SAN ANTONIO — Long before they ever squared off down in the paint, exchanged pushes and shoves, elbows and hips and knees in the frenzy of a playoff game, Dwight Howard knew all about the Spurs’ No. 21.
“I literally grew up watching Tim Duncan,” said the Lakers center as he unlaced his sneakers following practice.
Howard was only 11 when Duncan was drafted No. 1 overall by San Antonio in 1997 and Duncan had already won two NBA titles by the time Howard entered the league as the No. 1 pick in 2004.
“He’s a big guy who handled the ball, shot the ball well, had a lot of moves on the block and made it tough for guys to guard. I loved watching that.”
But Howard never tried to imitate that. The truth is, his angular body and his offensive moves that are less-than fluid did always resemble those of another famous Spur, David Robinson. Those two have become friends, occasionally chatting by phone.
Yet when it came time for hero worship, Howard cast his gaze in the direction of, perhaps, the most famous big man of all time.
“My childhood idol was Wilt Chamberlain,” Howard said.
But it wasn’t grainy old videotapes that piqued his interest. The 1980′s-era Alphie the Robot, a one-foot tall toy that asked questions and dispensed bits of trivia to young minds, first told Howard about Chamberlain.
“He used to say: ‘Wilt Chamberlain scored a hundred points,’ ” Howard recalled. “I was intrigued by Wilt Chamberlain from that moment on. I wanted to meet him, but he died before I got a chance to get to the NBA. He was my childhood idol.”
A six-year-old quickly began to research and learn about Chamberlain.
“He liked to have fun,” Howard said.
It’s funny how things turn out. Now Howard wears the Lakers jersey that Chamberlain once wore, lives just up the street from Wilt’s former Bel-Air palace in the Santa Monica Mountains.
“If you came out the back of his house and looked up to the right, my house is right there,” Howard said. “Mariah Carey lives right by me. You can see the ocean from my rooftop, downtown and the Staples Center from the back.
“And I’ve got a telescope just like Wilt had. The roof of his bedroom used to open and he’d look at the sky. Now I’m looking up at all the same stars.”
Along with a slice of the sky, it seems they also share struggles at the free throw line and a few personality traits, including a persecution complex.
While Wilt was the dominant individual athlete of his era, he could never get comfortable with the great expectations that came with his stature. Similarly, Howard is regarded as the premier big man of today, but just doesn’t know what he wants or what will make him happy.
“Nobody roots for Goliath,” Wilt liked to say.
“I really just got caught up in wanting to please everybody,” Howard said in a statement that was an apology to his former team and city in Orlando.
That is the biggest difference between the two. Wilt could cover up his insecurities with aloofness, sheer arrogance. Anytime Howard tries to act tough, he winds up falling back into the role of victim.
When he takes the floor again for Game 2 of their first-round playoff series tonight (9:30 ET, TNT), it might never occur to Howard that part of the reason Duncan has been content, happy and so successful for 16 seasons is that he came to Texas, got comfy in San Antonio and never peeked too seriously at what he might be missing elsewhere.
Since winning the franchise’s first NBA championship back in 1999, the Spurs have rebuilt and redirected themselves around Duncan for three more titles and now, six seasons since their last, still have him as their main cog.
After the soap opera fiasco of last year’s “Dwightmare” that blew up his relationship and his reputation in Orlando, he’s spent a fitful season with the league’s glamor franchise, but not yet committing himself to stay.
Wilt chased money and respect from Philadelphia to San Francisco back to Philly and then to L.A. in a career that won two championships when many thought he should have claimed more.
The 27-year-old Howard is in his ninth pro season with just one trip to The Finals and no apparent firm plan on how to get back.
From a standpoint of finances and fame, it would make the most sense for Howard to stay with the Lakers, where he can sign next summer for the most years and dollars. But with 34-year-old Kobe Bryant trying to make a comeback from a ruptured Achilles tendon and the offense led by 39-year-old point guard Steve Nash, L.A. could be a heavy lift.
He has said he wants to be the foundation of a franchise, wants to be the man. But can a player who is often moody and reactive to criticism bear the white-hot scrutiny the Lakers draw? Can he pick them up out of the bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket?
To that end, might Howard cast his eyes toward Houston? The Rockets have the hunger and the wherewithal to pay him a max salary for four years (one less than the Lakers) and pair him up with 24-year-old All-Star and James Harden.
In L.A., Howard will have to live under those championship banners and walk past the statues of former greats Jerry West, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Any season that doesn’t end with a championship parade is a letdown.
In Houston, where the Rockets have won only a single playoff series since 1997, just putting the franchise back into the contenders’ conversation would be met with wild appreciation. But can he live with being out of the limelight at the same time he struggles with the glare?
Following back surgery and a full summer of inaction, Howard is just now rounding into his former self on the court. He’s played more confidently over the past month and he scored 20 points and grabbed 15 rebounds on Sunday to give the Spurs reason for concern in Game 2. But without Bryant, it’s a task like trying to roll a boulder up a hill.
Wilt won his two championships when he was teamed up with Hall of Famers Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham in Philly, West and Gail Goodrich in L.A. He needed help to get the job done. With a maxed payroll, new salary cap restrictions coming and aging teammates, where do the Lakers find help?
Can he be happy making the big money in the big fishbowl in Hollywood, rubbing elbows with neighbors like Carey and living up the street from the ghost of his idol Wilt? Or will he wind up using his mansion’s telescope to search for a faraway place where peace lies?
“It’s a beautiful house,” Howard said.
But almost anywhere he turns on the court tonight, he’ll bump into Duncan, who knew what it took to build a home.