NEW ORLEANS -- Inevitably, the image of the 2008 All-Star weekend may be Dwight Howard flying through the air with his Superman cape flowing in the wind.
You can't see him soaring with his head above the rim and a goofy smirk on his face and help but smile.
|Dwight Howard says his dunk contest win is 'really for the big men.' (Getty Images)|
The first All-Star weekend since 1992 where Shaquille O'Neal was reduced to spectator by something other than an injury had everyone worried that a vital ingredient would be missing. Ever since the Diesel's first game back in '93, he's been an icon for this event. After all, who doesn't enjoy a 7-foot clown dancing and keeping everyone else loose and laughing.
"It's just not going to be the same without him," said Allen Iverson, now a veteran of nine of these. "It just feels strange."
A.I. shouldn't be too down; a 6-11 clown might do just fine.
Howard, at 22 years old, understands that he's following a tradition of sorts. It almost happened last year when there were rumors that O'Neal would step aside in favor of Howard, who he felt was having the better year. Ultimately, he granted the fans' wish to see him start, but the weekend offered a bonding experience between the big men.
O'Neal might win a championship with Phoenix, but the move to the Western Conference doesn't do much for his All-Star prospects considering Yao Ming's presence and popularity. Anyway you slice it, he's fading into the past, even if it does wind up being in a blaze of glory.
O'Neal encompasses past and present. Howard reps present and future.
The future of the big-man position lies with him and the currently injured Greg Oden. Their personalities make them natural heirs to take over as faces of the league.
Oden is obviously someone we'll have to wait on. Howard's time is now.
He left Orlando for New Orleans hopeful and anxious. This is a kid who has answered lots of critics already this year, from Christian groups who voiced their displeasure at his fathering a child out of wedlock to a demanding coach who openly questioned his recent level of play, challenging him to go back to basics, not concern himself with scoring and deliver rebounding and blocked shots. He answered on Wednesday with his strongest performance of the year, burning Denver for 23 points and 24 rebounds.
He's growing up quickly, learning as the spotlight intensifies. Saturday night and entering Sunday's All-Star Game, he's aware that O'Neal won't be there, that essentially, he's making his first career start in the event in his place.