ORLANDO, FLA. — One movie's theme music is played more often inside Amway Arena than any other.
It is, of course, the familiar refrain from the Christopher Reeve "Superman" movies, and it blares over loudspeakers whenever Dwight Howard throws down a dramatic dunk or initiates a thrilling three-point play.
In Orlando, Howard is considered the real-life incarnation of Superman.
But, nationally, that doesn't make him a superstar. At least not yet.
The NBA Finals, which get underway Thursday at Staples Center, will give the Orlando Magic's 23-year-old center the greatest national exposure of his burgeoning pro career and his best opportunity yet to reach the rarefied superstar status of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
"The way he's played has elevated his playing status, thus giving him more ways to put his personality out, thus giving his advertisers and sponsors more ways to utilize him in the marketplace," said William Sutton, a sports marketing professor with the University of Central Florida's DeVos Sport Business Management Program. "So, his stock is going to go flying."
Sutton, who also does consulting work for several NBA teams, including the Magic, said few post players in NBA history have reached true superstar status. Sure, guys like Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing were great players, but they didn't necessarily reach the level that, say, Michael Jordan, Bryant and James have.
Even the great Philadelphia 76ers and Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain once said, "Nobody loves Goliath."
A superstar has to excel on the court, but he also has to have charisma and the personality to match. Howard, whose showmanship has been on display in each of the last two slam-dunk competitions on All-Star weekend, certainly has a 1,000-watt smile. When asked Monday whether he'll bring that smile to Los Angeles, his answer was immediate.
"Why wouldn't I?" he said. "I bring it everywhere else I go."
And now, he has elevated his game. He scored 40 points and had 14 rebounds in Orlando's Game 6 victory Saturday night over James' Cleveland Cavaliers to close out the Eastern Conference finals.
"I think it was a great sign of growth," said Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy. "The next sign would be to be able to do that on a very, very consistent basis. But he's 23 years old. But I think the game he had the other night shows how far he has come -- not only in terms of his skills, but in terms of his maturity as a player. He's never played a better game, at least since I've been here, on the offensive end of the floor."
Bryant and James were the subjects of a recent Nike ad campaign in which they were portrayed by puppets. Madison Avenue has started to utilize Howard too, putting him with Charles Barkley and Dwyane Wade in a TV commercial for T-Mobile.
To be sure, comparing Howard to James and Bryant is like comparing apples to oranges. By nature of their positions, James and Bryant play facing the basket, and can show off their dynamic games more easily by slashing through the lane.
But even Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has said recently that if he could choose any current player as a first pick for a team, it would be Howard.
Having the on-court game -- that's one element of being a superstar.
And there's something else Howard possesses that could serve him well.
"The fact that the smile is genuine is the big thing," Sutton said. "This is a guy that enjoys life, drinks it in, savors it. This is a guy, if I see him doing a commercial for a video game, I'm going to want to look at that video game, because I think this guy's really playing it. I think he's loving life. I think Dwight Howard is legit."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The Magic beat the Lakers in both regular-season games, and Dwight Howard was a big reason why. His statistics compared with those of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol:
DEC. 20 -- AT ORLANDO 106, LAKERS 103
*--* -- FG-A FT-A Pts Reb St Bl PF Howard 4-6 10-15 18 12 3 2 5 Bynum 1-4 1-1 3 1 0 0 5 Gasol 4-9 3-4 11 7 1 1 4 *--*
JAN. 16 -- ORLANDO 109, AT LAKERS 103
*--* -- FG-A FT-A Pts Reb St Bl PF Howard 8-18 9-16 25 20 1 3 4 Bynum 6-13 2-2 14 3 0 2 4 Gasol 5-13 3-4 13 9 1 0 4 *--*