YSB contributor Nick Friedell, on-the-scene and in the mix from Orlando ...
That message was made clear long before Tuesday night's showdown between the Suns and Magic.
As Phoenix wrapped up its shootaround at Amway Arena yesterday morning, Shaq spent his time telling a small horde of reporters how many championship rings he had, in response to a question about Orlando's new king. "I got four [titles]," O'Neal said, according to Florida Today, "and your man [Howard] got none."
On the other side of the court, I was sitting next to Grant Hill as he pondered some of the other comments O'Neal made about Howard leading up to the game.
"Shaq should've been a boxer," Hill said during the conversation.
"A wrestler," another reporter said.
To which Hill smiled and agreed. The veteran forward is in a unique to position to compare both men considering he is one of the only people in the NBA to have played with each of them. As he got ready to head to the bus, Hill summed up what was on everybody's mind. "Superman I or Superman II," he said. "We'll see who gets the battle tonight."
Shaq's ego had turned this game into a one-on-one battle between Orlando's past and its present.
Even after Howard and the Magic came out on top, O'Neal wasn't about to allow the new kid a chance to enjoy the spotlight by himself. "I'm so far ahead of people [statistically] I'm not even going to worry about my stats anymore," Shaq said, before throwing out another veiled shot in Howard's direction. "When I'm done playing I'll be top four [in scoring] ... I'm really too old to be trying to outscore 18 year olds."
The 23 year-old Howard seemed genuinely hurt by some of the things O'Neal had said. "I think he was just really trying to get in my head with a lot of the things he said," Howard told reporters, trying to brush the issue aside. "I respect my elders, so I'm not going to get into a war of words with anybody."
Did Shaq's comments change the way Howard feels about the Big Fella?
"It's hard to say," he said. "I've always admired him as a player. I looked up to him; some of the stuff he's done on and off the court ... he's one of the people that really brought my personality out. I did look up to him [and] I still do."
As a person who has followed the careers of both men closely since they came into the league, the new rift seems pointless and sad, especially when you consider that O'Neal used to be in the exact same position Howard finds himself in now. Shaq was asked afterward whether the current Magic squad reminds him of the team he led to prominence back in the mid 90s.
"A little bit," he admitted. "Otis Smith did a great job of surrounding [Howard] with shooters. They have a legitimate shot at getting it done."
As he's pointed out numerous times, O'Neal has no reason to be jealous of Howard ... but I still think in a small way that he is. Every time he sees the youngster, he knows that his time is running short, and even Shaq doesn't have the super power to turn back the clock that far anymore.