ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Dwight Howard is having a ball being the NBA’s premier big oan and the most recognizable face in a one-team town.

The Orlando Magic’s practical joker, he loves to poke fun at his teammates’ wardrobes, does some of the funniest impersonations around and has been known to knock on random hotel room doors during road trips and run away laughing.

His favorite practical joke?

Going with friends to a theater showing a horror film, donning scary masks while it’s playing and popping up to frighten moviegoers.

Lost amid his jokes – and the rim-rattling dunks and jaw-dropping leaping ability that make him one of the league’s dominant centers – is an often forgotten fact: He’s only 23 years old.

Even so Orlando fans would like to see him lead a deep run into the playoffs, perhaps even contend for a title. Howard hasn’t taken the Magic past the second round of the playoffs in his first four seasons in the league, and this year the pressure to take the next step will be greater than ever.

The Magic (59-23) finished one win shy of tying the best record in franchise history set in the 1995-96 season behind Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. With the prospect that the Boston Celtics may be without Kevin Garnett for the playoffs, many in Orlando feel it’s time that Howard takes the Magic to at least the Eastern Conference finals.

The 6-foot-11, 265-pound center knows any success or failure will be pinned on him.

“It’s not really pressure,” Howard said. “It’s just knowing what I have to do to the best of my ability, and that everybody is always watching me.”

The No. 1 overall draft pick out of high school in 2004, Howard won gold as the center of the U.S. men’s team at the Beijing Olympics and has the Magic entertaining title hopes going into Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against Philadelphia on Sunday.

Just don’t expect him to change his lighthearted ways.

Before games, he likes to attempt trick shots from beyond half court. He has a smile that never leaves his face, and he’s usually humming songs from artists like Beyonce or quoting lines from movies like “Finding Nemo.”

“He’s always laughing and joking and always having fun,” said Cleveland’s LeBron James, one of Howard’s Olympic teammates.

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, the subject of an impersonation by Howard that has made the rounds on the Internet, doesn’t mind Howard’s antics so long as he knows when to stop.

“The big thing for Dwight is to understand there’s a time and a place,” Van Gundy said. “Last year, he would still be fooling around. But he’s gotten a lot better with that.”

Howard has begun to take more of a leadership role with the Magic.

After a humbling home loss to Toronto on April 1, one that pushed Orlando behind Boston for the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed, Howard led a players-only meeting. The Magic responded with a throttling win over first-place Cleveland, building a 41-point lead over the Cavaliers in the third quarter.

“When Dwight gets serious,” Magic guard Courtney Lee said, “people listen.”

Already a three-time All-Star, Howard led the league in rebounds (13.8) and blocks (2.9) per game this season. He averaged 20.6 points per game, passed Wilt Chamberlain as the youngest NBA player to reach the 5,000-rebound mark and is a top candidate for defensive player of the year.

Despite that success, most agree his game is still raw.

“The best is yet to come,” said Patrick Ewing, a Hall of Fame center with the New York Knicks and now a Magic assistant coach. “He’s a great athlete. Right now, he’s basically dominating on just his athleticism.”

On the national stage, Howard is still seen mostly as a dunker without a jump shot. His best-known highlight is when he dressed in Superman regalia – cape and all – to win the 2008 All-Star dunk competition.

Howard was also criticized after he became a prop for Nate Robinson in this year’s dunk contest, essentially giving up his title to the 5-foot-9 New York Knicks guard.

The player to whom Howard is often compared, O’Neal, is one of his leading detractors.

“He’s a good player, but everything he’s done I’ve invented, so I’m not impressed,” said O’Neal, who led the Magic to the 1995 NBA finals.

Howard said he isn’t bothered by O’Neal’s comments but does take offense to those who believe he doesn’t take his job seriously.

“I’ll never stop smiling,” Howard said. “That’s who I am.”

Howard may be the biggest star in Orlando, the type of fun-loving figure not seen in this city since O’Neal, and everywhere he goes he’s bombarded with attention.

His array of endorsement deals – with T-Mobile, McDonald’s and Adidas to name a few – keeps him busy filming commercials and attending events. The work he does for his charitable foundation fills up the rest of his free time.

All are part of a lofty aspiration.

“My goal when I came here was to change the face of Orlando. To change the world’s perception, the United States’ perception, of people here,” Howard said. “And not just this franchise. I wanted to come here and really change everything.”

That goal comes with a price.

During a visit to Orlando’s Mall at Millenia for a charity event he recently hosted, Howard ignored the usual star treatment. He walked through the crowded mall’s front entrance without an entourage or even so much as a security guard.

Shoppers stopped in their steps, turning to gawk and take pictures with their cell phones as he walked past dressed in a black T-shirt and dark jeans. An autograph-seeking crowd began to swarm.

Howard could only laugh.

“It can get kind of crazy sometimes,” he said.

He walked into a shoe store to present the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida with a $20,000 check and gave 50 teenagers a $100 gift card to the store. He took a black cap with a red Superman “S” off the rack and wore it out after buying every kid a pair of shoes.

“The best thing about being me is being able to give back. The worst thing is that I’m too giving,” Howard said. “I’d give my last dime for anybody.”

With a chiseled physique and hands seemingly the size of a catcher’s mitt, Howard followed in the footsteps of one his idols – Garnett – in going straight to the NBA from high school in Atlanta. He took No. 12 for his jersey, in part, because it’s the reverse of Garnett’s 21 and allows him to pay homage to the player he looked up to as a kid.

The NBA now requires players to be one-year removed from high school before entering the league, making Howard the last high school player to be drafted with the first pick.

Howard says he would’ve picked North Carolina had he gone to college.

“I think about it all the time, ‘What would have happened if I went to college?”‘ he said. “If I went to college, I wouldn’t be in Orlando. I wouldn’t be in this situation. It’s worked out. I love the situation I’m in.”

Whatever situation he finds himself in, Howard is sure to keep up his playful ways.

In a recent installment of his favorite practical joke, Howard and a few friends donned the pig and clown masks from the “Saw” movies and stood up during a showing near the University of Central Florida, giving other attendees more than they bargained for when they bought tickets.

“They’re probably still having nightmares,” Howard joked.

That’s something he’d like to give opposing teams in the playoffs.

AP-ES-04-18-09 0005EDT

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