- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dwight Howard is a big man, and he’s on the verge of getting even bigger.

In a postseason packed with star power, the Orlando Magic center has emerged as not only a frontcourt behemoth but also a potential advertising powerhouse.

As Howard and his team prepare to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, he is poised to join a small but exclusive club of the most marketable stars in the NBA.

“This is clearly a huge opportunity,” said Darin David, an account manager with Dallas-based sports marketing agency Millsport. “Throughout NBA history, it’s the superstars that stand out. It’s a case where he can step into that group. He’s a young guy. He’s clean-cut. He’s got a lot of the attributes that people are drawn to. Win or lose, he has definitely put himself in the spotlight.”

Until now, that spotlight has shone on Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and a handful of others who draw attention with likable personalities, spectacular statistics, championships or all of the above.

But there is a case to be made for Howard, who has averaged more than 21 points and 15 rebounds in 18 playoff games.

Howard was climbing the ranks of the most sought-after NBA players even before the playoffs began. The Davie-Brown Index, which rates celebrities on a number of factors related to marketability, showed that Howard rivaled James and Bryant in likability, influence and overall appeal.

“He seems like he’s definitely having fun,” David said. “He seems like he has his attitude in the right place, and as an athlete you need that, but there’s also marketability that comes about.”

The index showed Howard lagged in overall awareness by the public, perhaps a symptom of playing in a midtier NBA market. But Davie-Brown Talent officials said his score likely will rise after this postseason, which has set viewership records on TNT and ESPN.

But Howard hasn’t had to rise from obscurity - he was the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft and quickly established himself as one of the league’s top rebounders. He also generated attention when he dressed as Superman and won the slam-dunk competition at the 2008 All-Star weekend.

This season, Howard was the top vote-getter for the All-Star Game, and he was fourth in the MVP voting behind only James, Bryant and Wade.

“I like the fact that he didn’t just sit on his accomplishments but came back, to a certain degree, better,” ESPN basketball analyst Mark Jackson said. “He certainly has played his best basketball when it’s mattered most, and this is going to be a great opportunity for him to stand eye-to-eye with the best in the world on the biggest stage.”

Howard’s success to this point landed him some big endorsements, including a six-year, $36 million partnership with Adidas as part of its “Basketball is a Brotherhood” campaign. During Game 1 of the finals Thursday, Howard is expected to wear a special Adidas arm sleeve and debut a new pair of shoes. He also will provide Twitter updates and photos to the company’s Web site.

“There is nothing conventional about that guy at all, from the way he plays the game of basketball to the way he acts off the court,” said Ryan Morlan, vice president of global communications for Adidas Basketball. “This gives us a unique opportunity to talk not only about his game but his personality… and with him being on the court every night, the more kids see our products the better it is for our brand.”

Howard, who is represented by Seattle-based Goodwin Sports Management, also is involved with Vitaminwater, T-Mobile, Upper Deck, Wrigley’s and McDonald’s.

And though Howard has critics, he has been dominant, such as when he scored 40 points in the Magic’s series-clinching win over the Cavaliers. Now he has a chance against the Lakers in the finals to show that the Magic’s surprising run is no fluke - and show he belongs after derailing the league’s dream matchup of James and Bryant.

“The Magic and Dwight showing they belong there is a big part of it,” David said. “If they get swept out of this thing and it’s not very competitive, people will say, ‘That’s not what we wanted to see. That’s why we wanted to see LeBron and Kobe.’ ”

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