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WITHOUT SHAQ, HOWARD IS LIFE OF PARTY

The Magic center showcases All-Star talent along with entertainment skills.

Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard sat down in a hotel ballroom Friday at the New Orleans Sheraton as a new member of an exclusive fraternity: the NBA All-Star Starters Club.

Howard was giddy, funny and more animated with the world media than he usually is back in Orlando.

Then again, he was performing for current and future product endorsers.

He even sang a note for a local blues radio station, volunteering to be lead singer in its fictional band composed of all-stars.

Cavaliers star LeBron James said Howard has some size 22-shoes to fill - namely Shaquille O'Neal's. Not only as the heir to Shaq's spot as the perennial starter for the Eastern Conference, said James, but as the game's large entertainment center.

"Without Shaq here, Dwight's in charge of the comedy," James said.

Injured, ineffective and since traded to the Western Conference'sSuns, O'Neal's All-Star streak stopped at 14 consecutive appearances when coaches did not add him to the East squad (as a member of the Heat).

After finishing runnerup to O'Neal last year, Howard thumped him in the fan voting to earn his first start.

"Dwight might as well book his room at All-Star weekend as long as he wants to be here or until he gets tired of it," Hornets point guard Chris Paul said.

Howard, 22, paid homage to Shaq, 35, and said he hoped to make All-Star weekend a habit.

"Shaq should be in the All-Star Game every year, whether he's in the league or out. That's what kind of person and player he is. He just deserves to be here for All-Star weekend," Howard said. "It's an honor and a blessing to be starting. It's fun to be around those guys I grew up watching and read about, and now I'm playing with them.

"Hopefully, I can stay healthy and play to the best of my ability every night, and play as many All-Star Games as I can."

Howard was excited, but so were some of his fellow All-Stars and other legends who keep gushing about him.

Howard is leading the NBA in rebounding at 14.6 per game, and is averaging 21.7 points and 2.4 blocks.

Two Spurs stars of the present and past - Tim Duncan and David Robinson - believe Howard is headed to the Hall of Fame.

"Absolutely," said Duncan, who is not given to hyperbole.

Said Robinson, "He can obviously be a Hall of Famer. ... The pace he's on right now, he can definitely be in that category."

Robinson said Howard is not like traditional back-to-the-basket centers such as Shaq.

"It's like he's built for durability. He's such an athlete, phenomenal. He's progressed extremely fast," he said.

"He has a kind of Amare Stoudemire-type build, a big body and very mobile. Probably not as good a shooter as Amare from all over the floor, but at the same time, Dwight can do a whole lot of things."

Several All-Stars compared Howard - an athletic, streamlined 6-foot-11, 270-pounder - to Robinson and Shaq, a combination of power and grace.

"He's a man down there. A great big man," Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer said. "He reminds you of Shaq and he's built like David Robinson.

"He's so athletic. I think about what he did in the dunk contest last year. I know I couldn't put my face on the backboard," Boozer said, referring to Howard's "sticker dunk."

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said he hasn't gone against a player with Howard's power.

"He's the strongest guy I've ever played against - right there with Shaq," Bryant said. "Man, he's going to be something; he already is something."

James said Howard has the chance to be "the most electrifying" big man in the history of the game, but added that Howard's legacy truly will be measured by "helping his team win."

Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony said, "Dwight's great now. He's everything plus more. I've watched him for three years and he just keeps getting better."

Anthony noted how Howard responded to coach Stan Van Gundy's criticism for focusing more on offense than defense and rebounding. Howard took it out on the Nuggets, with 23 points and 24 rebounds.

"I was teasing Dwight before the game that he needed to get focused," Anthony said. "Then he gets 25 rebounds and 24 points or something like crazy like that. After the game, I told him he didn't have to get focused for our game."

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