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.
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.
"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.
"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 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.
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.
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"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."
Dallas, time to reciprocate.
"I love Josh Howard!" Ortegal proclaimed during the Mavs' road win in Orlando January 23. "Love the way he plays. Love the way he carries himself. Get to know this young man, folks. Get to appreciate him. There's a lot about him to love."
Feel that, Josh? We heart you.