Tonight, we get to see the Dallas Mavericks try again against the upstart Golden State Warriors. I couldn't be more excited for this one. It's shaping up to be a fantastic game for any number of reasons.
It's also going to be something of a referendum on Dirk Nowitzki's ability to lead a successful team. Every time Nowitzki has a bad game, there are are least a few Dallas fans who insist that this team is lacking something critical in the leadership department, and must be totally re-arranged. Who, they wonder, is the heart and soul of this team?
You can make an argument for Josh Howard. He doesn't hop up and down much and demand to be noticed. But that's no reason we shouldn't recognize the importance of Josh Howard.
I know, it's blasphemy to even hint at second-guessing Nowitzki's supremacy in the Maverick hierarchy.Of course, Nowitzki doesn't need me to tell him that he's a fabulous player and human being.
But let's take a moment to consider Josh Howard.
My friend Max is an insane Josh Howard fan. He e-mailed me some bullet points to support his case that Howard could be the real MVP of the Mavericks:
Josh was the 2003 Fox National College Basketball Player of the year, first unanimous ACC MVP in 30 years, a first Team All American, and All Defensive Team player at Wake Forest.
His combination of length, athleticism, basketball IQ, and defensive abilities have him in that rare space that few players this side of Scottie Pippen have ever entered.
Who else on the Mavericks has a chance to effectively guard Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, or Tony Parker while challenging those players to guard him on the offensive end?
He elected to forego NBA millions and returned for a senior season at Wake Forest, becoming the first man in his family to graduate from college.
One sign of work ethic: the season after he signed his big contract extension, his free throw percentage jumped from 73% to 83%.
I have long been a huge Josh Howard fan. In fact, last year I asked a question that I'd still like a good answer to: what would happen if you had a team of 12 Josh Howards? How far do you think that team could go? They'd all be able to score multiple ways. They'd all be able to defend multiple positions. They'd all play hard every second they were on the floor. (It'd be something to see, anyway. If someone can bring the cloning equipment, I think I can get us some floor time at my local elementary school gym. Let's do this! Another question, if you hook up your cloning machine to another player, who could beat my all-Josh Howard team? I'll tell you right now, that all Kobe Bryant team would have a hard time sharing the ball.)
By most modern statistical measures, Nowitzki is pretty clearly the most valuable Maverick. But to a team like the Mavericks, with talent galore and championship aspirations, there is a premium on players who are willing to put their egos aside to be good teammates. To contribute in every way imaginable, without rocking the boat. By all appearances, Josh Howard is that guy. And, as I found in a conversation from last week, he's refreshingly genuine to boot. Here is our conversation:
There's this idea out there that NBA players don't develop much -- that what you are in college is what you'll be. You seem to defy that. You were a 4 in college, and now you do so many things, even guarding point guards. How has that happened?
I'm just going hard all the time, trying to get better at all the different phases of the game. Coach Johnson, even before he was the head coach, he has been in charge of my development. The main thing has been to keep the attitude that you are humble and need to improve. At the end of each year, every one of us has a meeting with the coach, and he gives everyone a plan to improve. He told me he wanted me to average 18 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and four steals, and I have been trying to do that. [Note: Howard's averaging about 19 points, seven rebounds, two assists, and one steal.] That's what makes me a well-rounded player. When he told me that, I went home and worked on my jumpshot, because I have always been able to get rebounds. The six assists are tough because I don't have the ball in my hands that much.
Playing alongside a scoring machine like Dirk Nowitzki, does it take a certain courage to pull the trigger?
Not with the situation we're in. Every guy on this team can get 20 and 10 on any given night. We know Dirk is going to get his shots, but I have had years to get used to how he plays, and he has gotten used to how I play. I don't have no problem with it. Everybody is really comfortable with it.
When you head to the hoop, you're very creative with the ball -- runners, floaters, leaners, layups, dunks -- how did those skills evolve?
It's just a gift. Not too many guys can go to the basket and change their shot on the way. You got to have a mix of moves. It's fluid. It's like you have to have options, because you're not going to get the open dunk or the open three most of the time. Sometimes you have to show and go, sometimes you have to pull up, sometimes you have to use the floater. And those are all things you have to practice.
Do you have a certain game-day routine?
We have a shootaround and ten or eleven. Then I shower, go home, and eat. Then I watch Court TV. I have to watch Judge Mathis and that for an hour and a half or two hours.
Does it have to be Court TV?
Those shows are on pretty much the same time all over the country. But if we're in some town where I can't find Judge Mathis, I'll flip around the channels and find some movie or something. Then I take a nap at about 1:30, and sleep until about four. Then I get up and dress, and it's game time.
What do you listen to in warmups?
Right now it's Rich Boy. That has been in there about a month. Before that it was some local stuff from where I'm from in North Carolina. That lasted for months.
You think Rich Boy is going to make it through the playoffs?
I don't know. But the way it's looking right now, it's looking like he might.
Then do you go out to dinner?
No, they have food at the stadium for us.
I know that after I play basketball, it's hard to sleep right afterwards. Too hyped up. What do you do afterwards?
Some guys go out to some kind of bar and lounge and chill out for a while.
You do that?
Depends. Like right now my cousin is in town, so we'll probably go out a little. But I try to be in bed by 1:30 or 2:00. Or, more likely on the couch. I usually fall asleep on the couch, and then end up dragging myself to bed later.
Sometimes it seems like you get to roam around on defense, sort of like Scottie Pippen used to do. That must be kind of fun.
Depends on who I'm guarding. Like when we play Phoenix, and they have Boris Diaw. I don't guard him much, but if I switch on to him then I know he really only likes to go right, and he doesn't shoot that many jumpers. That lets me help with the pick and roll a little bit. It's g
ood to do it, to sneak around. But you have to pick and choose your moments to try to frustrate the offense, to try to poke at the ball. Like when we played Boston, I think Paul Pierce thought he was on his way to the hoop and I was able to poke at the ball at different times.
Do you watch a lot of video of opponents?
Not a lot of that. I pay attention to the scouting reports they give us, though. That's a sheet with a list of all of a player's tendencies. I study it. But I have also been in the league long enough that I have faced just about everybody before.
Seems like a big part of becoming a top NBA defender is learning the tendencies of the referees.
Ohhhhhhhh yyyyeeeeaaaaahhhh. That's a whole 'nother story, really. They're human. They make mistakes. They have rules about talking about that so I can't say much. But I will say this: Sometimes there are bad calls.
What about Mark Cuban's antics on the sidelines? Dirk Nowitzki has suggested it might not be good for the team. You think it hurts the team?
Yeah. Put yourself in the referee's shoes. He's there constantly yelling. The coach is yelling. The crowd is yelling. Sometimes players are yelling. That's a lot. Plus he sends those video tapes in to the league. I understand he wants what's best for our team. I have no problem with it. But at the end of the day, it does hurt our team.
Last year your team had a pretty rough ending to the season -- losing like that in the Finals after being up 2-0. That still sting?
I'm over it. I mean, you can't help thinking about it. It was the NBA Finals. But we learned from it. A lot of people know we were not supposed to have lost. But it's like a guy said to me today: Now it's time to close the book. At the end of the day, we can only blame ourselves, because we could have played better.
You buy the theory that some kind of conspiracy involving the referees cost the Mavericks the Finals last year?
I don't want to respond to that. I'll just say that everybody in the world knows we were supposed to be champions. Since I have been with this team we have never lost four games in a row.
If stuff like that does happen, what can you do about it?
If stuff like that really does happen, all you can do about it is pray to God.
Are you worried about it?
Honestly? I have a taste in my mouth right now that no team is going to stop us from standing on that court again, celebrating this time. We're going to make sure nothing like that is going to happen again.
Avery Johnson seems like a pretty intense guy. Is he a big yeller?
Avery expects the best. We're champions, and we know what to do. So he doesn't have to yell much. Only our rookies, and sometimes point guards, get yelled at much. He's not a big yeller.
He has that crazy voice.
That's the New Orleans coming out!
Anyone on the team impersonate him?
Oh yeah. Everybody does. We kind of take turns being the comedian. But Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Greg Buckner, and Devean George are the ones who are on it regular.
Do you do it in front of him?
No. But he knows we do it. We do it in front of the assistant coaches, and sometimes they can't keep it quiet.
For a second there in the middle of this season, it seemed like you might be a dad. (Howard missed the last two games of January to attend the birth of a child that later proved, he says, not to be his.)
The way it worked out was a blessing for me. Parenthood is nothing I'm ready for. Things happened, and now I have moved on. I know what to do now. Believe me, next time you hear that, I'll be married.
Is that going to be soon?
I'm about to be 27. I'm going to enjoy my twenties.
I heard you are big into politics.
I said some things in college against the war in Iraq. Lo and behold, everything I said came true.
What are your big issues?
It depends on the person that's talking. Everybody has something to say. When it comes to war, I wouldn't have sent them there. I support the troops, and I love the country. I'm glad I was born and raised in North Carolina. But the future of Iraq I would have left in God's hands.
Who will be our next president?
Somebody who is not so hung up about what's going on overseas. I think it comes down to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
I don't know if you ever listen to Chad Ford's podcasts, but on there a while ago Joe Dumars said he was sad that more players didn't follow politics.
A lot of players aren't into anything but themselves. It's kind of sad. They're just here to play basketball, and they are not concerned about anyone else. They need to step out of their box. I had a reality check at 11 or 12 when I realized there was a whole 'nother world and it wasn't all about me and my goals. I'm glad it happened when I was 11 or 12 and not 27. To each his own, I guess, but it's a little sad at times.
Must make it hard for some guys to be good teammates.
You want to be able to be a good teammate. That's true anywhere. Like at any 9-5 job working at a desk, you want your co-workers to be friendly.
Why does that happen? Why do some athletes develop like that?
A lot of players get lifted up on a pedestal early. I watched it. Then the players start doing dumb stuff. People put them up like that and they forget how to do things the right way.
It's a pretty good way to ruin people: putting them on a pedestal like that.
What made you different?
I stay humble. I always remember where I came from. Always have to do that. I have a tattoo on my chest and heart of my grandma to remind me. I'll never go there.
Seems like a lot of teams that make it deep into the playoffs have a selflessness to them.
Like Detroit, right? You have got to have that selflessness. On our team, everybody checks their egos at the door. We look out for one another. Everyone knows their own role. None of these guys are like that at all.
What would you feel like if you found out you had been traded?
I'd be heartbroken. Of course, you never get a guarantee that you're going to stay. Avery reminded us of that in our meetings, saying that it can happen to anybody. If it does happen to me I just hope that the team is competitive. I want to win some, be part of something.
You just got a pretty big extension. Did that change anything for you? Did you do anything special for your contract year?
I just played my game. I didn't try to step out of my role, and I wasn't going to be all leader or something to try to impress everybody. I just stayed Josh. It paid off, and I'm staying Josh.
What did you study in college?
Religion. At Wake Forest, they always try to put athletes in sociology and communications because they are not hard. Really, when I looked at it, I thought about what would happen if I got injured and basketball was over for me? I don't like broadcasting. And sociology -- I'm a black man with a single mother. I know all there is to know about that already. I decided to study what I like in life, so I got a degree in religion, and Wake Forest ha
ppened to have the best religion program in the country. Spent a lot of time analyzing the Bible, comparing and contrasting different books, figuring out what makes sense. I had one religion class that had nothing to do with religion at all. It was about the African unconsciousness. It didn't make sense, but I had to take it.
Have you been to Africa?
I plan on going. I want to look up where my family is from. I have a family crescent, so that's a good start. I want to get somebody to look that up for me.
You got the extension. I think a lot of people think that being on an NBA team with the big contract is all you need to be happy. So, is it true? Are you happier now?
I don't know if I'm happier. But I feel more secure for my family. I'm still waiting for the day when I can call my mom to say the job train is coming. She still works, and I'm still not able to tell her those days are gone. Not yet. But it's coming. But I'm able to give them things, thanks to Mark Cuban and the Mavericks. It's a blessing.
Your mom works?
She's a nurse in Florida. I told her I'm going to call her one day and tell her that's done. I'm saving up. I keep all my money with Merrill Lynch, and before the extension I didn't make that much money. I had to manage my money. I like old-school cars, and I was able to get three of those my first four years. I'm comfortable. But mom works, and I plan to call her one day. I'm able to give gifts to family and friends. I have a townhouse in Dallas, and an apartment in North Carolina. I'm actually looking for something in Dallas now. I already have a townhouse here, but I'd like a house, even though my permanent home is North Carolina.
Would you say NBA players, with all their money, are happy?
I would think so. Different people have different strokes. I was always happy, even before I got into the NBA.
Why did you slip in the draft all the way to 29? You weren't exactly under the radar -- you even got some awards as national college player of the year.
There are different theories. Some say I didn't do one thing well. Other people have ideas about my attitude. Have you ever seen a four-year college player who didn't play hard?
Personally, I don't think my agent did the best job.
Who was your agent?
My new agent is Jeff Schwartz. He represents Jason Kidd, Paul Pierce, and a lot of other guys. My old agent was, umm, Octagon.
It's cutthroat, that agent business, huh?
I learned a lot from that. I'm a laid-back guy. I am happy to just watch what's going on. But then if I see something that I don't like, I'll make a move.
What advice would you have for players who are selecting an agent?
Take your mother and father with you, and don't listen to nobody else. Go with what your heart tells you.
One theory I heard about why you went as low as 29th is that some teams were concerned that you might have a problem with marijuana.
I think a lot of people have that problem. How that could stop me from getting drafted, though? How many guys in the lottery smoke pot? The weed thing, just about everybody smokes.
Just look at that draft, though. Who else can get 30 and 10? Basically, you have those top five guys, and most of those other guys who were drafted before me ... I can't tell you where they are today. All those GMs who passed? I appreciate them hating on me, because it got me where I am today.
I know some guys, like Gilbert Arenas, are intent on proving everybody wrong.
God said forgive and forget. I forgave everybody when I was drafted and saw where I ended up. I don't care about a reason I didn't get drafted, because I got a chance to be one of the major guys on a good team.
You have a shot at being the MVP of the NBA Finals.
So, you don't care what everybody thinks?
I care about what my teammates think, and Avery, and my mother and grandmother. That's it. If I let everybody else get me down, I wouldn't be the player I am.