I Love Josh Howard

...And great basketball

"The anger is still in me; I just have more of a control on it," he says. "Avery's told me that I'm a big piece of this puzzle, and I have so many roles I don't have time for jawing at the refs or throwing fits. I've got to keep my head. I'm pretty much a guy that keeps to myself anyway. I might be really mad and you wouldn't even know it. I don't spill my guts to many people."

Though he admits running with the wrong crowd in earlier days, some petty theft here and some drinking and smoking pot there, Howard never got arrested. Because he never strayed far from the path.

The route to a positive, productive life literally tracked through Howard's backyard. The well-worn dirt trail wound through some piney woods, over a fence, past the marshals watch-dogging the golf course, behind the No. 6 green and, finally, into the gym at Reynolds Park Recreation Center.

Magic Johnson thought Howard's exclusion from the All-Star lineup was a travesty.
Magic Johnson thought Howard's exclusion from the All-Star lineup was a travesty.

"We had to jump the fence at the course," Howard says. "And those old men that drove around with those flags on their carts, they didn't like that."

It was either hide-and-seek with the Metamucil marshals or make the longer, darker, tougher trek to Sprague Park. Howard, as he usually does, made the prudent choice.

"Reynolds was nice," he says. "Now Sprague, that joint was rough. Some bad dudes hung out there."

Howard was hangin' with some of those troublemakers—drinking, loitering, generally looking for trouble—on a Friday night during his senior year at Glenn when his common sense alarm clock blared loud and clear. When he should've been home studying for the next morning's SAT, Howard instead found himself face-down and handcuffed by undercover police who jumped from a van in the BP gas station parking lot.

"Remember it like it was yesterday," Howard says. "Never seen people hop out of a car faster than those guys. They thought I was selling drugs, but I wasn't. I was just blessed they didn't arrest me, just told me to go home. I ran home as fast as I could, hopped in bed and pulled up the covers. It woke my ass up for good."

Says Helen, "I didn't hear about that one until he was an adult. Probably a good thing."

Not surprisingly, Howard air-balled the SAT—needing a 950 to qualify for Wake Forest, he made "somewhere in the 500s"—and found himself spending a year at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. "It's no fun being 18 and having people tell you what to do every second of every day," he says. "I had a smart mouth on me, acting like I was grown. It was the best thing for me."

Howard so reveres his roots that last summer he declined an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic team, spurning a trip to Hong Kong to instead return to Winston-Salem and conduct his annual youth camps. At a time when playing for America is considered the ultimate honor, Howard's decision was universally lauded.

"My community needed me a lot more than my country," Howard said. "I go back every summer to show those kids tough love, tell them to stay off the streets. I'm giving them the advice I wish I had gotten. What would they do if I wasn't there, you know? They need me."

Under the same roof where he spent one summer working and countless hours playing, Howard signed the check for two basketball leagues, a cookout for 350 underprivileged kids and, with an assist from the Mavericks, a $30,000 upgrade to Reynolds Park featuring a new blue court with glass backboards and his autograph.

"You wouldn't always know it from his demeanor, but Josh is a very emotional person," says Nelson, who accompanied Howard to the court dedication. "He teared up big time. You could tell he was passionate about passing on his dream to the next generation of kids."

YOU'RE SWELL

You knew there'd be an All-Star—whose name started with "J" and whose uniform sported No. 5—scoring, passing, rebounding, defending and leading the Mavericks to an NBA Championship. Just figured it would be Jason Kidd, not Josh Howard.

If Nowitzki is German engineering—efficient, robotic, precise—Howard is a spontaneous splash of American ingenuity. While his teammate gets the "Dirk for MVP" MySpace page, Josh is the underrated star—solid at everything, spectacular at nothing—with the really crappy nickname. J-Ho?

"He does it all for us," Nowitzki says. "Whatever kind of play it takes to help us win, he'll do it. Three-pointers. Blocked shots. Steals. Anything. He's our energy from the start."

But after the way last season crash-landed, there were doubts about the Mavericks. Doubts about Howard.

He didn't single-handedly yank the plug on their Finals flop against the Miami Heat, but there were the two missed free throws in the final minute of the pivotal one-point loss in Game 5, the 5-of-16 shooting in Game 6 and the series-long failure to keep up with Dwyane Wade. Enter whispers that physically, Howard would struggle to recover from a broken right thumb he kept secret during The Finals. Enter even louder whispers that mentally, he'd be ruined by that controversial timeout—that he did or didn't call—which cost Dallas a decent look at a game-winning shot at the end of Game 5.

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