About a decade ago, when he was rattling off championships in Los Angeles and the previous generation of great big men — Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning — was beginning to fade away, Shaquille O'Neal made the bold declaration that he was the last dominant big man left standing in the NBA.
It was justified. The guy averaged 30.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.4 blocks per game over the entire 2000 postseason. He could have called himself the messiah with few objections.
But now Shaq's own era is coming to a close, and with his retirement Friday at 39, the game drifts farther and farther away from its roots. It's no longer about overpowering big men — well, with one exception.
Here's how Shaq explained it at the podium Friday:
"I think the league is in great hands right now," he said. "As long as Kobe [Bryant], LeBron [James], [Dwyane] Wade, Carmelo [Anthony] and guys like that are around, the league will be in pretty good shape. But there's only really one dominant big man left, and that's Dwight Howard. So I expect him to win three or four championships. If he doesn't win three or four championships, I'll be disappointed."
There it is.
People have compared Howard to O'Neal ad nauseam over the last few years. They're both big, huge, physical freaks of nature. They both started their careers in Orlando. And they both, at a fairly young age, found themselves with opportunities to leave Central Florida for a bigger market and a chance to win multiple championships on another team.
Shaq jumped at his chance, going to Los Angeles in 1996 and pulling off a three-peat with Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Lakers shortly thereafter. According to conventional wisdom, Howard is the next Shaq, so he can and will do the same. But is that really how it'll play out?
It's hard to say. Howard, who still has a year left on his contract with the Magic, sure doesn't like being portrayed that way.
The 25-year-old big man sat down with the Orlando Sentinel this week and discussed his future with the Magic, referencing the Shaq comparison in particular.
"I'm not trying to run behind nobody like Shaq or be behind somebody else," he said. "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."
Those are bold words. We live in an era where most stars in Howard's position — LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony — have avoided making bold statements one way or the other. They've left things ambiguous, leaving the door open for a clean break when they ultimately decide to force their way out. Howard's not doing that.
These days, big stars have all the power, and they can change teams whenever they choose. But Howard has made sure to remind us that sometimes, staying put is the best option.
We've heard all the speculation in the world about where Howard is going, either in 2012 or by trade this upcoming season. Los Angeles. New York. New Jersey. Maybe even Boston. But we're all forgetting the simplest solution at all — Howard, a native Southerner who's enjoyed seven solid years in Orlando, stays exactly where he is.
His "predecessor," for what it's worth, is rooting for him.
"They're doing big things here now," O'Neal said Friday. "They've got Dwight here. The general manager [Otis Smith] has to do a great job of making sure he doesn't leave. They've got to do whatever they can do to keep him here, because they've got a chance. They're one or two pieces away from getting it done, and I hope they do."
In one era, Shaquille O'Neal had a great career spread across six different teams. In the next, Dwight Howard has a chance to do it his own way.
What do you think the future holds for Dwight Howard? Share your thoughts below.
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