At 28, Josh Howard is in the midst of a midlife crisis.
No? Fine, then you explain what the hell is happening to him. Because I'm at a loss.
Just 18 months ago the Dallas Mavericks' forward was on the verge of superstardom. His versatile talent and vicious temperament made him the No. 2 player on the NBA's No. 1 team. He was Robin to Dirk Nowitzki's Batman, an All-Star worthy of a four-year, $40 million contract. He had seemingly tamed his anger into passion, molding himself from an edgy survivor of a hardscrabble upbringing into a big-hearted role model who chose kids' camps over Olympic glory.
Then, just like that, Howard began unraveling.
His production shriveled during Dallas' first-round playoff loss last spring. He merrily handed out birthday party fliers in the locker room after a gut-wrenching defeat. He reiterated publicly that he smoked marijuana. And on July 31, he got arrested near his home in North Carolina for drag racing.
On Valentine's Day 2007, I spent 90 minutes with Howard for a Dallas Observer cover story.
Last Saturday afternoon in DeSoto, I barely recognized him.
Agitated, surly and on the brink of an ugly incident, Howard eschewed a chance to apologize for–or at least explain–his recent bizarre behavior and instead lashed out at media covering his first annual Josh Howard Foundation Celebrity Softball Game. It was KDAF-Channel 33 reporter Sandra Hernandez who officially lit Howard's fuse:
"With the recent events you've been involved in, do you still consider yourself a good role model for kids?"
Howard sponsors two AAU youth basketball teams in North Carolina. In 2006 he declined an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team in order to conduct his annual kids' camps in Winston-Salem. His foundation staged a local bowling tournament in March, a basketball camp in Dallas in June and now the softball game. Considering he's a notable namesake that suddenly likes to run his mouth and race his cars, it was, without doubt, a fair question.
But Howard reacted as though Hernandez chided him as an amalgamation of reefer-rollin' Seth Rogen, rubber-burnin' Jeff Gordon and fadeaway jump-shootin' Michael Finley.
"I don't know nothing about what you just said," Howard snapped as he initially walked away from Hernandez and her cameraman, only to return seconds later.
"That don't make sense for you to...that's the last thing you should [ask] me! That's not what it's about out here. It's about giving back to the community! That's the only thing it's about. Nobody don't have time for that, man! Like, for real."
While former Mavs teammate Greg Buckner shepherded Howard away from an escalation of the potentially volatile situation, two frantic publicists pulled the plug. "We're gonna cut off the interview right now!"
To his credit, Howard returned minutes later and talked all things not marijuana- or handcuff-related. But when asked about new head coach Rick Carlisle and his excitement for the upcoming season, Howard shrugged and grumbled:
"It's still summer, man."
Maybe Howard was just having a bad day. A bad summer. A bad six months. Regardless, the 150 or so fans at Grimes Park weren't disheartened.
"He's still a great role model for my kids," said Lancaster's Laquandria Lampkin, who attended the day's autograph session, home run derby and softball game with her three children. "He's out here today, isn't he? All of this is for his charity. Not everybody can go through what he's gone through and still show his face."
The Mavericks, who need him to regain his composure and competency if they are to flirt with a playoff berth in 2008, also still believe in Howard.
Owner Mark Cuban responded to Howard's pot proclamation by admitting he too smoked out in college. Immediately upon being hired, Carlisle sought out Howard to open the lines of communication. And last month, Dallas nixed a trade that would've sent Howard to the Sacramento Kings for Ron Artest. Still, combine his poor personal choices with a pathetic playoff series in which his scoring average plummeted eight points from the regular season, and Howard's stock and reputation are at all-time lows.
"I'm just trying to stay positive and put all that stuff behind me," added Howard, tiptoeing no closer to his recent incidents. "I'm gonna keep on doing my charity stuff. I didn't have this sort of thing when I was growing up. That's why I like to put on these events. For the kids, ya know."
Howard's childhood was more screams than dreams. His father walked out at Josh's birth. Twice before his second birthday, his severely bowed legs had to be broken below the knee and reset. He had an uncle killed in a robbery, a childhood friend murdered and a sister serve jail time for, among other things, spitting on a cop.
At Wake Forest, he took an anger management course and in '07 told me, "The anger is still in me. I just have more of a control on it."
Howard may not be pissed at the world, but something's up.
It's not that he smokes marijuana. In a sports world—Michael Phelps notwithstanding—littered by dog fighting, betting scandals and steroid syringes, Howard's habit is relatively mundane. Besides, I'm still not sure if he smokes more, or simply lies less.
"Most of the players in the league use marijuana," he told ESPN Radio's Michael Irvin back in April, "and I have and do partake in smoking weed in the offseason sometimes."
His timing—before Game 3 against the New Orleans Hornets—confounded management and irritated teammates. He eventually admitted his mistake, apologizing to the Mavs, to NBA commissioner David Stern and posting an "I'm sorry" statement on his foundation's Web site.
But just as Howard appeared remorseful at his basketball camp and we all agreed to blame the isolated incident on a fit of immaturity, he pulled a stunt that has us questioning his commitment to basketball and, honestly, his common sense.
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In the same state where former Charlotte Hornet Bobby Phills was killed while drag racing a teammate in 2000, Howard decided it would be cool to drive his black Lexus 94 mph in a 55 to prove his superiority over a silver Volkswagen Golf. After his passive playoff disappearance, maybe we should simply be encouraged that he's driving aggressively?
He has a court date in North Carolina on September 23. About a week later, Howard will report for Mavs training camp. At some point, he'll have to publicly address his wayward behavior. For his teammates' trust. For our peace of mind. For his own emotional state.
In DeSoto, however, Howard didn't give a damn about coming clean. Sitting alongside Tracy McGrady and Kenyon Martin, he signed autographs, posed for pictures and laughed when Lampkin's youngest son danced the "Soulja Boy" and grooved to something called the "Stanky Leg." He explained "I just like the colors" when asked about the significance of his retro Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap, the one with the awkwardly rigid bill.
If only Howard were that straight these days.