“I was still star struck,” Josh Howard says.
We’re sitting about 35 feet away from the court inside the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The last time Howard played in UNLV’s home arena, he represented the Western Conference in the 2007 NBA All-Star game.
“Right over there,” he points over to the court as the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers’ summer squads clash. “To be playing with KG, who’s pretty much my all-time favorite player, sitting beside Kobe, it was just amazing.”
Howard leans back in the red-padded folding chair, tugging on the brim of his camouflage-colored, flat-brimmed hat. He has bulging ice bags saran-wrapped around each knee. His sore feet are hidden within two pairs of cushy, black NBA socks and resting inside flip-flops.
“And then to play against DWade and those guys which we came out the same year with, to be in that class, you can’t beat that,” he continues. “I think 2003, after that ’84 class, is probably one of the best classes to ever come into the NBA. To be associated with those guys has always been a great feeling.”
Wade and Chris Bosh just re-upped with Miami for two years, $31.1 million and five years, $118 million, respectively. LeBron James signed a two-year, $47.1 million contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Carmelo Anthony decided to stay in New York to the tune of a five-year deal worth more than $122 million. Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner are returning to the San Antonio Spurs. Even Chris Kaman and Steve Blake inked two-year, multi-million dollar deals with Portland this summer.
And here’s Josh Howard, sitting next to me in a sweat-soaked New Orleans Pelicans practice uniform. Two ACL surgeries, a year with the Austin Toros in the D-League, a sports hernia surgery in April and a nasty, jammed big toe later, Howard is fighting for one more shot at the League while his draft classmates are all getting paid.
“God has a reason,” he explains. “I’m happy they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. I did what I’m supposed to do. It’s just unfortunate with my knee injuries, teams are gonna back away from that.”
He did what he was supposed to do? The last first-round pick in that loaded ’03 Draft, Howard far exceeded expectations during his career. It’s really a shame so many have forgotten what he used to do on the court. Josh Howard was so damn good.
On December 8, 2007, the season-ticket holders of the American Airlines Center yielded their front-row seats to see Deron Williams and the visiting Utah Jazz as part of the Dallas Mavericks’ annual Seats for Soldiers benefit.
Thirty seconds into the game, Josh Howard drilled a three-pointer from the left wing. Three minutes later, he knocked down a 20-footer just inside the arc. Then, he hit a baseline jumper in transition and converted an offensive rebound put-back. Just over two minutes into the second quarter, Howard collected a loose ball and raced ahead of the pack for an easy one-handed slam. He hit two more triples and scored 20 points in the first half.
When he emerged from the locker room, Howard went to work at the right elbow, draining a step-back jumper first in the face of Andrei Kirilenko and then Williams. He crossed over Ronnie Brewer on the left wing a few plays later, hesitated to leave Carlos Boozer in his dust and put Mehmet Okur on a poster with a two-handed flush. He swung his legs like an inflatable air dancer while hanging on the rim. He always flailed his legs while gripping the iron. Like his thick headband, it was vintage Josh Howard in his prime.
“I got that from Kenyon Martin,” Howard says. “He was like my all-time favorite college player. I loved the way he used to dunk the ball and shake the rim. I knew I wasn’t as strong as him. I would just swing around, just to give the crowd something to look at.”
Howard finished the night with a career-high 47 points and 10 boards, leading the Mavs to a 125-117 victory. Williams countered with 41 points and Boozer scored 24 of his own. Even in December, it was considered one of the games of the year.
“I just remember seeing his stat line at the bottom of SportsCenter and smiling,” says Marquis Daniels, who left Dallas for the Indiana Pacers a year prior to Howard’s career night. “I always kind of watched and kept up with him. I was just excited to see that he was out there playing with them and doing what he was capable of doing.”
Howard and Daniels became close friends as the lone rookies on a veteran 2003-04 Mavericks team that finished 52-30. In an opening night loss to the loaded Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas started Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Antoine Walker and Danny Fortson. Antawn Jamison, Eduardo Najera, Shawn Bradley, Travis Best and Tony Delk all came off the bench. “To come in and get drafted by them and listen to that starting lineup? Damn,” Howard remembers.
The Mavericks never even brought Howard to Dallas for a pre-Draft workout. After Howard was named an AP All-American during his stellar senior season at Wake Forest, the Mavericks never expected him to be available when they were on the clock at No. 29.
“We were very surprised, we hadn’t even considered him. We thought he would already be gone,” Mark Cuban says.
Howard still can’t comprehend the reason for his fall. “The one story I heard is that I do everything good and not one thing great,” he says. Howard went on to earn Second-Team All-Rookie honors that season. That started a meteoric rise toward the top of the NBA.
After Howard torched the Jazz that night, he went on to complete the best year of his career in 2007-08. He posted nightly averages of 19.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and was heralded as one of the premier perimeter defenders in the entire League. Yet, just one year after his first All-Star selection, Howard found himself snubbed from All-Star weekend in New Orleans that February.
“That was my peak,” Howard says. “That’s when I figured, if I’m doing this at this rate and this clip and still not getting the notoriety, it’s never going to come.”
It took injuries to Boozer and Yao Ming for Howard, along with Carmelo Anthony, to even reach the 2007 All-Star game in Las Vegas. Playing Robin to Nowitzki’s Batman, few outside of Dallas saw Howard’s tremendous game hiding under Dirk’s 7-foot shadow.
Howard always seemed destined to excel in athletics. His mother, Nancy Henderson, ran track. His father, Kevin Robinson, who abandoned him and his family at his birth, was a basketball legend in Howard’s hometown of Winston-Salem, NC. Instead, Howard was born with bowed legs so curved, doctors were forced to break them and conceal his month-old limbs in casts during the sweltering hot southern summer of 1980.
“I already had a strike against me, you know what I’m saying? Shit, I had to learn how to walk brand new,” Howard says. “I still see my little slue foot turn to the left sometimes. It’s just a natural habit.”
His legs clearly healed and he excelled on the court, though he had his struggles off of it. The night before his senior year of high school, Howard and a group of friends were falsely arrested for selling drugs outside of a BP gas station. He later needed a 950 on the SATs to be accepted to Wake Forest and scored in the 500s. That could have sent Howard’s career into a tailspin. Instead, he used his one year of prep-ball at Hargrave Military Academy to transition from the post to the perimeter.
He seemed to always play his amateur ball with volcanic anger. Maybe it started from those restricting casts when he was a toddler or from Robinson’s absence in his childhood. Whatever the catalyst, Howard’s incense on the court led him to both success and failure. It allowed him to blow past defenders while also earning him technical fouls by the plenty. Those who know Howard say what often looked like a bad temper was simply his tremendous pride.
“I think he used things as motivation and that really pushed him,” Cuban says.
Daniels recalls Howard’s incredible competitive streak. “I remember one day we were in the locker room before we were playing New Orleans,” Daniels says. “Avery [Johnson] was telling us I was playing the 2 and Josh was playing the 3, and [Josh] was like, ‘Let’s compete and see whose man is not gonna score tonight.’ So I was like, My man ain’t scoring on me tonight. He brought that out in me.”
Howard’s ferocity on the defensive end proved to be an integral part of Dallas’ 2006 squad that reached the NBA Finals. That Mavericks team shared a special bond its members still struggle to articulate. They ate dinner each other’s houses with each other’s families. On the road, the team dined together nearly every meal.
“That concentration level we had that year, every road game we went on, we said this was our home court,” Howard says. “We called it road kill.”
The Mavericks won the first two games of the Finals at home. When the series switched to Miami, Dwayne Wade famously took his game to another level and, along with Shaquille O’Neal, stormed past Dallas by taking the next four-straight contests.
The series returned to Dallas for the decisive Game 6. His wife pregnant with their first child, Daniels almost skipped the game. Howard was an emotional wreck following the championship loss. He says that was the lowest point of his career.
“The surrealness was like, damn, like I came out of body and was looking at myself play. We just lost something that we put so much work towards,” Howard says. “My last two years in college and my first three years in the NBA were all to get there. It’s physically and mentally draining.”
Five days before the 2010 NBA trade deadline, the Mavericks shipped Howard, Drew Gooden, Quinton Ross and James Singleton to the Washington Wizards for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson.
Howard had fallen out of favor in Dallas. In April 2008, he admitted on Michael Irvin’s radio show he smoked marijuana in the offseason. A few months later in September, he was caught on video disrespecting the national anthem. Both incidents became national headlines as several injuries limited him to appearing in 52 games in 2008-09 and just 35 in 2009-10.
“Being dumb and young, saying stuff that I should’ve kept to myself, it was controversial,” Howard says. “But once I got older, I was like, Oh shit. I offended a lot of people. Time went by and people forgave me. I learned from that experience in itself. I try to instill that in my kids in what they say and how they feel. That’s helped me raise my kids.”
The league office approved the trade just over a month after David Stern suspended Gilbert Arenas indefinitely without pay on January 7. Two weeks before the New Year, Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittenton’s notorious gambling-induced, gun-involved confrontation in the Wizards’ home locker room set the organization reeling. When Howard arrived in the nation’s capital, a stench from the incident still lingered in the Verizon Center.
“Just to hear what happened, that let me know the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side. The Wizards were going through a lot right then and there,” Howard says. “But then I realized I was going to have the opportunity to be the man.”
Howard averaged 17.0 points and 4.0 rebounds over his first three games with the Wizards. He was thriving as the team’s first option having barely learned the team’s playbook. Then, just seven minutes into his fourth game with the Wiz, Howard shredded his left ACL as he collided with Chicago’s Flip Murray trying to catch an outlet pass. If he stayed healthy, the Wizards would surely have picked up Howard’s $11.8 million option for the next season. He probably would have been in line for one last big payday at 31 years old following the 2010-11 season, just like many of his draft classmates this summer. The fateful injury likely cost him around $50 million.
Instead, he re-signed with the Wizards for $3 million for the next season. He made his season debut on December 18, almost exactly nine months following his injury, though he still wasn’t at full strength. He only played in 18 games the entire season.
Howard worked out for Utah Jazz general manager Kevin O’Connor just days before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign began on Christmas Day and he agreed to a one-year, $2.15 million contract. He played 43 games for the Jazz in the regular season and saw 15.8 minutes per game during Utah’s first-round sweep at the hands of the Spurs. But again, he lost precious time due to more complications with his left knee that were completely unrelated to his ACL surgery.
As the Minnesota Timberwolves’ roster grew depleted by injuries early in the 2012-13 season, Howard signed on for the veteran minimum on November 15. He also had a workout with the Philadelphia 76ers, but Philly inked Damien Wilkins instead. Sure enough, 11 games into his time alongside Kevin Love, Howard’s season ended during a game at New Orleans.
“It was a freak accident. A guy stepped on my foot and I got kneed in the quad. I was able to practice the whole week after that. I didn’t even know,” Howard says. “I’d be working out hard, getting sweats but I’d still be sore. So I said, Let me go ahead and get an MRI. And when the doc came back in there, he was like, ‘Yep, it’s torn,’ and I was like, Shit. I still play that through my mind. I cried.”
This time, Howard tore his right ACL. Daniels had been in town as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks just two weeks prior.
“I saw him like a couple days before that happened and he was like, ‘Everything’s going good,’” Daniels says. “At the time that he got hurt, I just tried to give him some encouragement. Once you’re out of the League, you start seeing who was your real friends, who you was really tight with. I just wanted to let him know I saw him like a brother.”
Howard immediately began his rehab. As Daniels alluded, the one-time All-Star has been out of the NBA ever since.
“I watch a lot of natural geographic,” Howard says. “There’s some kind of bird, they only have two offspring and one of them always ends up killing the other. Like, they go hard. It’s amazing how nature is like that, you know? Not even constantly knowing, you just come out doing stuff.”
Courtney Fells remembers watching Howard’s epic performance against the Jazz while he was at NC State in 2007. Six years younger than Howard, Fells never imagined they’d be on the same court one day as teammates.
Eight months after undergoing surgery on his torn right ACL in January 2013, Howard signed a D-League contract with the Spurs’ affiliated Austin Toros and joined Fells and several other standouts in Texas. Flip Murray, of all people, also suited up for Austin this past winter. Howard’s body had failed him. Although he was talented, he was no longer healthy enough to be an NBA player.
“You never want to see someone’s body let them down in their profession,” Cuban says. “It’s not easy to earn one of the spots in the NBA. Players have to do whatever it takes to demonstrate their talents. We didn’t see J-Ho as a fit [this year], but we were glad he was going for it. I wouldn’t call it admirable. I call it pragmatic.”
Back on the court, Howard looked refreshed. He no longer played with the same springy energy, but was clearly one of the most talented players in the league. He scored 14.7 points and grabbed 5.8 rebounds a night. He was still a defensive presence and enjoyed helping lead the team. He and Fells developed a special relationship, although they were, like those birds, essentially fighting each other for an NBA call-up. “We’re like brothers from another mother, man,” Howard says, cracking a wide smile.
Overall, he reveled in his veteran leadership role.
“I just think I’ve been put out here to reach some of these young guys and I see it when I say stuff to some of them,” Howard says. “I tell these young guys: You have to find your niche. If you don’t, it’s tough for guys to get on the court.”
Then, you guessed it, Howard’s redeeming season ended due to injury. The Toros waived him on February 26 and Howard underwent surgery on a sports hernia. His body is covered in bites from the injury bug.
In front of a sold out crowd of nearly 16,000 people, Josh Howard scored 3 points and added 4 rebounds in 20 minutes during the 2007 NBA All-Star game. By the time the Pelicans and D-League Select tip-off at 7:30 during the first night of the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League, the lower bowl of the Rebels’ stadium is barely half-full.
Howard starts for New Orleans and is clearly the Pelicans’ best player in the first half. He finishes with 14 points and 3 rebounds on 4-6 shooting. He rediscovered his post game against a few smaller wings. He knocked down an open three-pointer.
“We just reward guys for playing hard, and he’s been good,” New Orleans’ Summer League coach Bryan Gates says after the game. “He’s given some veteran leadership for us, guards the ball and knows guys’ tendencies.”
Then, as the week goes on, Howard’s playing time evaporates into the dry, desert air. He scores 4 points in New Orleans’ second game and then just 2 points in the third against San Antonio. In the Pelican’s last two games, Howard registers two DNP-CDs while Fells averages 15.0 points per game over the week on 48.1 percent shooting from three. Howard and Fells tried to ignore the fact they were likely vying for the same job yet again.
“It’s weird, but it’s part of our job,” Howard says. “Ten years ago, I was a rookie doing the same thing. There are other teams out here watching, so you never know who will give you a shot.”
This summer is likely Howard’s last shot. It’s been a decade-long roller coaster for the veteran turned journeyman hoping for an 11th season. This is a guy who once turned down Jerry Colangelo’s offer to train with Team USA in favor of running his annual youth basketball camps back in Winston-Salem.
“I’ve done it all. I’ve been to the Finals, been an All-Star, then been at the bottom of the barrel and the top of the light, you know what I’m saying? I can’t complain about my career,” Howard says.
He sees Shaun Livingston’s recent comeback as motivation. His old teammate Steve Nash’s success into his late 30s has also inspired Howard.
“I don’t have to score 15, 20 points like I used to. If I can show them that I’m athletic enough to still compete with these 22, 23 year olds, I know they’re going to respect my mind enough to put me into the game,” Howard says. “I understand the game so much now that I don’t have to go 100 miles an hour. When you get older you figure out that two points is two points at the end of the day. You just want to be more consistent than anything. I feel like I’m 34, but I feel good.”
Howard went to Vegas with the Pelicans hoping to help answer their dearth on the wing. But since he arrived on The Strip on July 10, New Orleans signed John Salmons and Jimmer Fredette and acquired Omri Casspi, Scotty Hopson and Alonzo Gee in trades. There may no longer be room for Howard on the Pelicans’ roster. Still, he’s confident he can land a training camp invite and earn a roster spot somewhere in the League.
“I can still play. I love the game so much,” Howard says. “Something someone once said to me is, ‘You ride until the wheels fall off,’ and my wheels are still rolling.”
Howard receives a phone call from Fells on his iPhone. I’ve taken far too much of his time; a 15-minute interview request turned into a 45-minute epic down memory lane. We get up off the folding chairs and head over to the closest isle of stairs that lead up to the arena’s concourse. As a group of children plead for his autograph, we slap hands and part ways.
I take a few more steps up and spin around to watch Howard in his element, engulfed by basketball-junkie kids.
That’s Josh freaking Howard. Man, he was so damn good.