The 30: The Sudden Cys

Running Out of Luck

Josh Howard: No Regrets

After a season in the D-League, the former Dallas Mavericks All-Star looks back on his career and prepares to make one last push at earning back a spot in the NBA

The jump shot seldom betrays the pure shooter. It is the rest of the body that, with age, breaks down like a car with too much mileage. It is the ankles, battered through too many stops and starts, twists and turns. It is the knees that have endured so many liftoffs and landings. But a good jumper? That can last a lifetime. On his best days, Josh Howard stopped on a dime in that perfect sequence when his defender backpedaled a step too far and help defense remained a step away. He rose, cocked, and released the ball into the awaiting nets. He is now 34, and for the most part, his once deadly pull-up game is a memory, but not always. He was the Howard of old for one fleeting moment last month, when he played for the New Orleans Pelicans at summer league in Las Vegas. He was the natural-born scorer, pushing forward for 14 points off jumpers and drives and calling out switches on defense. He was happy, eager even, to perform in a setting normally restricted for rookies, wannabes, and dreamers — in the same gym where he had once performed as an NBA All-Star. But he is one of the hopefuls now, looking forward to one final chance at restarting his career, appreciative of his past and optimistic about his future.

Although Howard finds himself back near the bottom of the NBA totem pole, he doesn’t regret the choices he’s made. Some led him to become that All-Star and a dynamic forward who played a crucial role for the almost-champion 2006 Mavericks; others, like a handful of controversial comments, hurt his reputation and darkened the light on a once promising career. A flood of injuries didn’t help either. His NBA run seemed to end almost as soon as he had peaked. “I’ve had the worst of the worst, man. I’ve just never let that define me,” Howard said. “I say everybody’s got a story. It’s what you do with that story that defines a person.”

Dave Odom was furious in December 2000, furious enough to contemplate whether his Demon Deacons would be better off without Josh Howard, the team’s talented but turbulent sophomore. Wake Forest had hammered Georgia, but Howard had put the blowout in jeopardy.

Howard had played a splendid first half. But the coach seethed over a sequence early in the second half in which Howard absorbed a hard foul from Georgia’s D.A. Layne and crashed to the floor after trying for a loose ball. Howard rose, yelling at Layne and Layne’s teammate Adrian Jones. An official assessed Howard with two technicals and an automatic ejection, and Howard needed to be restrained by his coaches before exiting the court. “We just got into a heated argument and it got real serious,” Layne recently remembered. “It was one of the most heated arguments I’ve been in, in my career … He was ready [to fight]. I was ready, but I think he took it a little further than I did.”

Watching his young star leave the court, Odom thought about how much easier his job had been just a few seasons earlier. Howard was a new generation of player. Before him, Odom had coached guys like Tim Duncan and Randolph Childress, All-Americans who seemed to possess a poise and work ethic beyond their years. When Odom would wonder if he had coached them too hard, Duncan and Childress would pop up and ask to be coached even tougher the next day. Why? Odom asked himself about Howard. Why would I put up with that?

Odom relayed his dilemma to Wake Forest assistant coach Ernie Nestor, who preached patience. Nestor still believed they could harness Howard’s multiple talents. This was a rare player, he thought, the kind Wake would be foolish to give up on. Nestor envisioned the force Howard could become on the court — how he could slash, rebound, and defend every position. The Deacons had been lucky enough to have players like Childress and Duncan — they knew how hard it was to find players of Howard’s caliber.

“You want to be hardheaded, or do you want to develop this kid and help him become the kind of player he can be, not only for us, but for beyond?” Nestor asked. Odom slept on it. “I came back and told my staff the next day that I’m going to work harder to understand Josh and to help him become all that he can be,” Odom recalled. “That was a turning point in our relationship. I realized at that point that it wasn’t all about me. Here’s a young guy who still had some growing to do, and I’m a grown man.”

Herman Eure had also watched the game. Eure had enrolled at Wake Forest as a graduate student in 1969. Five years later, he became the school’s first full-time black faculty member hired on a tenure track. He had risen to become chairman of the biology department. He knew a little about Howard — that he was a top recruit and had grown up in Winston-Salem under the care of his grandmother and mother and without his father. To Eure, Howard had stumbled into a stereotype of a young black man responding to adversity with aggression. Eure considered it his duty to help and mentor when he could. He found Howard on campus a few days after the game and stopped him: “Mr. Howard, I need to talk to you. From one black man to another, I don’t care if you get mad at me or not, but someone needs to tell you about your behavior. That’s not the response you should be giving when something happens. There’s a stereotype that people talk about with black men, and basically, you just played right into their hands. You can do better than that.”

Who is this guy? Howard thought. He could have huffed and left, but instead he listened. Perhaps out of instinct more than anything else, Howard sensed that Eure had his best interests in mind. The professor and player would forge a lasting relationship. Throughout the ups and downs, Eure has made himself available to counsel Howard.

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Al Bello/Getty Images

Odom wasn’t surprised that coaching Howard had led to some headaches. He was initially hesitant about recruiting Howard after one of their early interactions at a Wake Forest basketball camp. As Odom approached Howard in the stands, then-Deacons Duncan, Childress, and their teammates played pickup. Odom tried engaging Howard in small talk. He received only one-word responses. Finally, Odom asked Howard if he would like to play with some of the finest players in the nation.

“No, I don’t think so,” Howard said. The response shocked Odom.

“You had some of the best players in the ACC and even the country out there, and most high school kids would jump at that to play against them,” he recalled. “[Howard] didn’t want to do that. I don’t think he was afraid. To be honest with you, I didn’t know what to think.”

Howard vividly remembers being asked to play and recalls feeling confused about his future at the time. “As far as just living life, I didn’t know where I wanted to take my career as far as basketball,” he said. “I had just started taking it serious … I figured if I could get the opportunity, it was going to come regardless.”

Howard was born bowlegged. His limbs were so curved that doctors had to break them and reset them in casts so he could walk straight. His mother, Nancy, was a teenager when she gave birth to him. Howard was raised under her care and also under the watchful eye of his grandmother, Helen. The family attended church a few times each week. Howard grew up on the east side of Winston-Salem, and he rarely crossed into any other area. “A train track basically divided the city,” Howard said. “We didn’t cross the train tracks coming from the south and the east side because we figured wasn’t too much going on on that side anyway. Actually, where I live at now, if I was in high school we would have thought that was like an all-day trip.” Howard wasn’t even familiar with Wake Forest, the ACC school in his hometown. He was set on attending Winston-Salem State University, where some of his relatives, as well as Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, had gone. “It’s amazing, being from Winston, I didn’t know Wake Forest was over there until Tim Duncan,” Howard said. “People don’t believe me, but it goes back to that train track thing.”

Howard sank his energy into basketball. When his grandmother and mother would nag him to do chores, he’d sneak off to the recreation center and stay all day shooting. He realized he had talent and worked to develop it. “I don’t wanna say easy,” Howard said of the way he picked up the game, “but it came natural.”

Some believed he inherited his athletic gifts from his father. Howard did not know. He remembers first meeting his father when he was about 8 years old. It was a fleeting encounter. His father did not seek out a relationship even though he still lived in Winston-Salem. “I still gave him an opportunity in high school,” Howard remembered. “He showed me his other hand, so it was like, Well, I did it twice. If there’s ever a chance we can meet again and talk about things, I’ll let him do the talking mostly. I’m 34 now, so there ain’t too much he can tell me outside what I’ve already figured out with the bumps in the road, things that he probably don’t want to think of.”

At Glenn High School in nearby Kernersville, Howard played for Napoleon Cloud, an old-school coach who stressed fundamentals like defense and energy. He was one of Howard’s first father figures, but he would not be the last. Howard developed into a star and played mostly in the interior. He was lightly recruited as an adequate student who struggled with standardized tests. After their first meeting, Odom remained unsure about Howard. He questioned whether Howard was the right fit for Wake Forest and whether Wake was the right fit for Howard. He decided to test the player.

“Josh, you want to come to Wake Forest?” Odom asked. By then, Odom had learned not to ask Howard questions unless he wanted short, direct answers. Howard said, “Yes, sir. I do.” He didn’t seem terribly excited about the opportunity to play ACC basketball.

“I’m going to offer you a scholarship, but I’m going to offer it to you a year from now,” Odom explained. “If you will go to prep school, which I’ll help work out for you, do well in your books, get your grades up, and if you really work on your game, I’ll give you a scholarship a year from now.”

Howard simply said, “OK. I’ll do it.”

Again, the response surprised Odom. “Most kids would show disappointment or be disconsolate, withdrawn, heads would pop down, but he just looked me right in the eye,” Odom said.

Howard’s year at Hargrave Military Academy proved tough. The Virginia boarding school flexed a powerhouse basketball program. Howard joined a lineup with David West. They had no phones or television and strict curfews. “Being told what to do militarywise?” Howard said. “For a 17-year-old? Yeah, that’s tough.”

He stayed a year and expected liberation in college. That was not to be the case. Odom was the first aggressive coach under whom Howard had tutored, the first Howard had seen scream and kick a chair or two. Likewise, Odom found that Howard could be confrontational. “His first year was a difficult year for both of us,” Odom said. “His personality and my personality clashed at times. I don’t know that he’d had anybody be that demanding in the way in which I was asking him to stand up and be the player that I thought he could be.”

Howard also had to learn to be a better student. If it was not Eure stopping him, it was his history professor Beth Hopkins. She confronted him one day when he arrived in class without his books.

“I’m ready, Mrs. Hopkins,” Howard replied.

“No way,” she said. “You can’t come to class without your textbooks, and that’s been emphasized over and over and over again.” She ordered Howard to leave and return with his books.

Howard later told Hopkins that no one had ever cared enough to make him do something like that. He was a promising athlete, and teachers had let him skate by. Teachers like Eure and Hopkins “made me realize that I didn’t have to major in the same thing all the athletes did,” Howard said. “I can go out and do something else, which I did. I majored in religion and minored in international studies.”

Odom left in 2001, after Howard’s sophomore year. Wake Forest had collapsed that season, losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament after being ranked as high as fourth in the nation. Odom didn’t receive a contract extension, and he moved on to South Carolina. Skip Prosser, who had once coached David West at Xavier, replaced Odom. Howard had played with West at Hargrave and received word from West that Prosser was trustworthy. Upon receiving the job, Prosser drove Howard around Winston-Salem and laid out some expectations. “He made me realize it was more to life than just being a 3-to-6 guy who knew what time practice was,” Howard said. “He said if you want to accomplish more in life, you need to be a 6-to-3 guy outside of practice. It’s not just what you do at practice, but also outside of it. That always stuck with me.” Howard played well enough to declare for the NBA draft after his junior year, but decided to return to school.

Eure again found him one day on campus early in his senior year and dispensed more advice. “Mr. Howard,” he began, as he always did, “you’re going to be the team captain, the person everyone looks up to. There’s going to be times on the floor when a call goes against you that you will know you didn’t do it, everybody knows you didn’t do it, but the referees don’t change calls. What you’re going to have to do is suck it up.”

Howard went on to be the unanimous ACC Player of the Year. Before him, only Shane Battier had amassed 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists, 100 blocks, and 100 3-pointers in a season. Yet when it was time for the 2003 NBA draft, Howard fell to the end of the first round, when Dallas selected him with the 29th pick. “He was the best player left on the board, so it wasn’t a tough call,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote in an email response to Grantland’s questions about Howard’s career. Howard later wondered why he had lasted so long. Some of the teams that passed on him reportedly had concerns about his character and whether his game had any more upside.

Eure came across Howard on the school’s running track after the draft. He saw that Howard was disappointed. He tried to put it all in perspective. “You were drafted in the first round of the NBA,” Eure told him. “Nobody can ever take that away from you. You were drafted by the right team. A lot of people who got drafted before you aren’t going to make it, but you’re going to make it.”

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Howard joined one of the Western Conference’s best and deepest teams in Dallas. “We needed a break there to take him,” said then–Mavericks coach Don Nelson. “We would have taken him as high as probably 12. We had him really high up on the board. The basketball gods were good to us.” Dallas had plenty of scoring during Howard’s rookie season, with Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Michael Finley, and Antoine Walker, so Nelson instructed Howard to focus on rebounding and defense.

Howard gave the team exactly what Nelson wanted and was named a starter shortly into his rookie season. The following year, Nelson abruptly resigned a month after the All-Star break and named his protégé, Avery Johnson, head coach. Johnson asked Howard if he wanted to be a good player in the NBA. Howard, Johnson thought, did not always put in the work in practice to be elite, but with time, Johnson believed Howard could develop into one of the game’s better small forwards. Slowly, Johnson watched Howard mature as a player.

The Mavericks were at their best in 2006, and Howard’s deadly midrange game was an important facet of their attack. He had perfected his pull-up jumper, suddenly stopping his dribble and timing his release in that split second when his defender had backpedaled a step too far to challenge his shot. Howard’s repertoire also included a feathery floater that preserved his body from the impact he would have absorbed if he had always tried to finish at the rim. Howard and Nowitzki combined for one of the game’s top forward duos. “They were great,” Cuban wrote. “Josh was our best first quarter scorer, which took pressure off of Dirk and the other guys to put points on the board early. Plus Josh had a toughness that we hadn’t had before.”

“If I didn’t get those seven to 11 points in the first quarter, the tone would be off,” Howard said. “I knew we basically had a regimen. I was the party starter. Dirk, [Jason Terry], [Jerry] Stackhouse, and all those other guys, second through the third and even in the fourth, that was their thing. I just needed to get on defense and contribute rebounding.” Johnson remembers Howard as one of the best first-quarter scorers he’s ever seen. “There were games he would come out and get 12, 14, 16 points in the first quarter,” Johnson said. “It would set the tone for us for the rest of the game. He just had this energy and this bounce in his step early in the game unlike any player I’ve ever seen.”

Dallas went 60-22 in 2005-06 and earned the fourth seed in an extremely competitive Western Conference. The Mavs beat Memphis in the first round before outlasting top seed and in-state rival San Antonio in seven games. Then they beat the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns, led by former Mav and reigning league MVP Nash, in the Western Conference finals. Flying back into Dallas after the win, the team’s plane circled the airport twice and Howard caught sight of the fans gathered on the ground. The scene sent chills up his spine.

Miami awaited Dallas in the Finals, where the Mavericks seized a 2-0 series lead and appeared on their way to a championship. Parade plans were arranged. Dallas carried a 13-point lead midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 and appeared on its way to a possible sweep before it all came crashing down. Dwyane Wade slashed and scored his way to 12 of Miami’s last 22 points. Howard was tasked with attempting to stop him. He tried to make Wade shoot jumpers, but the Miami guard’s play defied the scouting report. “He wasn’t a shooter, so give him a step and challenge the shot late,” Howard explained. “But he’d knock that shot down, and he’d get to the basket still.”

As time was about to expire and Dallas trailed by two points, Nowitzki inbounded an alley-oop pass to Howard. Howard and Wade both leaped at the same time and Wade got a finger on the ball — just enough to prevent Howard’s catch and finish. “We were both right there, and that’s when I was a jumper,” Howard said. “For Avery to even trust me enough to draw up that play, you know, I put my all into it. I know Dwyane’s a hell of an athlete as well, but that’s what happens in basketball: It could all go one way or the other. I was probably pissed for about a month afterward. I had to bring myself back to knowing that, Shit, I did something most people won’t do in their life. Just be happy with it.”

Dallas never recovered from the Game 3 loss. “I have blacked that all out of my mind,” Cuban wrote. They dropped the next three games, watching as Wade made trip after trip to the free throw line. “It slipped,” Howard said. “Honestly, it was like everything slipped out of our hands. We had the opportunity when were up 2-0. I think just the whole overall nature of the surroundings, our first time in the Finals, not knowing how to handle all that pressure — it got to us. We were hanging in there every game after that. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”

“It was close, man,” Johnson remembered. “Sometimes when you make it that far, it’s a game of inches. Josh was a major part along with Dirk and the rest of the guys, making it as far as we did with such a young team. Every time I go back and look, we were young and we weren’t even experienced. Dirk had never been to the Finals. But those guys, Dirk and Josh, were one of the best one-two combinations at the small forward and power forward position. They had different personalities, but they had great chemistry on the court.”

Dallas stormed back the following year, finishing with a league-best 67 wins. Howard played the finest season of his career to date and was named to the Western Conference All-Star team. But Dallas ran into the “We Believe” Warriors in the first round and suffered a shocking six-game upset. Nelson, the Mavs’ former coach, had by then resurfaced to take over Golden State, and he used the Warriors’ smaller, rangy defenders to slow down Nowitzki. Said Howard: “I knew that putting a guy my size like Stephen Jackson on [Nowitzki], I knew it would be tough for him, because Dirk needs one or two dribbles to get a shot off. If you’re right there messing with him, it’s going to be tough … Hell, I remember with me, they had me isolated to go one way and I’d spin, have another guy go right down my backside soon as I would spin. Coach Nelson had a hell of a game plan.” Nelson said his recent experience coaching the Mavs didn’t give Golden State a particular advantage. “We just went on a roll,” Nelson explained. “We were pretty good, and we had a lot of players that could play at a high level, and they did through that period of time … We thought we could beat them and we did. We thought we could beat Utah in the next series, but we didn’t.”

As good as he was on the court, Howard’s off-court sound bites soon came to dominate his headlines. Howard’s grandmother had raised him to be proud and honest, so when Michael Irvin asked him in 2008 about using marijuana on his radio show, Howard didn’t mince words. “Most of the players in the league use marijuana, and I have and do partake in smoking weed in the offseason sometimes,” Howard told Irvin. “I mean, that’s my personal choice and that’s my personal opinion, but I don’t think that’s stopping me from doing my job.” It was uncommon to hear such a blunt, unvarnished statement from a high-profile pro athlete. Many fans and members of the media recoiled at Howard’s comments, not only because of their content but also their timing. The interview took place when Dallas was down 2-0 to Chris Paul’s New Orleans Hornets in the 2008 playoffs and the Mavericks were on the verge of yet another postseason disappointment.

Howard made a bad situation worse the night of Game 4, when the Mavericks lost and fell into a 3-1 series hole and Howard passed out flyers for his birthday party in the postgame locker room. New Orleans went on to eliminate Dallas in the next game. “You were disappointed that something like that would come out in a playoff series,” Johnson said. “Everybody has made mistakes, and I think if Josh could do it all over again, he wouldn’t have made those comments.” Eure, Howard’s former professor, recalled a conversation they had after the controversy. Eure understood that Howard had wanted to stay true to himself — that he felt like he had no reason to be ashamed and no need to hide his recreational use of marijuana. But there should still be boundaries, Eure told Howard. “Telling a reporter that ‘I have no comment’ is not telling a lie,” Eure said. “It’s simply saying, ‘I’m not responding to you.’” He explained: “That’s a function of somebody not being educated enough in how to deal with the press to know when to say something and when not to say something. Saying, ‘I don’t have any comment,’ isn’t a lie, it just means It’s none of your damn business, so I don’t have to respond to that.”

The angry public reaction surprised Howard. He apologized. “It was like, damn, I offended people,” Howard said. “I wanted to let these people know I didn’t say that to offend nobody. I was just saying it as a point. But having talks with people who’ve been in that situation, the first thing I heard was, Some things you keep to yourself.”

Howard found himself embroiled in another controversy a few months later, when a video of him at a charity football game popped up on YouTube. “‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is going on right now,” Howard says to the camera. “I don’t even celebrate that shit. I’m black.” Howard had been joking among friends, but the video was posted online, where it went viral and inspired heated, angry reactions. Cuban came to Howard’s defense in the rush to judgment. On his blog, Cuban posted some of the hateful emails he had received from people about the Howard incident, highlighting the unfair aspects of the situation. “I wanted to point out the irony of them experiencing the onslaught of attention from suddenly and unexpectedly being placed in the (news) media spotlight from a throwaway comment,” Cuban wrote on his blog. Cuban told Grantland in his email, “I think Josh sometimes outsmarted himself.” He explained how Howard’s outspoken nature could sometimes work against him, even if he had a right to be heard: “He is a great guy. Good heart. But he seemed to find ways to sabotage himself at the wrong times. When he wasn’t happy, you knew about it. Or if he felt he wasn’t being heard, you knew about it. It was something he struggled with.”

Looking back at it all, Howard somewhat agrees with Cuban. “I mean, anybody else would’ve voiced their opinion,” Howard said. “How do you cover up your anger or hold your tongue when you see something’s not right? They try to tell athletes to be quiet and not voice your opinion. If you have a guy that actually graduated from college, wasn’t a failure in what he did, he didn’t have nobody help him get through school, just because he can tell you he’s upset about not playing, what’s wrong with that? So, yeah, I take that with a grain of salt and just keep moving. If I didn’t outsmart myself, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’m glad I outsmarted myself. Shit, I’d do it again.” Athletes who offer bland quotes are considered boring. But those who offer honest opinions are often ostracized. It is a tight balancing act, one in which Howard teetered too far to one side.

He went on to say he has a deep respect for Cuban. “I never fault Mark for anything,” Howard said. “That man gave me the opportunity to work, support my family, be comfortable. He could talk junk about me all day and I’d still love that man.”

Still, followers of the NBA were beginning to develop a negative image of Howard. “I knew that wasn’t me,” he said. “It’s the perception without people even asking me. They just want to go off what they read or what they heard from somebody who thinks they know me.” A week before the 2010 trade deadline, Dallas sent Howard to Washington with Drew Gooden, Quinton Ross, and James Singleton for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson. “Of course I wanted to finish my career in Dallas,” Howard said. “What player wouldn’t want to finish their career where they started off? But I saw it as a new beginning as well.”

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Howard had left the stability of Dallas for the relative chaos of Washington. The Wizards were in disarray from the repercussions of the Gilbert Arenas–Javaris Crittenton locker-room guns incident. The franchise hoped to begin rebuilding around Howard, but he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee just minutes into his fourth game with the team. He twisted the knee while turning to receive an inbounds pass from Mike Miller. “I had seven points in the first seven minutes, getting ready to get nine and 10, and a guy pushed me from behind and my knee went one way and my body went the other,” Howard said. “That was it.” He had been injured before, but never this severely. The ACL tear would be the first in a series of debilitating setbacks that stopped Howard’s career in its prime. He played 22 games in a season and a half with the Wizards. Meanwhile, the Mavericks, including several of his former teammates, rallied to beat Wade, LeBron James, and the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. “I feel like I helped them win that ring in 2011, which is a blessing,” Howard said. “Even though I got traded, that wasn’t a big deal because that’s part of the game. To see Dirk, Jason — guys that I went through the wars with — to see them finally get a ring, I was happy for them.”

After Washington, Howard signed a one-year deal with the Utah Jazz, where head coach Tyrone Corbin remembered Howard from his Dallas prime. “Oh, he was absolutely a nightmare because of the way he could cut in the lane,” Corbin said. But Howard’s game had changed. “He was coming off the injury and wanted to try and rebound his career,” said Corbin, now an assistant in Sacramento. “He did a great job with us, being in shape and playing with his veteran leadership to help us have a chance to get better.” Howard enjoyed his time in Utah and managed to fight through a meniscus tear in his left knee. He played like a veteran now, relying less on his athleticism and more on his court smarts and experience. Corbin even started Howard the first three games of Utah’s 2012 playoff series against San Antonio. “A lot of people think Utah is a bad place to play, but hell nah,” Howard said. “That fan support is so crazy up there. You have a home-court advantage there, a serious one.” He signed in Minnesota the next fall, but his time there was short-lived. One month into the season, he tore the ACL in his right knee and the Timberwolves released him six days later. “They did the MRI and it came back torn,” Howard said. “I was like, Damn, man. I didn’t have no swelling, no atrophy, nothing. [The doctor] told me it was torn. He showed it to me. It was just hanging. I’ll never forget: I started crying. When those tears dried up in maybe like two minutes, I thought it was going to be over as far as the knee thing.”

As coach of the Development League’s Austin Toros, Ken McDonald likens training camp to the first day of college. Everyone is trying to feel out everyone else. He didn’t know what to expect of Howard when the player arrived in Austin last fall. Howard had signed with the Toros after spending part of camp with the San Antonio Spurs, and he wanted to stay close to the organization and his home in Dallas. He simply told McDonald that he would do whatever the coach expected of him.

Howard could have retired. His body had been ravaged by injuries. He had made a small fortune off basketball. Only a few years earlier, he had earned $10 million a season, flown on chartered planes, and enjoyed Dallas’s state-of-the-art locker room. With the Toros, Howard settled for $25,000, commercial flights with connections, and practices at a community center with a locker room so cramped that the team often found more room to change in a closet.

Howard played because he still enjoyed the game — it still gave him peace like it did when he was a kid sneaking away to the recreation center to avoid his household chores. But to keep his career alive, Howard had to prepare himself mentally to return to the court. “You’re always thinking, Damn, am I going to fall in that same position?” Howard said. For the first half of the season, his body cooperated. Howard played well and mentored the team’s young players, only to be saddled with a new injury. A sports hernia in late February made for another truncated season.

Now, the jump in Howard’s step is gone, but he’s still working to regain a foothold in the league. “I want to show these guys I still have my legs, I still have my work ethic, and I’m 34,” Howard said after suiting up for the New Orleans Pelicans in a game in last month’s NBA summer league. “I’m still out here running around with these 24-year-olds.” After a strong opening performance in Las Vegas, his playing time dwindled until it disappeared. The New Orleans coaching staff knew what Howard could do and wanted to look at younger players.

Even if Howard does make it back onto an NBA roster for next season, the league he’ll be rejoining has transformed since he starred in it with Dallas. The influence of advanced statistics in NBA front offices and coaching staffs has placed a premium on high-efficiency shots near the rim and behind the 3-point line. The midrange game, Howard’s specialty, has been devalued. But Howard believes the NBA will always need players like him. “You still need to be conventional,” he said. “You can guard anybody if you take somebody off the 3-point line. If they can’t drive and they don’t have no pull-up game, then what they out there for? If you can have somebody going out in one direction real hard and you can stop on a dime and pull up and you can make it? That’s saving your legs. That’s saving fouls.”

Many fans believe that Howard’s career — along with his reputation — cratered after the controversies his comments created. But that may be a misconception, an easy narrative to believe about a player who has been portrayed as a troublemaker. Howard believes he could have been a perennial All-Star had he never suffered the knee injuries. “It’s funny that people still bring up [the viral video] and that that’s the only thing they know me for,” Howard said. “Well, that’s not the only thing they know me for. Shit, even [in Las Vegas], people run up to me and ask for autographs and stuff. So I knew it was part of my history, but it ain’t what defines me. Like every athlete, somebody had a bump in the road, nobody has a straight, fresh, great career. It’s something that’s just a part of my career.” Others believe him. “There was never any question about his love of the game,” Cuban told Grantland. “And Josh is a smart guy. But like all of us, it takes time to grow up. We aren’t the same person we are at 32 that we were at 22. We learn life’s lesson … I think if his body hadn’t betrayed him, he would still be an all-star.”

Meanwhile, plenty of Howard’s former coaches rooted for him at summer league. “I’ve got nothing but total respect for Josh,” Odom said. “I am so proud of everything that he’s done to get to where he is now … Part of life is meeting adversity head-on and continuing to try to knock the door down. If you say anything at all about Josh Howard, you’ve got to say that’s what he’s doing. He’s not running away from bad luck or disappointment.” And Howard still keeps in touch with Eure. “Given how he grew up, he has come from A to Z,” Eure said. “Does that mean he’s perfect? No, it doesn’t. But this is a quality young man who has worked very hard and has made a good life for himself.”

Even though he’s fighting to extend his basketball career, Howard has already begun looking into the next chapter in his life. For years, he has wanted to open a day-care center that won’t just watch over children while their parents are at work, but will also introduce them to positive role models. “Even with me walking through day cares, touring and having kids walk up to me like I’m their dad,” Howard said, “that touched my heart and made me realize a lot of these kids have been looking for that male companionship.” He may also give coaching a shot, or even scouting. Who knows, perhaps he’ll spot another raw talent like he once was.

“I sit back and think about my career and I wouldn’t change it, outside of the bonehead stuff I did,” Howard said. “If I could change anything, it would be the injuries. I feel like I could still be an All-Star, and I feel like I still have a lot in the tank left. But if it’s not for me to leave it out there on the court, hopefully I can get a chance to coach and get whatever is left out of me [and] into somebody else.”

Filed Under: NBA, Josh Howard, Dallas Mavericks, NBA Summer League, Mark Cuban, Wake Forest, ACC Basketball, Dirk Nowitzki

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Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. He is working on a book about the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation of players.

Archive @ JPdabrams