Dwight Howard shoots near an attending Shaquille O'Neal in 2009 (Fernando Medina/ Getty).
Over the past few years, legendary NBA center Shaquille O'Neal has made sport of saying very negative things about Dwight Howard. At various moments, Shaq has claimed that Howard's departure from the Orlando Magic would be a travesty (you know, just like Shaq's exit) and said that he has "big shoes to fill" with the Los Angeles Lakers (you know, his own). Howard has fired back with something akin to confusion and wonder as to why O'Neal won't move on, but that hasn't stopped him whatsoever.
The prevailing assumption has been that Shaq makes these comments because he enjoys the attention. However, he now says that he has more adult motives — he wants to make Howard a better player. From Ben Bolch and Mike Bresnahan for the Los Angeles Times (via SLAM):
"I love Dwight and I see his potential. Hopefully when I say these things he gets mad," O'Neal said in an interview. "Just think about it. At the dunk contest, he dunked on that thing when it was 15 feet. Remember that? OK, so why can't you back people down [in the post]? Because if you think I didn't play against great centers, he's not playing against nobody, you know what I mean?
"So he should be able to back people down and jump-hook them to death. That's why I envision in him as a player." [...]
"Same thing Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] did to me, the same thing Wilt [Chamberlain] did to me," O'Neal said. "I can remember one time reading an article and I'm averaging 37 [points] in the playoffs and we lose and somebody asks Kareem, 'Hey, what do you think about Shaq? He's a great player.' And Kareem says, 'Yeah, he's OK, but he hasn't won any championships.' I didn't respond, I didn't cry, I just stepped up and got to the next level. So I'm always going to stay on [Howard] because I actually see him being one of the best Lakers ever if he steps up."
Howard has listened to O'Neal's critiques over the years — and has his own rebuttal.
"I understand he thinks making me mad in that kind of way is going to push me, but I just feel like if he wants to do that the best way to go about it is to come talk to me personally," Howard said. "Because when it gets out to the public, they just view it that we just have this big feud going on and that's not fair to me or him. I just think that he should come to me man to man and say, 'Hey, this is how I feel.'"
There's more from Shaq — he goes on to build up his own accomplishments and wonder why Howard can't match them — but the meat of the issue is right here in Howard's response. It's fine if Shaq has opinions, and in some cases they could even be correct. But what value is gained by making the arguments in public? Why does improvement need to come from personal anger rather than private help? Is embarrassment the only way to get anything done?
Shaq's arguments have a lot of holes, including that the form of NBA basketball has changed enough that backing down an opposing from the post is a much rarer occurrence now than it was 15 years ago. Still, the problem here is largely one of temperament. Shaq's rival Hakeem Olajuwon has identified the same holes in Howard's game, but he opted to offer his assistance instead of lobbing insults in public. The results were evident — Dwight worked with Hakeem, improved his game, and forged a friendly relationship in the process. What's the downside?
Shaq has always been a talker, and his job with TNT involves direct criticism; it's fine if he decides to be something less than wholly positive. Yet it's another thing altogether to claim that those comments are motivated by a desire to help. Olajuwon has proven that legends can help today's players in meaningful ways with coaching and advice. Criticizing Howard in public does nothing to improve him. More than anything, it serves to help Shaq's own brand.
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