By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Engulfed by the influx of high-school phenoms such as LeBron James and college one-year wonders such as Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, Howard was dismissed by scouts in the 2003 NBA Draft like a 12-year-old playing in the Under-10 league. Sure, he was the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference's first unanimous MVP since 1975, top vote-getter on the All-Defense team and a first-team All-American. But Howard stayed at Wake Forest through his senior season, these days akin to membership in the leper colony.
If he's so good, the theory went, why'd he stay in school?
"I wanted to be the first man in my family to get a degree," says Howard, who'd been projected to go as high as 15th after his junior season. "I didn't want to be one of those guys that never went back to college. I knew there was more to life than basketball."
Howard's reward for having his priorities in order? Eight Europeans whose names could just as well be United Nations ambassadors were chosen ahead of him as he free-fell to the final pick of the first round (29th overall). After feverishly working to move up and draft (now Phoenix Suns forward) Boris Diaw, the Mavericks were stunned to see Howard still on the board.
"If ever there was a no-brainer pick for us, Josh was it," says Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson. "I mean, we were flat-out shocked he was falling to us. This is a trendy league, and at the time the international market was being overemphasized in a big way. Only way to say it is that we got lucky."
Says assistant coach Del Harris, "How Josh slipped through the cracks will go down as one of the all-time mysteries of the draft."
Howard internalized those slights and mobilized them into powerful, hypnotic carrots luring him to being a better player, a better person, a better parent. He plays like a man full of memory and fresh out of mercy, catapulting Dallas to early leads and deftly playing Robin to Nowitzki's Batman.
"It crosses my mind a lot," he says of his draft-day debacle. "I've never gotten a real explanation on why all those teams passed on me. But I'm doing my best to remind them that they made a big mistake. I've played on teams that have won 52, 58, 60 games, and now this season, so I must be doing something right."
And, to his first child—a 6-pound, 19-inch boy born January 31 in New York—he promises to be everything his father wasn't.
"It calms you down," says Howard, who reveals only that his son's name shares his initials. "I realize I'm living for someone else too. I've got to watch what I do. I'm going to be a 100 times better father than I had. My son's going to always know he's got a daddy who's there for him and who loves him."
LEAN ON ME
Let's not overdramatize it. Though he didn't have a consistent, positive male role model, Howard grew up in Winston-Salem's Tre-4 neighborhood surrounded by folks who cared about him.
"Sometimes there wasn't enough to eat in the house," he says. "But there was always a lot of love. Lots of love."
And, yes, plenty of hurdles. Twice before his second birthday Josh's severely bowed legs had to be broken below the knee and reset. ("When the casts came off and he took off running, we were relieved," Helen says.) His uncle Gaddy, Helen's only son, was killed in a robbery. One of his childhood friends was murdered in nearby Durham last year. And his sister, Forcynthia Brunt, got out of a Raleigh prison last month after serving time for, among other transgressions, spitting on a cop.
The traumas helped in a way, forcing Howard to develop a deep resolve, as well as a deeper, vengeful anger. On the surface cool and seemingly aloof, Josh would suddenly snap and go off crazier than an astronaut in diapers.
"Joshua had his moments," says Helen, 76 and still living in the same house in which she raised Howard, though now with satellite TV and NBA League Pass in all three bedrooms. "He wasn't perfect, and there were times when he had to be punished. He had problems in elementary school, in high school, at Wake Forest...But he's turned out to be a great grandson. Anyone would be proud of him."
At Kernersville Glenn High School, the rage prompted him to get in his share of skirmishes. At Wake Forest it caused him to butt heads with coach Dave Odom and eventually take an anger management course. In Dallas, it led to out-of-the-blue temper tantrums, punctuated by flingings of his headband.
Says Helen, "We raised him right, put him in AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] and in Sunday school right from the cradle. But he always wanted to teach his tutors. He wanted to be the one who intimidated his cousins."
Though in the season opener he was fined $5,000 for a violent shove to the chest of San Antonio Spurs irritant Bruce Bowen and last month he picked up a technical foul for woofing at Miami Heat interim coach Ron Rothstein, Howard's temper is down. Not surprisingly, his production is up.