this summer.
"I just want to become better," Howard said. "I want to win a championship. I just felt bad losing in the first round and I just want to make sure that our team has a chance to win a championship next year."
At least several hundred people, including Magic guard Gilbert Arenas, attended Monday's barbecue, which was publicized only on Twitter.
Howard paid for the food, guests' parking and for supervision by local police officers.
"He does not want to leave Orlando," said Howard's manager, Kevin Samples. "You don't do stuff like this and be ready to go. If you're ready to go, you go ahead and go and start taking meetings and stuff like that. This is home for us. It's been seven years. We want to stay here."