By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Here's what Josh Howard got you for Valentine's:
Versatile talent and a vicious temperament, which have possessed your Dallas Mavericks to grab the NBA's best record and shed their notorious "soft" label.
A reserved role model, who forged his success squeezing positive lessons from a dicey environment.
A star athlete who refreshingly cherishes, even chooses, community over country and family over fame.
And what did you get him in return? Nothing. Not a damn thing.
No appreciation. No legit spot on the All-Star team. No respect. No draft props. No sliver of spotlight in Dirk Nowitzki's shadow. Not even one of those cheap-ass boxes of pastel, heart-shaped candies with sappy-sweet sayings such as, oh, I dunno, I'M UR #1 FAN.
"I learned a long time ago not to count on other people to validate you, to make you feel good about yourself," Howard says. "I know who I am. And I'm cool with it."
He isn't just Joshin'. Howard is content with his relatively anonymous stardom. Said as much during a recent post-practice interview atop a stationary bike at American Airlines Center. As workers nearby frantically erected a stage for that night's WWE style over substance, Howard took off his trademark headband, set aside his surly on-court demeanor and calmly, humbly talked at length about living in peace despite disrespect from his father and a slap in the face from his peers.
"I've said being an All-Star isn't a big deal, but it is kinda," Howard says. "Two things I'm determined to do in basketball—win a championship and be an All-Star. Might as well cross 'em off the list in the same year."
Three days later, Josh got jobbed.
Despite being the No. 2 player on the No. 1 team, he wasn't voted to the All-Star squad by fans or Western Conference coaches. Last week NBA Commissioner David Stern handed Howard a consolation-prize invitation, but only after injuries to Utah's Carlos Boozer and Houston's Yao Ming opened two roster spots.
Despite averaging 20 points and seven rebounds and energizing a team that's lost only five times in the last 100 days, he'll be in Las Vegas this weekend playing on basketball's coolest, hottest stage as an All-Star afterthought.
"I've got a problem with it, I really do," Hall of Famer-turned-analyst Magic Johnson said of Howard's omission from the original roster on TNT's All-Star special last week. "Josh Howard should be an All-Star. Period."
Says Nowitzki, "It's a shame. He's played at an All-Star level all season."
Howard's belated inclusion inches the event toward justice. After all, six teams with worse records—including the sub-.500 New Jersey Nets—had two players selected for the trip to Sin City to the Mavericks' one (Nowitzki). The slight means a couple things: 1) Considering their lofty 42-9 record and lone star, Dirk must be a no-brainer Most Valuable Player and, likewise, Avery Johnson a lock on Coach of the Year, and 2) that Howard will play the remainder of his season—of his career?—with not only talent oozing from his fingertips but a chip clinging to his shoulder.
"Motivation," Howard labels his exclusion. "It'll make me stronger. I've been an underdog my whole life, so this is really no different."
Says Avery, "He's already a highly motivated player. Now he'll be even more so. But the great thing about Josh, he won't do it selfishly. He'll do it the right way."
Would it kill us to pass around the candies and shower Josh Howard with a little unconditional love?
All-Star dis be damned, Joshua Jay Howard has made a career, even a life, out of pretzeling snubs into success.
"You know, he's a pretty tough kid," Avery says. "He's been bypassed before."
Like, say, on Day 1.
Howard's father, Kevin Robinson, walked out on him and his family at birth. Raised by his grandma, Helen Howard, in a wood-frame house in East Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Josh didn't meet Dad until he was 8. Until it was too late.
His mom, Nancy Henderson, took Josh to Robinson's house one day, only to have the youngster ignore his father and instead gravitate instantly to dad's grandmother.
"I don't remember if it was a hug or a handshake, I just remember it wasn't the best experience," Howard says. "I was a young kid, but I knew enough to know this was the man that left me."
Not surprisingly, the abandonment shaped Josh's makeup, hardening his exterior and fortifying his skepticism. Howard is slow to trust, slower to open up. But his armor can be dented, evidenced by him eventually letting Robinson tiptoe back into his life. Albeit regrettably.
Howard left tickets for his dad at one of his Wake Forest games, only to learn from the strangers occupying the seats that he'd scalped them for cash. These days Robinson will show up for one of Howard's summer barbecues back in North Carolina, but only at a safe distance.
"He's lucky I give him the time of day," Howard says emphatically. "I'm not saying he's a truly bad person, it's just...he can't get on the right side of things."
Like, say, in Round 1.