Dwight Howard exudes vitality.
He brings thousands of fans to their feet when he slams home rim-rattling dunks or swats shots into the stands. His smile lights up arenas as large as Amway Center. And he possesses enough star power to guest not once but twice on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in one calendar year.
Yet even Howard, the 26-year-old Orlando Magic superstar, has described himself as a "dinosaur." He was only half-joking. At a time when basketball continues to evolve, traditional centers who play offense primarily with their back to the basket are in relatively short supply. Howard once kidded that players like him are "on the brink of extinction."
"I just think when people say, 'I play center,' it's like a turn off," Howard said. "It's not a flashy position. Everything you see on TV with basketball is when a guard's shooting or making a great pass or a fadeaway or something like that. The center is a lost art."
Right now, Howard is the best practitioner of that lost art.
Howard continues to dominate opponents even as most of the talk this season about him has revolved around his uncertain long-term future. He is on track to win his fourth rebounding title in five seasons, and he entered this week as the top scorer among league centers. He is the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award for the fourth consecutive season.
"He's one of a kind with what he brings to the table," said Philadelphia 76ers small forward Andre Iguodala, who will join Howard on the Eastern Conference team at this weekend's NBA All-Star Game in Orlando.
"He makes it so easy for that team defensively. He can have a lot of liabilities around him, and he can still cover for them. That's a great luxury to have. Then, offensively, he opens it up for the shooters."
What's amazing, however, isn't that Howard is the dominant player at his position.
It's that he has relatively little competition.
"When I was coming along, the offenses started through the center and went inside-out. The offenses today go outside, basically, in. You don't find a lot of guys with traditional post-up moves."
Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Deron Williams have ushered in a golden age of point guard play. Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant each could be considered the sport's top shooting guard. LeBron James is widely considered the sport's best small forward, but at least Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony loom close behind. Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol both play power forward.
At his position, Howard almost stands alone.
Los Angeles Lakers 7-footer Andrew Bynum — the sport's consensus second-best center — is putting up career numbers, averaging 16.3 points and 12.5 rebounds per game entering Monday, but he is nowhere near as durable as Howard.
Even beyond that, though, Howard, Bynum and their fellow All-Star Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers are part of a vanishing group of centers: guys who do the bulk of their work offensively with their back to the basket.
"Big guys now, they all want to be forward types," said Magic assistant coach and Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, who was one of the dominant centers of the 1980s and '90s. "Roy Hibbert, Bynum and Dwight — they're the few back-to-the-basket types.
"There's nothing wrong with being a face-up player," Ewing added. "But if you're a post guy, you have to be able to do both. Hakeem [Olajuwon] and myself, we did both. We posted-up. We shot our jump shots. But we did both."
So what's happened?
You'll receive a multitude of answers.
Howard points to a cultural change: that it's not cool to play center anymore. He often has said that sports highlight shows rarely glorify rebounding or interior play.
"Nobody really talks about the rebounding and blocking shots," Howard said. "It's all about points. So I think people get lost in that."
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy agrees with Howard — and Van Gundy takes it a step further.
The rules, Van Gundy said, aid perimeter play because they limit contact more than ever before, and, as a consequence, those rules open up offensive opportunities for perimeter players with dynamic skills.
Meanwhile, the rules for post players still permit contact, and lots of it.
If you're 7 feet tall, would you rather be like Nowitzki and shoot often from the outside as a face-up power forward? Or would you want to be like Howard and face double-teams?
"No one wants to be the big, strong kid in the middle," Van Gundy said. "There's another thing: It's hard work."
Howard is proof of that.
Although he remains one of the most durable players in the league, he gets cuts and scrapes and bruises all the time. And, as one of the game's strongest interior players, he dishes out plenty of bruises and elbows, too.
Nowitzki himself is the epitome of a larger trend: the international influence on the NBA.
A couple of decades ago, it would have been rare for a 7-foot, 245-pound player to face the basket. But Nowitzki comes from a youth-development system that placed a heightened emphasis on improving youngsters' skills.
Now, if you scan NBA rosters, you'll see that many of the game's big men are from abroad.
Poland's Marcin Gortat and Spain's Marc Gasol entered Monday as the third- and fourth-leading scorers among centers this season. And Italy's Andrea Bargnani, who is averaging 23.5 points per game for Toronto, would have been among the league leaders if he hadn't injured his calf.
All of them — plus injured Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005 — are more comfortable facing the basket.
And, according to Bogut, who grew up in Australia, the international players have those skills because those skills were taught to them when they were kids.
"I was always told at a young age that the more you can do — no matter how tall or hefty you are — the more valuable you become to your team and to making the pros," Bogut said.
"I think we see that a lot today with guys like Pau [Gasol] and myself. There are not a whole lot of power guys left. Dwight Howard is probably the only one that is pure power, and maybe you can add Andrew Bynum, although Bynum can still come out and shoot the jumper."
As a teenager in Australia, Bogut, 27, would spend Monday through Thursday practicing, with extra training before and after school. Friday nights would bring the most challenging games. Saturdays and Sundays were spent playing with his friends.
But he emphasized that player development was a hallmark of youth programs. Winning games was secondary.
Bogut always looked up to Toni Kukoc, a 6-foot-10 Croatian who was a good ball-handler and adept passer.
Bogut had the freedom to develop those aspects of his game.
Van Gundy dislikes the AAU system in the United States because he feels it stresses winning at the expense of making young players better.
And, although post play doesn't look fancy, it requires a lot of work to master.
Lanier, 63, sees a lack of teaching throughout youth basketball, especially with moves in the low post. As a kid and as a teenager, he would spend hours doing "Mikan drills," named after the first great big man, George Mikan, in which Lanier would alternate layups with either hand from underneath the basket. It improved his footwork and his coordination.
"They're just not teaching the skill," he said. "You go to camps today and you don't really see guys emphasizing post-up moves."
"Now they play so many games in the summertime that a lot of the teaching is omitted," he said. "Now, the pressure is on the high school coach to teach the fundamentals and the development of the frontcourt players and then the colleges. So what happens if a guy is one-and-done? He might miss a lot."
Oscar Robertson, the Hall of Fame guard who was known for his versatility, echoed the same themes as Lanier and Van Gundy.
"If you get an AAU situation, they try to get the most elite ballplayers, the most polished ballplayers and get them on the court," he said. "But some kids might grow later.
"You don't have an accomplished athlete when he's 12 years old."
Gilmore was more of a back-to-the-basket player than any of them, but he found that most of his contemporaries could mix it up in the low post.
"Every night there was a different challenge from different clubs," Gilmore recalled. "From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Boston Celtics' Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier, Bill Walton — every night there was just an extraordinary challenge from individual centers."
It's not quite the same today.
During the 2009-10 season, Howard became the first center in NBA history to lead the league in rebounding and blocked shots for two consecutive years.
Before the season was over, someone asked Howard what that accomplishment would mean to him.
"It's a tough thing to do every night," he said.
"But somebody has to do it."
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