When Dwight Howard declared during preseason that the Magic could "go all the way" and win a championship this season, the good people of Orlando accepted the devout man's word as gospel. They didn't bother to consider that Howard, despite his 6-11, 265-pound bigness and natural baritone, was all of 20 at the time. Or that he couldn't possibly know what it takes to "go all the way," having never been to the playoffs. Or that he is just as likely to be walking around the locker room imitating Mufasa from "The Lion King."
You can't expect rational thought from a one-team town that has been waiting for a taste of glory as long as Orlando has -- not to mention one that was once teased by another rising young big man. This is, after all, home to Fantasyland. "People see me in the street and tell me, 'Thank you for saying you're going to bring us a championship!'" says Howard, eyes widening. "I'm like, 'Oh, wow. I have to be careful what I say.'"
It's not as if he has shrunk from the expectations. Howard has followed his over-the-top pronouncement with an equally incredible early-season performance: double-doubles in 12 of the first 17 games, including three 20-point/20-rebound games in 10 nights. Not coincidentally, the Magic are perched atop the Southeast Division.
"That boy," says Wizards forward Antawn Jamison, "has become a man."
If only it were true. This is a guy who, if he isn't taking on the persona of a Disney character, might mime the facial expressions of his coach in the huddle. Heed the words of Dwight Sr., who talks with the no-nonsense edge you'd expect from a Georgia state trooper: "His game is
coming, but I don't think he has a great understanding of what it takes to lead a group of men."
MAGIC MANAGEMENT, for its part, has been cautious about making too much of Howard too soon. They've been burned before, by other disastrous rushes to prove there is life after Shaq, who skipped to Hollywood in 1996 after two deep playoff runs that included the '95 NBA Finals. But given Howard's 7-6 wingspan and vertical leap of 39 inches, keeping their big man under wraps has become increasingly difficult. And Howard's new Eastern Conference Player
of the Month award and cartoonish muscles lead inevitably to comparisons to the Big You Know Who.
In fact, the similarities only begin there. Both of the No. 1 picks are prone to outrageous off-the-cuff declarations. Shaq has an army sergeant
for a stepfather; Howard's dad patrols highways. Shaq adopted a comic-book hero, Superman, as an alter ego; Howard has thrown in with that wise, if animated, lion. Shaq's free throw woes are legendary; Howard's career mark is a wobbly 63.1 percent. And during home-game introductions on the JumboTron, every Magic player is stern-faced -- except Howard. His big grin is vintage Shaq Daddy.
"You can easily make the parallel," concedes Magic GM Otis Smith. "What Dwight is going to do for the team and the city hasn't been done since Shaq left."
Coach Brian Hill, who also had the young Shaq, isn't quite ready to buy in. He'll admit Howard is a more complete player than O'Neal but says O'Neal, unlike Howard, was ready to carry the team when he arrived. "Shaq was a big kid," Hill says, "but when he walked onto the court, he was mature."
Problem is, by Magic fans' internal clocks, Howard already owes them one: Shaq took them to the playoffs in his second season and this is Howard's third. Never mind that Shaq had three seasons at LSU, while Howard arrived straight out of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. Or that Shaq had a young Penny and an established Horace Grant, while Howard is counting on Grant Hill to stay healthy for the first time in seven years and the overdue breakout of Darko Milicic
Patience? Didn't the kid finish second in the league in rebounding (12.5) and sixth in shooting percentage (.531) last season? Didn't he lead the Magic to a 16-6 finish, the best 22-game closing run in team history? Didn't he spend the summer creating a name for himself with Team USA? Didn't Shaq himself anoint Howard the league's next dominant big man?
Yes, yes, yes and yes. But this is also a guy who was a ghost for most of his rookie season because then-coach Johnny Davis issued strict orders not to give the kid the ball until he earned his touches. And last season, opponents game-planned to stop Steve Francis -- until he was traded to the Knicks -- because, according to Coach Hill, they still "had to teach Dwight the game."
Even Howard's magnificent closing stretch came with teams playing him straight up, and, as Smith says, "those days are over."
So don't tell anyone in Orlando, and particularly in the 65,000 households who tuned in to watch the season opener -- the largest TV audience in four years -- that they need to reset their clocks. They probably don't want to hear that Howard is even younger than advertised, either.
Howard is in that gray area unique to a very select group of young NBA players: a multimillionaire franchise cornerstone who is barely out of his teens. But Howard's gray area is a particular one. His parents pay his bills and call the plumber from their home in Atlanta when their son's sink backs up in Orlando.
"DWIGHT IS 20 going on 14," says Grant Hill.
To be fair, it's not a hot-wire-a-car-and-steal-a-case-of-beer 14. More like a boogie-in-team-huddles and mimic-Coach-Hill's-pursed-lips 14. Still, Howard is in that gray area unique to a very select group of young NBA players: a multimillionaire franchise cornerstone who is barely out of his teens. But Howard's gray area is a particular one. His parents pay his bills and call the plumber from their home in Atlanta when their son's sink backs up in Orlando. Howard has a live-in personal assistant, a chef, his own house and six cars -- an Infiniti sedan, a BMW 745, a Mercedes S550, a Ford Excursion, a Crown Victoria and a 1965 Ford Galaxie -- but his parents still sign off on all his major purchases. A hard-knock lifer might be better conditioned to swim among the league's sharks than this private-school prepster who was raised by a schoolteacher and a police officer.
The private consensus among the Magic is that Howard can't be a team leader until he is king of his own castle. And Dwight Sr. isn't convinced he's ready for that yet. "Just because you're in a man's world doesn't make you a man," he says of his son, who turned 21 on Dec. 8. Teammates know they have to help curb the kid's more juvenile tendencies. While Hill, the seven-time All-Star and five-time All-Pro, is the team's natural leader for now, point guard Jameer Nelson, Howard's guidepost, is angling hard to be next in line. Drafted 19 picks behind Howard in 2004 after four high-profile years at
St. Joe's, Nelson is already the father of two and engaged to be married. When he organized an off-season paintball tournament back home in Philadelphia, more than a half dozen teammates showed. Howard was in Japan with Team USA, but Nelson text-messaged him daily to remind him to make his presence felt and not to defer to the more accomplished stars.
Team USA may have left Japan with only a bronze medal, but the chance to play with and against the LeBrons and Carmelos and D-Wades scored Howard something infinitely more valuable: a clearer understanding of his place in the basketball universe. "At first, you could tell he was in awe of those guys," said Spurs forward Bruce Bowen, the last player cut from the squad. "By the end, he knew he was every bit as good as anybody on that team." Nelson hammered Howard about making sure he brought that dominance back through customs. It's on us, he typed.
Howard wasted no time laying claim to his elite place among the league's big men. In the Magic's first game of the season, he abused the Bulls in general and four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace in particular, with 27 points and 11
rebounds. Then there was that spike of a Ben Gordon teardrop heave in which hand met ball somewhere near the top of the backboard. "He shocked all of us, to be honest," says P.J. Brown. "He came back bigger and better. He's scary."
But sometimes he's just goofy. Two days later, shortly before facing the 76ers, Mufasa, a.k.a. Howard, swooped down on Nelson in the locker room and snatched a lozenge from his hand. "I told you to stay away from that!" he growled in his best James Earl Jones. "Now I'm dead. I'm in the clouds, talking to you, Simba. Why?"
Hill paused in his pregame preparations and shook his head. "Romper Room," he said. No one is a bigger believer in Howard's future than Hill, but no one is more aware of how talent is just one of the ingredients necessary to lead a team. By the time the game with the Sixers had ended, Howard was a little more aware of that himself.
"We had the longest, slowest shootaround ever," said Philly sniper Kyle Korver, "and we didn't talk about anybody except him." An array of double-teams led to six turnovers, and an overall loss of focus contributed to Howard's missing five free throws. His subpar
performance was a big reason for a 105-103 loss. "I wasn't sure what to do," Howard admitted.
Two days later, in a rare Sunday tip-off, he faced the Hawks in Atlanta, his home. His mother was recovering from a hysterectomy, and 100 friends and family members were on hand to see him resume his rivalry with fellow Atlanta native Josh Smith -- the combination threw him off as badly as Philly's defense had. After a four-turnover, foul-plagued first half, he pleaded with Joey Crawford, the league's most cantankerous ref, "Can't we just have some fun?"
Not this day. After three straight second-half possessions with no plays run for him, Howard's shoulders slumped. When he got a three-second call as Pat Garrity struggled to find a passing lane to him, Howard barked, "Just throw it!" When Hill ignored him on another post-up, he shouted in exasperation. Hill then tried to make up for it, but Howard didn't come to the ball, and the pass was stolen. Now Hill punched the air
in frustration. During a timeout, the coach snapped at Howard to get his head in the game. "Everybody's got to get into the game!" his young star snapped back.
"If he's not free, his game won't flow," said a courtside Dwight Sr. after his son had more turnovers (five) than field goals (three) and the Hawks strolled to a win. "The little grin, the dancing, he needs that. All game he was trying to catch up with it."
AFTER BRIAN Hill promised to cut the minutes of anyone who let his offensive success dictate his defensive effort during a game the next night against the Wizards, Howard took one shot in the first quarter and cleared five rebounds. Final line: seven points, 14 rebounds and a season-high five blocks, including two demoralizing rejections of Gilbert Arenas at the rim, all vital to a 106-103 win. "He's going to have his bad nights," says veteran Tony Battie, "but he's going to give you a lot more good ones."
As Howard's teammates see it, although he's got Mufasa's voice down, in all other respects he's still Simba -- mocking his elders, baring his fangs only when the mood strikes, sometimes shirking the weight that comes with great talent. "I'm in his ear going into the fourth quarter, saying, 'You've got to take us home,'" Grant Hill says. "The day will come when I won't have to tell him that."
There's no real reason to believe it won't. Howard's vices are purely innocent. He's never tasted a drop of alcohol and routinely cracks open his Bible on the team plane. He's never more disruptive than when he and an old high school teammate perform a vaguely annoying (of course) Mufasa-Simba routine in the silence of a crowded movie theater before the feature starts.
Mostly, as he yelled to Joey Crawford, he just wants to have fun. He mock crip-walks into most practice-ending huddles. He jokingly refers to assistant Randy Ayers as Juice because he resembles O.J. Simpson. Seeing the Hawks mascot, he shouts, "Hey, it's Keyon!" because Keyon Dooling's nose is of the beakish variety. He talks nonsense in Bo Outlaw's thick basso profundo. And he gets genuinely disconsolate when someone mentions that his name has been removed from most of SACA's records by Georgia Tech's Javaris Crittenton.
Sometimes, his teammates marvel that someone so lighthearted can also be so dominant. "It defies everything you've ever heard of how to approach the game," says Garrity. "But it would be a mistake to interpret his demeanor as not caring. He wants to be great, and for the right reasons. Some guys want it for the lifestyle and fame it brings. He doesn't talk about what car he's getting. He talks about basketball."
Coach Hill, for all his irascibility, says Howard is making strides. "When I tell Dwight it's time to get serious, he works," Hill says. "He's 300 percent better than last year, in terms of not forcing things when it's not going for him." And Hill's quick to point out that Shaq led the league in turnovers in his rookie season.
And there it is again. The specter of Shaq. When Howard is confronted by it, he says only, "I want to make my own name." Well, then, there's one impersonation he has to drop from his repertoire. Jamison, when asked what impressed him most about Howard's showing in Japan, says, "He does a great Shaq."
On second thought, isn't that just what Orlando is waiting for?