By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Says Howard, "I swear I didn't call time out."
Four days after elimination Howard was in Frisco for a charity baseball event, but you could see the hurt in his eyes. A week later those same eyes were wide with excitement, with adrenaline, with fear. While some Mavericks dealt with their disappointment in hibernation, Howard vacationed at a private island off the coast of Mexico and, of all things, went parasailing.
"And I'm scared of heights," Howard says. "I just wanted something to make me feel alive again."
Maybe it was floating in the air, tethered to a boat over the pristine Acapulco waters. Maybe it was maturity. Maybe, no, make that certainly, the new four-year, $40 million contract extension didn't hurt.
Whatever, Howard has grown up and grown into one of the NBA's best sidekicks.
His tangible edge has reshaped Dallas' image. Once smeared as "soft white boys" by former teammate Nick Van Exel, Howard's Mavericks don't take no shit from nobody.
"He's two different people," says Mavericks TV analyst Bob Ortegal. "Outside the lines he's soft-spoken. But when he laces 'em up he's extremely competitive. Part of it is Avery's influence and part of it's just maturity, but he's channeling all that energy in a positive direction. He's never intentionally a dirty player, but this kid never backs down."
Just as important as refining his tolerance, Howard has expanded his talent.
Still more of a slashing, slithering scorer than pure shooter, this season he's already made twice as many 3-pointers than last. His free-throw percentage is up from 72 to around 84. And with uncanny, innate instincts and a 6-foot-7, 210-pound body as wiry and wiggly as a lightning strike, nobody in the league tracks down more of his own misses.
"Several times I've seen a shot leave his hand and thought, 'That's off to the right,'" Ortegal says. "But before I can get a word out he's already gotten to the spot for the rebound and scored. He's got such long arms and quickness off the floor. Some of the stuff he does is incredible."
Howard attributes his knack for corralling loose balls to a childhood game called "Roll the Bat"—or Rolldabat—a baseball off-shoot where, basically, the first one to field the ball is the next one to bat.
"I'm used to scrambling and chasing things," Howard says.
As much as their deeper bench, it's Howard's deeper commitment that has the Mavericks in prime position to return to this summer's NBA Finals.
"We knew he had the hardware to be good," Nelson says. "But he's also shown us the software to get even better."
While reserve Austin Croshere might score 34 points one night and zero the next in back-to-back victories, Howard has been a pumping piston all season. He had the game-winning layup in Toronto January 14, and in the January 19 game featuring MVP candidates Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant, Howard was the best player on the court with 29 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, two steals, a block and a hustling breakup of a Lakers fast break with the Mavs leading by 22 in the third quarter. Of course a week later in Chicago he was an atrocious 4 of 20 in a rare loss, but hey, he's only 26 years old. Kids will be kids, right?
"Consistency," Johnson says. "That's the thing we're working on with Josh."
When Howard is good, the Mavericks are great. In a stat that would make Emmitt Smith blush, over the last two seasons the Mavericks are 37-2 when Howard scores 20-plus points. And usually he's at full speed before his teammates break a sweat.
While Dirk feels his way into games and often saves his best for last, Howard surges into the opening tip like his cockeyed headband is on fire.
"I like to jump on 'em before they know it," says Howard, who has a team-leading 16 double-digit first quarters. "If I was a boxer I'd throw the haymaker in the first round."
Howard is the team's best defender, best offensive rebounder and—now clearly—second-best player. Though neither is flirting with similar statures, the Mavs' dynamic duo of Howard and Nowitzki is not unlike the Chicago Bulls' Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan. Dirk scores the points; Josh stuffs the stat sheet. And, most nights, everyone goes home happy.
"This team is special," Howard says. "Some nights we win when I'm the second-best player. Some nights we can win if I'm No. 4."
I LOVE YOU
From his daily calls to Helen to his tattoos—Taurus on his left arm, "Live Your Life" on his left wrist and Helen's "1500" street address on his chest—Howard won't forget where he's from.
Neither, however, will he shy away from where he's headed.
Though he's not dating seriously—"I've got some friends," he says with a smile—he is looking to settle down in Dallas and is shopping for houses around White Rock Lake. He often drives one of his four cars, including a '73 Chevy Caprice Classic, around town.
"I've got this contract, one more, and then by 33, I'm gone," Howard says. "I've got a lot more to offer than just basketball. I'm going to open up the Josh Howard Foundation in Winston and here. I've got a degree in religion. I'm looking into real estate. I'd like to start some group homes for kids. Whatever it is, I'll be here in Dallas at least part of the time. I love it here."