AS SHADOWS go, this is a big one. Enormous, really. Himalayan. And it won't stop following him around. When the NBA playoffs begin this week, they'll practically take the court together: Dwight Howard and his gigantic, Twitter-happy, bad-mouthing shadow. And the only way the bounding, dunking Howard will ever be rid of the thing is if he keeps bounding and dunking deep into June. Until then, he'll continue to be haunted by the words of another center whose dominance he one day hopes to replicate. ¶ "Dwight Howard? Who's that? I don't know that name." ¶ It is a cool morning in San Francisco, and the Suns are in town to play the Warriors. Phoenix has just finished its shootaround at a downtown athletic club and, standing on the sideline, buttons of sweat covering his enormous shaved skull, Shaquille O'Neal is staring at a reporter, unblinking.
"You know," the reporter says. "Big guy, All-Star, Orlando Magic."
"Nope," O'Neal says. "Haven't heard of him." He turns to guard Jason Richardson, seated nearby. "J, you know this guy? What's his name?"
"Nope," says Richardson.
"Hey Amar'e," O'Neal continues, turning to power forward Amar'e Stoudemire. "You heard of this guy, Howard?"
"No," replies Stoudemire.
Satisfied, O'Neal turns back to the reporter. "No, don't know him. We don't talk about impostors."
Over the season O'Neal would say plenty more about Howard, including, "Everything he's done, I've invented" and, "It's normal for a kid to copycat his idol, but you know he can never be this good." And, of course: "He wins three, four championships, then we can talk about him." Still, that one word stands out. Impostor.
It's not just that the 23-year-old Howard has adopted the same superhero stylings and affectations as O'Neal. It's also what Howard has the potential to become—a player just as intimidating as Shaq ever was. And this is not something Shaq takes lightly. See, while O'Neal may crack jokes and ham it up for the camera, he has always taken his role as the NBA's Biggest, Baddest Dude seriously. It is a role he inherited, at least symbolically, from Wilt Chamberlain, he of the 100 points and thousands of women, and one that only two players have held in the last 40 years. This is a title that goes beyond Best Big Man, one which Howard can arguably already lay claim to. To be the BBD is to be larger than life in every respect, to strive to be a black hole of attention on and off the court while remaining unapologetic and fierce. No one messes with the Biggest, Baddest Dude. Ever.