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Steve Aschburner

Dwight Howard could feel the weight of big-man tradition with the Lakers.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Front and center: Howard has big shoes to fill in L.A.

Posted Aug 15 2012 7:18AM

There have been, through the years, certain glamor positions in professional sports: Centerfield for the New York Yankees, quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, center for the Montreal Canadiens, middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears.

And center for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Oh, there have been some exceptions over time, some seasons in which that spot has been manned by the very good (Andrew Bynum, Vlade Divac), the mostly OK (Elmore Smith, Elden Campbell) and the mostly meh (Darrell Imhoff, Leroy Ellis, Ray Felix, Chris Mihm, Kwame Brown). But no NBA franchise has been as defined as much by a succession of Hall of Fame-worthy big men in the middle -- or been able to acquire or attract them -- quite like the Lakers.

The tradition began in the franchise's Minneapolis days with "Wonder of the World" George Mikan, continued through Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and entered a new millennium with Shaquille O'Neal. Now comes Dwight Howard.

To fans in Los Angeles, landing the game's best center must seem like a birthright. To many others throughout the NBA, it's a XXXL source of consternation. The Lakers figure to be perhaps the No.1 storyline of the 2012-13 season -- Howard joins Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and newcomer Steve Nash in the league's No. 1 glamour market -- and they'll lug perhaps the greatest expectations into the postseason next April.

As a primer for how the legendary NBA centers, and the team, have done in their time together, here is a look at Mikan, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal, and the size 22EEE's that Howard has to fill:

George Mikan (1948-1956)

Seasons with Lakers: 7

NBA titles: 5

How acquired: Joined Detroit Gems of NBL when Chicago American Gears folded in 1948. Gems moved to Minneapolis, joined BAA (precursor to NBA), became Lakers for 1948-49.

Departed: Retired as a Laker.

PPG/RPG as Laker: 23.1 ppg, 13.4 rpg (rpg 1951-1956 only).

Single-game highs (points, rebounds): 61 points, 36 rebounds.

Notable franchise records: None. But first Laker inducted into Hall of Fame. Inspiration for widened lane, 24-second clock, goaltending rules.

Trivia: First commissioner of American Basketball Association.

MVPs as Laker: None (MVP award created in 1955-56, Mikan's partial final season).

All-Star selections: 4

All-NBA first teams: 6

HOF?: Yes

Top 50 anniversary selection?: Yes

Jersey number/retired?: 99/No. (Curiously, the L.A. Lakers list Mikan on a banner with other Minneapolis greats but their numbers have not been retired.)

Peak salary: $12,000 (about $102,000 in 2012 dollars).

Comment: Mikan was an instant success as a gate attraction and on the court, leading the Lakers to five championships in his six full seasons with them.

Wilt Chamberlain (1968-1973)

Seasons with Lakers: 5

NBA titles: 1

How acquired: Traded by Philadelphia 76ers for Archie Clark, Darrall Imhoff and Jerry Chambers, July 9, 1968.

Departed: Retired as a Laker.

PPG/RPG as Laker: 17.7 ppg, 19.2 rpg

Single-game highs (points, rebounds): 66 points, 42 rebounds.

Notable franchise records: Highest FG% in season (.727); highest FG%, career (.605); FGM, game (29); Rebounds, game (42); Rebounds, season (1,712).

Trivia: Chamberlain had 23 games scoring 62 points or more; the other four great Lakers centers had/have none. Mikan and O'Neal each scored 61 points as a career high. Abdul-Jabbar's best was 55 and Howard's is 46.

MVPs as Laker: None

All-Star selections: 4

All-NBA first teams: None

HOF?: Yes

Top 50?: Yes

Jersey number (retired?): 13/Yes.

Peak salary: $250,000 ($1.4 million in 2012 dollars).

Comment: Adding Chamberlain to Elgin Baylor and Jerry West was the NBA's first engineered Big Three. One sportswriter suggested they would win the championship with Ronald Reagan and Doris Day at the other two spots. But it took four years, three head coaches and a conscious adjustment of Chamberlain's game toward defense and rebounding to achieve the 1972 title.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-1989)

Seasons with Lakers: 14

NBA titles: 5

How acquired: Traded by Milwaukee Bucks with Walt Wesley for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters, June 16, 1975.

Departed: Retired as a Laker.

PPG/RPG as Laker: 22.1 ppg, 9.4 rpg

Single-game highs (points, rebounds): 48 points, 34 rebounds.

Notable franchise records: Rebounds, career: 10,279; Blocked shots, career: 2,694.

Trivia: Abdul-Jabbar capitalized the most on Hollywood's fascination with Lakers big men, appearing in 18 films or TV shows as an "actor," according to O'Neal has eight such credits (they all appeared numerous times as "self" in documentaries, interviews, etc.), Chamberlain three, Howard one and Mikan none.

MVPs as Laker: 3

All-Star selections: 13

All-NBA first teams: 6

HOF?: Yes

Top 50?: Yes

Jersey number (retired?): 33/Yes

Peak salary: $3 million ($5.5 million in 2012 dollars).

Comment: Abdul-Jabbar demanded to be traded by Milwaukee at age 28. His individual numbers never soared to his Bucks heights but he added five more championships to the 1971 title won in Milwaukee. He had at least one Hall of Fame-bound teammate for each ring (Oscar Robertson in Milwaukee, Magic Johnson, James Worthy in L.A.).

Shaquille O'Neal (1996-2004)

Seasons with Lakers: 8

NBA titles: 3

How acquired: Signed as a free agent, July 18, 1996.

Departed: Traded to Miami Heat for Caron Butler, Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, 2006 first-round draft pick (Jordan Farmer) and 2007 second-round pick (Renaldas Seibutis), July 14, 2004.

PPG/RPG as Laker: 27.0 ppg, 11.8 rpg

Single-game highs (points, rebounds): 61 points, 28 rebounds.

Notable franchise records: Most FTAs, game: 31.

Trivia: O'Neal is the only one of the great Lakers centers to sweep the All-Star Game MVP, NBA MVP and Finals MVP awards in the same season.

MVPs as Laker: 1

All-Star selections: 7

All-NBA first teams: 6

HOF?: Yes

Top 50?: Yes

Jersey number (retired?): 34/Not yet

Peak salary: $24.7 million ($30 million in 2012 dollars).

Comment: O'Neal joined the Lakers with rookie Kobe Bryant in 1996 and it took them four years and three head coaches to win their first title. Then they won the next two after that. He's the only one of this group to play elsewhere post-Lakers, winning a ring with Miami in 2006.

Dwight Howard (2012- )

Seasons with Lakers: 0

NBA titles: 0

How acquired: Traded by Orlando Magic with Earl Clark and Chris Duhon as part of a four-team deal in which Lakers gave up Andrew Bynum, Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts and a 2017 first-round draft pick, Aug. 10, 2012.

Departed: Eligible for free agency, July 2013.

PPG/RPG as Laker: 0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg

Single-game highs (points, rebounds): 0 points, 0 rebounds.

Notable franchise records: None

Trivia: Dubbed "The Miracle Child" because his mother, Sheryl, suffered seven miscarriages before he was born.

MVPs as Laker: None

All-Star selections (as a Laker): None

All-NBA first teams: None

HOF?: No

Top 50?: No

Jersey number (retired?): 12/No

Peak salary: $19.2 million.

Comment: Lots of categories here to fill up, many of which will depend upon the length of Howard's stay in Lakersland.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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