One of them used to call himself Superman. Then the new kid arrived, started calling himself Superman, ticking off the older kid.
“No, I’m Superman.”
“No, I’m Superman.”
We’re not talking about some schoolyard squabble between impulsive 8-year-olds. No, we’re getting at the heart of the psychodrama between two 7-ft., mammoth, millionaire basketball players: Shaquille O’Neal, who loved referring to himself by a variety of nicknames throughout his playing career — Shaq Diesel and Superman among them — and Dwight Howard. In the past few years, O’Neal has gone out of his way to criticize Howard, who like Shaq began his career in Orlando, like Shaq is very fond of Superman and, like Shaq, headed to Hollywood to try to win a title with the Los Angeles Lakers.
(MORE: Dwight Howard Is Traded to the Lakers! And, Oh Yeah, the Olympics)
Now Shaq has fired the latest salvo: during a chat with fellow TNT analysts, O’Neal said Howard did not rank among the top centers in the NBA:
We, as players, we always watch people before us. When I came in, it was Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, guys who played like true centers, who played inside. What we have now are centers that are going to the European style, which is a lot of pick-and-roll. Dwight Howard, who’s a pick-and-roll player, some people say he’s the best center in the league, but me being an old-school center, I’m going to go with Robin Lopez and Andrew Bynum because they play with their back to the basket.
O’Neal was actually referring to Robin Lopez’ twin brother Brook, who plays for the Brooklyn Nets. Brook Lopez has averaged 17.4 points in his career, while Robin, of the New Orleans Hornets, has scored 5.8 points per game. Since the Nets coveted Howard to help open their new arena in Brooklyn and spent a season trying to move Lopez in a deal for him, Shaq’s take was pretty surprising.
On the other hand, it wasn’t all that shocking, given O’Neal’s history of putting Howard down. Seriously, the Superman thing is a sticking point. At his retirement press conference in Orlando, Shaq handed out T-shirts that said “The Real Superman” — a shot at Howard in his then backyard. After Shaq criticized him on TV earlier this year, Howard replied, “He’s mad about Superman.”
When asked about Shaq’s latest comments, Howard responded:
I don’t care what Shaq says. Shaq played the game. He’s done. He’s gone. It’s time to move on. He hated the fact, you know, that when he played, the older guys were talking about him and how he played, and now he’s doing the exact same thing. Just let it go. There’s no sense for him to be talking trash at me. He did his thing in the league. He’s one of the most dominant players that ever played the game. Just sit back and relax. You did your thing. Your time is up.
Howard has admitted he was initially reluctant to join the Lakers because the move would spark ceaseless comparisons of him to O’Neal. Shaq clearly enjoys getting under Howard’s skin, and now that Howard is trying to fill Shaq’s enormous shoes in L.A., the barbs will be flying all season. Howard may not win a title this year. But if he continues to dismiss O’Neal’s criticisms and take a more dignified approach, at least he’ll win the schoolyard battle with Shaq.