In this era of crazed puppet ad campaigns and potential dynasties derailed primarily by feuds and dollars, it is refreshing to see a star who truly loves his city.
A star who wants to drive his city, who wants to elevate the popularity and history of his city as a token of appreciation for his ever-swelling fame and fortune.
No, America isn’t going to be treated to The Great Debate that is Kobe versus LeBron —which has taken on such intemperance that it feels like a corporate pitch more than a competitive rivalry—but we will be treated to our first real taste of Dwight Howard in the national spotlight, and that is no consolation prize.
The Orlando Magic have been dubbed as an Eastern beast for a while now, but nobody outside of the Orlando locker room conceded that the Magic had any plausible chance to knock King James off his heralded throne in the Eastern Conference Finals, underestimating the power of belief in your teammates.
Howard is unequivocally the most dominant big man in the NBA today—apologies to Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, et al.—and he isn’t close to operating in first gear, relying on brute strength to create the bulk of his scoring opportunities instead of possessing a distinct low-post move.
But this version of Howard reminds me of a former Orlando center who didn’t have a go-to shot, some fella who goes by Shaq. I think that career worked out all right.
We like to force current superstars into the molds of past legends, if only for comparison sake, but let's not be so hasty with Howard.
Why? Because Howard has a chance to do more than O’Neal ever did in Orlando.
That’s not suggesting that Howard will have a more illustrious career than O’Neal, who will retire as one of the Top-10 big men ever, and one of the 50 greatest NBA players in history.
To place such burdens of eminence on the shoulders of Howard, as broad and impressive as they are, is irresponsible and unfair. But what Howard can do that O’Neal never did, is stamp his name as a pillar of Orlando, a guy the city can claim as its own.
The Shaq hysteria was short-lived in Orlando, beginning with the selection of O’Neal first overall in the 1992 draft. O’Neal teamed with Penny Hardaway and Horace Grant to take the Magic to their first NBA Finals in franchise history in ’95, one that ended gruesomely in a sweep by Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets.
Orlando returned to the Eastern Conference Finals in ’96, but were dismantled by Jordan and the Bulls, and O’Neal promptly bolted for Los Angeles as a free agent that summer. That was that; Shaq will forever be remembered as a Hollywood guy.
But here’s Howard, preparing for his first NBA Finals appearance at only 23-years-old, and only beginning to take advantage of his unfathomable amount of talent and athleticism.
Howard has four years remaining on his current contract, but he is dreaming of much more than that.
"You know what? I'll be here as long as the fans want me to be here," Howard told the Orlando Sentinel. "I tell my friends this: I want to stay here. It will be based upon the city. We want the support of our fans. That's what carries us, that's what inspires us, that's what keeps us motivated."
If that’s the case, Howard shouldn’t be going anywhere.
Magic general manager Otis Smith is going to have to pony up the dollars to keep one of the game’s brightest smiles in Magic blue, but given Howard’s production, the inevitable growth of his game, and his willingness to embrace the city and take partial responsibility for its direction, how could he not make that financial commitment?
"You want to feel loved. That's the biggest thing. I show my love to the community. I show my love to this city by stepping on the floor every night and playing as hard as I can. That's all we want back," said Howard.
And I would say that Orlando’s fans have given their love to Howard and his teammates, and then some. Amway Arena has been a guillotine for opposing teams, as the Magic have gone 7-2 at home in the playoffs in front a regularly boisterous, white-towel-waving crowd.
Much of the Orlando’s run should be credited to the supporting cast around Howard—including Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Mickael Pietrus, and Rafer Alston—but Howard is the glowing ember that ignites this entire inferno.
Howard was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year for the 2008-’09 season, and the playoffs have become merely his coming-out party. In the postseason, Howard is averaging 21.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game.
This interior dominance isn’t new, as Howard has been terrorizing the paint since his entrance into the league, but it is time that Howard is recognized as The Franchise in Orlando, a rightful owner of a place among basketball’s next generation of brand bearers.
You don’t let guys like Howard slip through your fingertips and into the abyss of our nation’s most frenzied media markets.
When you have a guy who is the youngest player in NBA history to 3,000, 4,000, and 5,000 rebounds, you cherish him.
When you have a guy who is the youngest player in NBA history to lead the league in rebounds and blocks, you defend him.
When you have a guy who is the youngest player in NBA history to average a double-double, you swear by him.
"My responsibility is to my family first, then the organization and then my city. I will never turn my back on this city as long as they don't turn their back on me,” said Howard.
“I've always wanted to see Orlando on top because we've always been overlooked -- not just as a basketball franchise—but as a city. I do a lot for the community, especially in the African-American community, because of what goes on. I try to do my best.”
"So I love this place. I want to stay here."
There is a new Superman in Orlando.
If the Magic play this one right, there will never be a departure, and no love will be lost.
You can reach Teddy Mitrosilis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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