DALLAS -- What's in a nickname?
Apparently, a whole lot of bitterness.
A few trade scenarios and the NBA's labor troubles have garnered the major headlines at NBA All-Star Weekend in Dallas, but the one-sided feud between Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal is generating just as much chatter.
I say the feud is one-sided because, to this point, Shaq is the only one really lobbing verbal grenades. After the Magic lost to Cleveland on Thursday night, Shaq unloaded on Howard for his use of the Superman persona. As far as Shaq is concerned, he's the original Superman, not Howard. (Though Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster might disagree.)
"You tell me who the real Superman is," O'Neal said after Cleveland's 115-106 victory. "Don't compare me to nobody. I'd rather not be mentioned. I'm offended."
Ever since Howard -- who happens to be the reigning superstar in Shaq's old town, Orlando -- has begun to enjoy quite a bit of marketing and financial success with the Superman label (watch him rescue ESPN's Hannah Storm here), Shaq has turned into the old man from the Scooby Doo cartoons, the one who used to utter, "… and I would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for those darn kids."
Shaq is being petty. And he's probably just hatin' because Howard's the new flavor of the month among NBA big men, while Shaq is on the back nine of his career.
But with that said, Shaq has a point.
I never understood in the first place why Howard would assume a nickname used by another current star who plays the same position, especially the one who took the Magic to their first NBA Finals.
Isn't that some sort of Man Law violation? A little too Talented Mr. Ripley-ish?
Shaq's teammate, LeBron James, said Howard probably took on the Superman persona because he grew up admiring Shaq. But usually when a player idolizes someone, he shows his respect by wearing his idol's number -- like LeBron has done with Michael Jordan.
I can't see the King referring to himself as "Air" James. And I can't imagine Chris Paul calling himself "Magic," or Chris Bosh referring to himself as "The Mailman."
"Well, I would say it doesn't feel good when a guy like Shaq is talking bad about you, about a nickname as simple as Superman," Howard said on Friday during the East All-Star team's media session. "But there's nothing I can do about it. I'm not going to go back and forth with the issue."
But if I'm Howard, I do two things: Drop the Superman nickname and fight back.
Whether Howard likes it or not, there is a perception that he's trying to be too much like Shaq, from assuming the nickname to going Hollywood with commercials and an upcoming movie role. (He plays himself in a film called "Just Wright.")
The easiest way for Howard to eliminate that perception is to stop behaving like Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent. In Thursday's game, Shaq physically intimidated Howard in the paint, and that was a big reason the Magic blew a double-digit lead.
The rap on Howard has been that he doesn't possess enough edge to lead the Magic to an NBA title. This beef with Shaq, silly as it might be, gives him an opportunity to send a message and prove to people that he doesn't think everything is a big joke.
Many great players who've worn an NBA uniform have used grudges and personal beefs as motivation to get better. Howard should use Shaq to bring out the best in himself.
There's no denying that Howard is one of the most athletic big men to ever pass through the NBA, and a mean streak could elevate him from very, very good to unstoppable. So the next time the Magic and Cavs play (April 11 in Cleveland), Howard needs to give Shaq a few hard fouls; and if the Big Grump wants to rip him through the media again, Howard should challenge him to try not to be a hater for 15 minutes.
It's admirable that Howard is trying to take the high road with Shaq, one of the league's most appealing characters. But I hope that Howard doesn't want any player thinking he's Scaredy Cat, the worst nickname of all.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.