MAITLAND — His team had just finished its last workout before heading for Orlando International and an improbable trip to the NBA Finals tonight in Los Angeles. But center Dwight Howard lingered for nearly a half-hour Tuesday, shooting endless free throws as other players changed for the four-hour-plus flight.
"For Dwight, it's all about work," Magic general manager Otis Smith said nearby. "He's wanted to be great from Day 1, so he works hard at it. He's trying to be the best player to ever play. And even though he's had a good season, I think his best seasons are yet to come."
If they look anything like Howard's stellar efforts in the 2009 playoffs, the Magic and its fans have much to look forward to — starting this evening when Orlando returns to the Finals for the first time since its only appearance in 1995.
Then, the team was carried by a young, 7-foot-2, 325-pound behemoth of a center with a megawatt smile, Shaquille O'Neal. Now, though the Magic is far from a one-man show, it has lately been riding the big shoulders of a 23-year-old, 6-foot-11, 265-pound emerging star with an equally engaging grin. Asked if he was bringing his smile to Staples Center, Howard responded on cue:
"Why wouldn't I? I bring it everywhere else I go."
Howard has plenty to smile about. He is poised for his first title series after five seasons in the league and is suddenly on the verge of the kind of recognition afforded top-tier NBA superstars such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and O'Neal. He has certainly had his moments of glory, such as winning the 2008 Slam Dunk title clad in a Superman cape and earning a gold medal with the U.S. men's team in the Beijing Olympics last summer. But now comes the chance to become a household name.
"I don't pay attention to that," he said. "My job is to help my team win games — it's not worrying whether I'm up there with Shaq and Kobe and all those guys. Winning games is what I'm focused on."
He has succeeded on that front. The Magic has turned out to be the surprise of the postseason after stumbling down the stretch in winning the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division. He helped power Orlando past Philadelphia in six games, highlighted by 24 points and 24 rebounds in Game 5.
In the second round, Howard publicly called out his second-year coach, Stan Van Gundy, for not getting him the ball enough in a Game 5 loss — then backed up the talk with a 23-point, 22-rebound winning effort in Game 6 that set up a rout of the Celtics in Game 7 in Boston.
"My gosh, five years from now he'll be 28," Boston coach Doc Rivers said after his team, 32-0 in seven-game series when it held a 3-2 lead, was eliminated. "He'll be so old. And then he'll be more mature. And then he'll absolutely be a better player. I hope it takes that long."
It didn't. Saturday, in the East final against Cleveland, Howard had a career-high 40 points, along with 14 rebounds, to propel Orlando past the Cavs and league MVP James in six games, earning a spot in the Finals.
Magic forward Rashard Lewis sees Howard taking charge and coming into his own. "He's playing with a dominant presence, but the most important thing is how he's matured every series and in each game," he said.
Point guard Rafer Alston, who played in Houston alongside one of the league's premier big men in Yao Ming, gives Howard high marks. "He's one of the best centers in today's game," Alston said. "Dwight's more athletic than Yao, and he's a game-changer with his defense and rebounding. Offensively, he's going to get better. He's developing his hook shot. Of course, he can dunk it. Sooner or later, he's going to get a soft touch on a jump shot. He's doing so much, so fast and still has room to grow. But the sky is the limit for him."
Van Gundy says there's no question Howard is a better, more patient player than he was when the season began. "He's done a great job in the post-season," he said. "He's fought through some things, with a little bit of a frustrating series against Boston, and came back with an unbelievable series against Cleveland. He's always a force on the boards and almost always a force defensively. He should always be able to impact the game, regardless of his offensive numbers."
There's another number that tells the story — 375, as in the pounds he can bench press. He's a dedicated weightlifter known for his massive shoulders and sculpted physique, with a build compared around the league to longtime Utah star power forward Karl Malone — and the athleticism to go with the muscles. It's a far cry from the scrawny, 5-foot-10 eighth-grader who was pushed around on the courts playing for Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.
He couldn't even bench a single plate when his father, Dwight David Sr., a Georgia state trooper and athletic director for SACA, first took him to the gym as a teen. But in high school, Howard surged to 6-9 and led his team to the Class A state title, eventually becoming the top prep prospect in the country — and the first overall pick of 2004 out of high school.
Five years later, he's knocking on the door to the next level of stardom, though it may take a Magic win over L.A. to get him there. Meanwhile, Howard's endorsement portfolio is growing, with deals involving T-Mobile, Adidas and McDonald's. And a recent poll conducted by E-Poll Market Research for CNBC says a representative number of Americans rate Howard as appealing as Michael Jordan and more so than James, while possessing "more energy" than Bryant.
After practice, he stood face to face on the court with 7-foot Magic assistant Patrick Ewing, one of the game's all-time greats. They each raised a hand skyward to see who had the longest reach, and it appeared too close to call. Either way, these days it seems that Howard is measuring up to the best of them.
Dave Scheiber can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8541