Photo by Gary Bassing/Getty Images
There was a time when Shaq comparisons were the sine qua non of discussion about Dwight Howard. The inane squawking about the “Superman” nickname, the alternating faux cattiness and faux chumminess with which the two interacted, the fan arguments over whether Howard’s legacy would ever eclipse O’Neal’s. It’s a tailor-made barstool argument, with enough concrete connections between the two players to make it seem like a natural argument but without any way to reasonably conclude it.
Recently, of course, the tenor or the conversation surrounding Howard has changed. The national audience is not watching him and waiting for him to “figure this thing out” and ascend to greatness. Fans are tired of him. Inevitably, that fatigue has colored the perception of his on-court exploits. All of a sudden, arguments are in the air about whether teams would rather have Andrew Bynum (that paragon of “stability and selflessness”).
Meanwhile, Shaq has transitioned from the league’s present into its past, his titanic accomplishments now sepiafied and mythologized.
In some ways, the comparisons between Shaq and Howard could never work out for Dwight (in some ways, of course, that’s exactly why Shaq so aggressively courted them). O’Neal dominated the game in the most visible ways; Dwight often dominates a game where fans aren’t watching. Where Shaq was a colossal, overwhelming inevitability, Howard is an air raid.
The discipline Shaq never displayed in his conditioning he saved for the zealous defense of his own legacy. In fact, the biggest reason why there will never be another Shaq is because no player will ever expend the same energy to cultivate a similar image.
When I started to collect my thoughts for this post, I was prepared to write that Howard, for all his steadfast excellence, has never approached the hammer-of-God dominance of Shaq. Watch the 53 points Shaq hangs on Minnesota in his Orlando days. Try and recall ever feeling similarly about Dwight.
Those are some of my favorite highlights on YouTube. Shaq looms over every play; seeing him still with a young and lithe body reminds me that he is perhaps the functionally largest person to ever play basketball. His overwhelming enormity is matched by an aggression around the rim that borders on disdain for anyone trying to guard him. I get giddy watching those highlights.
That, I was prepared to write, was the difference between Shaq and Dwight. Dwight has never been able to so fully arouse my awe.
But then I watched a few Dwight performances like this one and I began to wonder how much I could trust my own recollections.