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Friday, February 12, 2010
Shaq raps Howard's Superman act

By Brian Windhorst
Special to ESPN.com

Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard
In a battle of Supermen past and present, Shaq and Dwight Howard tangled around the hoop.
CLEVELAND -- When Shaquille O'Neal walked into Quicken Loans Arena, past the security checkpoint, through the loading dock and past the visitors locker room with a "Magic" decal magnetically affixed to the large steel door, there was a frown on his face.

He arrived for his latest game against the Magic and his uncomfortable counterpart -- and, whether he likes it or not, his heir -- with some fresh wounds.

O'Neal admits the club scene in Cleveland is rather tame, and says that living way out in the suburbs and in Greater Cleveland's often smothering snow belt keeps him in on most cold winter nights. He's been watching a lot of TV, a lot of "SportsCenter" in fact, and he couldn't have missed Dwight Howard's latest Superman imitation.

Howard plays Clark Kent, who comes to check on Lois Lane stand-in Hannah Storm after she's just been saved from an office fire by Superman. "This is SportsCenter," the ad says. This is also what fuels O'Neal's apparent contempt for the young man who plays in his old city at his old position and uses his superhero persona.

"Superman my a--," O'Neal said after the game, releasing the statement like he'd been waiting to say it for months and couldn't hold it in anymore.

When the game began -- a contest that ended with the Cavs' 13th consecutive win, and second this season over Orlando -- O'Neal felt teammates coming to double-team Howard, and his anger boiled over.

The first time Howard got the ball, he made a standard move, hopping to the middle of the lane and setting up to shoot over his left shoulder. Only O'Neal hacked him for no reason and picked up a needless foul, but it did send a message. Before long, the two were elbowing and shoving.

Toward the end of the game, they were at it again. Each had five fouls and the game was on the line; the score was tied, with lots of the focus on the two big men around the basket. But the finish belonged to O'Neal.

He had a dunk and a layup on Howard and pulled down three key defensive rebounds. Howard went scoreless over the final 7½ minutes and a close game turned lopsided. Some of it was because the Magic, as they tend to do when they lose, forgot about Howard and didn't feed him the ball. And some of it was because O'Neal refused to allow Howard to get position and refused to accept help to do so.

Howard had 19 points and 11 rebounds in just 31 minutes. O'Neal had just 10 and six in less than 20 minutes, but O'Neal clearly felt it was one-sided.

When the locker room opened, O'Neal was well-dressed and waiting. He had a plane ready to take him to Dallas, where he won't be an All-Star like Howard but instead will be a party host and a fan. But the jet could wait and so could a question about the Cavs' Black Heritage Celebration this night. He shooed the question away.

oneal

When I was coming up and there was Pat Ewing and Hakeem [Olajuwon], I never doubled anybody. You tell me who the real Superman is.

-- Cavs center Shaquille O'Neal

All season he's held his tongue. Repeating quotes about accepting a sidekick role to LeBron James and just wanting to be a role player, often referring to himself as a "tender 38," when that birthday hasn't even arrived yet. But this time he was ready to be the old Shaq and do it at Howard's expense, apparently for liking the same superhero and playing the same position in the same town where O'Neal started.

"When I was coming up and there was Pat Ewing and Hakeem [Olajuwon], I never doubled anybody," O'Neal said. "You tell me who the real Superman is."

Then more he talked, the more venom he released, a soothing of his ego and a return to his years of waging psychological warfare on his opponents in the media. He even started quoting Jay-Z.

"Don't compare me to nobody. I'd rather not be mentioned, I'm offended," O'Neal said.

When O'Neal was introduced in Cleveland back in July, three different times he said the Cavs would not be double-teaming centers. Once he said it to Cavs coach Mike Brown's face, creating some discomfort on the stage.

What O'Neal really meant was not double-teaming Howard, which O'Neal saw the Cavs do from a courtside seat in the Eastern Conference finals in Orlando. The Cavs haven't this season, and they're now 2-0 against the Magic.

There's pride that it is working and pride that the Magic don't play him the same way, a green light to take more shots at Howard, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

"Don't let them double-team me and make it a him versus me thing," O'Neal said. "Been doing it 18 years straight. Hakeem, Ewing, Rik Smits, [Tim] Duncan, [David] Robinson, the best of the best, straight up. I never doubled nobody. Nor have I ever asked for a double-team. If want to bang and push, let's bang and push. You're all giving away [Superman] titles, it's crazy."

There is indeed some craziness. It probably will be renewed a week from Sunday when the Cavs travel to Orlando for another meeting. A chance for O'Neal's personal rivalry to be restoked, whether Howard acknowledges it or not.

His teammates know; they've seen the commercials, too.

"The whole Superman thing kind of bothers him," James said with a smirk, purposely understating the situation. "That's definitely his nickname, and the fact that everybody kind of gave Dwight his name kind of bothers him a little bit."

Brian Windhorst covers the Cavs for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, more of his coverage can be found at cleveland.com/cavs.