Three-and-a-half years ago, Dwight Howard slumped his shoulders inside Staples Center and responded sheepishly on the issue of Shaquille O'Neal trashing him over and over.
"I can't tell you why he's said a lot of discouraging things," Howard said to me. "I wish he wouldn't say it because he's one of the few guys that we all look up to."
As a 23-year-old reaching the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard was still an earnest young star searching out the blessing that never came from Shaq.
For all the preaching Shaq had done about paying respect to your elders, Howard never understood why his relentless praise of Shaq was reciprocated with ridicule and scorn. Howard never understood why Shaq didn't see it as flattering that an engaging, dynamic young center had grown up idolizing, even emulating, him.
Now, Howard's a Laker, Shaq's retired to television and his criticisms promise to get only sharper and sharper. And so when word was passed onto Howard that O'Neal had compared him unfavorably to Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez, Howard did something long overdue: He stood up for himself and fired back at O'Neal.
"Shaq played the game and he is done," Howard told reporters on Thursday. "It's time to move on. He hated the fact when he played that older guys were talking about him and how he played. Now he's doing the exact same thing. Just let it go. There's no sense for him to be talking trash to me. He did his thing in the league. Sit back and relax.
"Your time is up."
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Howard doesn't need to respond to Shaq to win over Kobe Bryant, because Bryant's already a believer in him. Bryant knows that Howard will come to work every day, that he'll keep himself physically fit. Those are things that Bryant could never count upon with O'Neal. Howard doesn't need to stand up to Shaq for Kobe's sake, but his own.
Howard has come to the Lakers to win championships, the way that Shaq did all those years ago. He's an iconic talent, and Shaq's kidding himself to try to minimize Howard's dominance. The greatest Lakers center before Shaq believed that, too – long before Howard made his way to Los Angeles.
Outside the interview room that day during the June '09 NBA Finals, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shook his head, and told me of Shaq, "Sometimes I wonder about his maturity. He doesn't need to do that. He's achieved so much. I don't know why he stoops to that."
Shaq is a forever star in the NBA, and gets paid to deliver his opinions on television now. Howard has earned criticism, absorbed it, and yet his talent is too immense for Shaq to believe for a moment that Lakers fans will be longing for him over Howard this season.
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Howard was wise to finally let go of the self-guilt that came with pursuing the parallel path of O'Neal's, a ringless run in Orlando to the Lakers. For so long, Howard paid his respects to Shaq – overpaid them – and all that came back was the bitter insecurities of a 40-something legend who should be so much more secure with his standing in history.
There's a ceremony to retire Shaq's No. 34 with the Lakers in April, and rest assured that O'Neal will return to Staples full of praise for Howard. Between now and then, Howard will be his old self again, and the Lakers will be the franchise that once again owns the middle of the basketball floor. From Mikan to Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar to Shaq, the great centers always find their way to the Lakers.
Yes, the Lakers' new center is correct: It's over Shaq. It's Howard's time now. It's inevitable, happens to every great star, and there's no use fighting it anymore. Dwight Howard finally fired back at Shaquille O'Neal on Thursday, and it was long overdue. Shaq will come back at him again, but he has to realize soon that Howard has the ultimate trump card in sport: The cheers, the winning, belong to Howard now. It's his time, his Lakers now.
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