A late November game in 2003 hardly sounds notewothy. But that's usually where these intriguing tales of basketball begin: a game with no significance, other than two teams figuring out their identities early on in a season.
But that's where Josh Howard's story starts. At least, with Dallas. Howard's story already had plenty of twists and turns before he could walk. His legs were broken as a baby, to help them grow straight. His SAT scores didn't allow him into Wake Forrest immediately. His draft night in 2003, where network executives and scouts marveled at the future of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, while Howard sat patiently, waiting for his name to be called at the bottom of the first round by David Stern.
In that game on November 23, 2003, Howard emerged.
His stat line wasn't other-worldly - 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, seven rebounds, three steals and a block. But his influence was extraordinary. Dirk Nowtizki was out that game, and in his place, Michael Finely, Steve Nash and Antoine Walker combined to shoot a frothy 16-for-59 (27 percent.) The Mavericks were down four at half to the greatest Timberwolves team in the Kevin Garnett era, the 58-win team that lost to the Lakers in the conference finals. Howard's insertion into the game changed the tempo and the score. Dallas was victorious and their newest son had catapulted from unknown rookie to dark horse fan favorite.
In the following years, Howard's game grew into something that the Mavericks desperately needed from the small forward spot. Howard feasted off Nowtizki double-teams, often cutting and curling toward the goal the instant his defender's eyes glanced from Howard to Nowitzki. Howard thrived on runners and tear drops, floating the ball effortlessly at the rim once he took a few steps into the paint. The ball lofted over the arms of out-stretched defenders and landed with a soft touch that would roll through the hoop. It was never beautiful in the standard sense of what we as watchers of the game consider glamorous basketball. Howard wasn't conventional, but he was working and along with an outside jumper that seemingly was improving (43 percent from three in the 2005-2006 season) it looked as if Nowitzki had his second fiddle, even if played slightly off-tune.
Howard's much-needed style and spacing to Nowitzki's game led to a strong fan base. Fans cited his rebounding, defense and ability to finish at the rim as reasons for their appreciation. Also, it has to be noted, that on a team in which Mark Cuban constantly signed and traded pieces to fit his puzzle, Howard was a rarity - a native son, drafted hand-first by the organization. Even Nowitzki was technically drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. Steve Nash and Michael Finely brought in from Phoenix. Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse acquired from Atlanta and Washington, respectively. Howard was Dallas' own and make no mistake what kind of impact that had whenever Howard shined or dulled.
And the dulls were...disheartening. Howard's exit from Dallas was a combination of mistimed quotes, PR disasters and a nagging ankle injury. Howard's game only truly regressed in the 2009-2010 season, in which he only started 12 games because of said ankle injury and surgery. Howard's game was always predicated on his good footwork and athleticism. Rolling on a bum tire neutered Howard's explosiveness in his cuts to rim, sometimes limiting himself to a bystander outside the three-point line: something Howard never was or never claims to be. The decision to trade Howard to Washington for Caron Butler and Brandan Haywood was a basketball decision and nothing more. Howard still loves Dallas. In fact, he still lives here with his son.
"Sometimes people ask me ‘you still live here?'" Howard says with a chuckle. "I've always loved the city, the weather is great as always."
Howard's time in Washington went interrupted with a left ACL tear in his knee that essentially ended his 2010 and hampered his 2011 seasons. Between the failures of winning in Dallas, the sudden exit and his injury in Washington, it would be easy to think Howard would sound defeated or dejected. But Howard's voice never flutters and remains calm and steady. He never admits it wasn't a tough stretch, however.
"Mentally it's a tough thing to get through. Especially being a guy that jumps off my left leg," he says of the injury. "A lot of work and rehab gets my confidence part back. Sometimes I still have a little doubt."
Howard's maturity was sometimes called into question during his Dallas tenure. But in Washington, it was Howard who was the elder statesman, the veteran presence in front of young and impressionable players such as John Wall, JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Jordan Crawford. Howard seems to have took that role head on.
"I was listening to Mike Finley, Darrel Armstrong and Dirk. Those are my vets," Howard recalls. "It gave me an opportunity to look at my game and giving younger guys advice. As far as reaching out to those guys, I expanded myself like that. It was a great opportunity to watch those guys grow."
Howard watched the 2011 Finals like the rest of America: as a fan. He couldn't be happier to see Dallas hoist the trophy, even though he realizes it is something the team should have done in 2006. He contacted Jason Terry and Darrell Armstong to offer congrats. He hasn't talked to Dirk yet, but he will soon.
But now the future for Howard remains a question again. Whenever the new CBA is signed between the owners and the players, Howard will become a free agent for really, the first time in his career. He said he's ready for whenever the season starts again, for the first time in a long time.
"I've been ready. Right after the season was over in Washington. Right now I'm 100 percent," he said.
In the meantime Howard spends time with his son, the reason he calls home both Dallas and Winston-Salem, where he grew up in North Carolina. He's been more hands on with his foundation, including hosting a celebrity game in Dallas earlier this month. He sounds nothing like the Howard that was called out for missing a game for being hungover and blasting the national anthem. Howard sounds older. He sounds content. He sounds happy.
He just wishes he could play basketball. Howard's kept his finances straight and isn't hurting from the missed paychecks but understands others are, and he wants to see it end. Could that end also see Howard rejoin the Mavericks? Perhaps. Howard could provide a potentially cheaper alternative if other teams offer Caron Butler a long-term deal Dallas isn't ready to handle. Howard will always be in Dallas however. One of the sons never truly left in the first place.
"I'll always be around," he said.
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