Exposing bigotry, Mark Cuban saved Josh Howard from the spotlight

Fans' racist comments made a victim of the Mavericks' anthem-dissing forward

Never thought I'd feel sorry for a Hummer owner.

Never thought I'd start a Josh Howard column with this word:

Victim.

But because being a racist trumps being unpatriotic and because Mark Cuban is as ballsy as he is brilliant, the Dallas Mavericks' forward's recent verbal flag-burning isn't the most nauseating transgression in town. Neither, surprisingly, is that old man's videoed vandalizing of a Southlake Hummer.

Nope, but try the disgusting and frightening reactions to Howard's action.

" ...dumb coon nigger."

" ...hanged..."

" ...throwing spears in Africa."

Had enough? Me too.

I won't waste too much precious space trying to defend Howard's vulgar dissing of the national anthem at a charity function in July. After the First Amendment—the part protecting freedom of speech—his point pretty much dissolves into nothing more than a fool keepin' it real with other fools. Whatever the motivation or explanation, Howard comes off despicable.

But Cuban, visionary rebel that he is, sees things differently. The guy who turned himself into a billionaire by turning a computer into a radio and the Mavericks into winners has somehow turned Howard into a sympathetic figure.

Brace yourself. It's a jarring road to enlightenment.

Just 18 months removed from being an All-Star with a new $40 million contract and seemingly unlimited basketball and marketing potential, Howard has had a bummer summer. He admitted to smoking pot, staged a birthday party during the playoffs, was arrested for drag racing in North Carolina and responded with almost violent agitation when asked about the incidents at his charity softball game in DeSoto. With an amateur video camera rolling at Allen Iverson's charity flag football game in Landover, Maryland, Howard draped a white towel over his head during the national anthem and said:

"The Star Spangled Banner's going on right now, and I don't celebrate that shit. I'm black."

(Pregnant pause for cringing.)

The good news: Josh does a lot of charity work.

The bad news: He can't keep his mouth shut.

Considering our global reputation and current financial nosedive toward the next Great Depression, it's understandable to see people exhibiting animosity toward America these days. But Josh Howard? The role of disenfranchised minority fits him about as comfortably as John McCain promoting himself as the candidate of change.

He can embrace ghetto culture and smoke pot and drive 94 in a 55 all he wants, but I'm not convinced Howard believes what he said. I've interviewed Howard for years, watched him stand—head bowed and eyes always closed—for countless pre-game anthems and once sat with him for 90 minutes for an Observer cover story. Ugly as this all is, it's even more uncharacteristic. Honestly, I'd be more offended if he consistently thought it than the fact that he flippantly said it. Give me a moment's verbal lapse over an ingrained doctrine any day.

To me it smells a little like four buddies golfing or hunting or bowling or whatever and one telling an alarmingly insensitive joke. You—well, most of you anyway—don't laugh. But neither do you eternally condemn him, hang him or tell him to pack his spears for Africa.

I'm not letting Howard off the hook under the guise of joking. He needs to admit he was wrong and publicly apologize. Now. But if it was just Josh and his dudes goofin' off during the anthem, it wasn't intended for the world to see. Doesn't justify it. Just changes the context. Dramatically.

Think about the things you've said—or typed—in seemingly private moments, only to have them suddenly, surprisingly broadcast on the Internet.

Yikes.

"Everything was done in a joking matter," Baltimore rapper Los said on an edition of ESPN's Outside the Lines last week. Los says he was the man behind the camera, but not the video's posting. "This thing's getting blown way out of proportion. It's horrible. Everybody knows Josh is a great guy. The fact of the matter is that we shouldn't have been talking during the national anthem. Period."

The Constitution may guarantee freedom of expression, but it does not promise protection from the ensuing racist repercussions and vitriolic backlash. That, apparently, is Cuban's job.

The owner is playing more big brother than big boss, perfectly turning the tables and throwing an ice cold bucket of "Look over here!" on Howard's firestorm.

As the video clip featuring Howard's 11-second faux pas began circulating last week, Cuban began receiving e-mails. Abrasive, angry e-mails, some with venomous tones that would make even David Duke blush. They were aimed at Howard. They were directed to Cuban.

They were destined—ironically—for all to see.

In a posting to his Internet blog (blogmaverick.com) last Friday titled "Thanks for the Advice on Josh Howard," Cuban published a litany of e-mails—profanity, racism, names and e-mail addresses included.

"Wanted to thank all of you who took the time to email me with your comments on how best to deal with Josh," Cuban wrote. "They were so good, I thought I would share a few of them with everyone. Including the email addresses of those who were bold enough to use real email addresses. Josh realizes his comments were wrong, he understands why people are upset. He knows he has made a mistake, has apologized and will work with us. Beyond that, it's a private issue."

Full names. E-mail addresses. Company connections.

Just like that, the hunters became the hunted. The voyeurs became the exhibitionists.

Around 5:30 that afternoon, Cuban removed the post, citing an "upset stomach" and a fit of conscience.

"I thought it was important to point out the hatred and ignorance of so many who quickly judge people they have never met, based purely on sound bites and headlines," Cuban wrote. "...I also knew that because of the email addresses being included, they would be receiving the same level of hate, ignorance and judgment that Josh and I had...That's what bothered me all day. So I have removed the post.

"Hopefully something good came from it being posted."

I see it, but a lot of folks won't.

They'll go on and on about Cuban coddling his players when he should be suspending them. They'll chastise Cuban for blaming cell phones and video cameras more than common sense and irresponsible pie holes. They'll criticize Cuban for holding his blog's e-mailers to a higher standard than his own employee. And the redneck racists among them will even stoop to calling the Mavs "un-patriotic," pointing to the owner previously financing an anti-war movie (Redacted), the general manager (Donnie Nelson) serving as an assistant coach for China during the Olympics and Howard's cold shoulder toward one of America's hottest buttons.

Some fans will boycott Mavs' games, refusing to invest time, money or emotion into their perception of Howard. (One of the e-mails read, "I don't spend my money on this nba shit. I'm white.") Some will boo Howard, who'll likely be under season-long scrutiny beginning Monday when Mavericks training camp opens at SMU.

But in general, they'll miss the point. Which is that Cuban is one of the best owners in all of professional sports. Maybe you don't want Cuban to be your son's principal. But your sports team's owner? Absolutely.

He will undoubtedly (but only temporarily, mind you) alienate his fan base by supporting Howard and posting e-mails, and he doesn't give a shit. Because, ultimately, Cuban believes Howard will help the Mavericks win games. And winning, in case you've forgotten, erases everything from slighting anthems to desecrating sacred stars.

Right, Terrell Owens?

Here's betting that today Josh Howard is watching his words a little more carefully.

And that Mark Cuban's e-mail inbox is a little less crowded.

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