Put it all together
and it's clear why the Mavs had an NBA-best record of 31--8 at week's end. They
are at this point a step ahead of the Suns (28--8), whom they have defeated
twice, and a step and a half ahead of the Spurs (27--11), whom they have beaten
on two of three occasions. But for Dallas to take the final step--winning the
title--Howard's emergence is critical.
For all his
improved play, Howard's greatest strides have been in his comportment and
communication. He is by nature quiet and reserved, but on the court he was
given to paroxysms of rage. At Wake Forest he feuded with coaches Dave Odom and
Skip Prosser, and on a few occasions thought about quitting, "just going
back to the other side of town, where I was from." And what would he have
done? "Try to stay out of trouble, work, go to community college, play
pickup ball, lots of things," he says.
He took an
anger-management course during his junior year, but when he reached the pros,
he still frequently whipped off his headband (which he continues to wear) or
ripped out his mouthpiece (on which he stopped chewing after he got his braces
off last May) when reacting to perceived bad calls. He also was short with
teammates, another Stackhouse tendency. "We're both from North
Carolina," says Howard, "so maybe it's something in the water."
Howard first demurs when a reporter suggests the term pain in the ass to
describe what he sometimes was to coaches and teammates, but then.... "I
was just passionate about the game and didn't always know how to show it,"
he says. "I'd let the refs have it. I'd get on my teammates." He
smiles. "I guess you could call me a pain in the ass. But I worked on
[controlling myself]. I'm much better at it now. I had to be, right?" He
has had only two technicals this season, even though referees have been
instructed by the league to be less tolerant of verbal abuse.
Johnson agrees that
Howard has a better handle on his emotions than in the past. "Josh would
either say nothing or snap completely, both at the refs and at his
teammates," says Johnson. "I told him I want his input--I need his
input--but in a positive way, during timeouts, in the huddle, at halftime.
That's what he's doing this season."
Howard still plays
in a kind of controlled rage, but he won't psychoanalyze himself and pin it on
his upbringing in Winston-Salem. "It wasn't easy, but I always had love
around me," he says. He lived at the 1500 address (he won't reveal the
street) with Helen Howard, his grandmother, but his mother, Nancy Henderson,
lived right down the block. "My mother thought it would be better for me to
live with my grandmother, but she was still a big part of my life," says
Howard, "My mother gave me most of my butt-whippings. My mother was the one
who wouldn't let me play football in high school." He remains close to both
women, particularly his grandmother, who still lives in the same house (though
with improved plumbing and a new front porch, courtesy of her grandson) in
which he grew up. Helen calls him "my Joshua."
Kevin Robinson, walked out on the family right after Howard was born. He says
he didn't meet his father until age eight and has seen him only rarely since.
"He was supposed to be the next big thing in Winston-Salem," says
Howard, speaking of his father's high school basketball career. "But he
went in another direction." As far as Howard knows, his father has never
seen him play an NBA game. "He doesn't have the finances to get here,"
says Howard, who will not disclose his father's job status or whereabouts.
"No, I'm not paying for him to get here either. I'm doing him a favor just
letting him contact me once in a while."
That is Howard:
direct and brutally honest. He's no quote machine but scores points with
reporters because he doesn't sugarcoat or obfuscate. His game has a bluntness
too. He slashes to the basket. His jump shot is not particularly fluid. He is
not above engaging in occasional extracurricular activity. The Suns, for
example, were convinced that Howard was deliberately tripping them in last
year's Western Conference finals, won by the Mavs in six games. When Phoenix
owner Robert Sarver confronted him before Game 6, Howard said, "I don't
know what you're talking about, but in about two hours we're going to be
celebrating on your court." Which is exactly what happened.
This combination of
a rough-hewn game with a rough-hewn 'tude perhaps explains why Howard lasted
until the last pick of the first round, taken after such forgettables as Reece
Gaines, Troy Bell and Ndudi Ebi. "I had worked on my attitude, and it had
definitely gotten better by my senior year," says Howard. "The only
explanation I got was that I could do many things good but not one thing
great." The knock against Howard, as it is with many versatile players, was
that he wasn't a lights-out shooter (as if the NBA were loaded with them).
Well, he shot 47.3% from the floor over the last two seasons and was not far
from that mark at week's end (45.5%). He's also been knocking down 39.7% of his
important role, though, might be that of ignition key. He has averaged 7.2
points on 51.2% shooting in the first quarter of games, an important stat since
Nowitzki is often a slow starter, albeit a helluva finisher. In the first seven
minutes of the win at Utah, for instance, Howard hit a baseline drive over
Andrei Kirilenko, slashed to the middle for a layup and an eventual three-point
play, hit a standstill 20-foot jumper, made a nice crossover dribble to get
into the lane for a dunk and swished a 13-foot jumper. He finished the quarter
with 11 points as Dallas took a 26--24 lead. Nowitzki, meanwhile, had only two.
But at the end of the game, Nowitzki had 38 and Howard 21. (On Sunday, though,
it was Howard who had the last word. He sneaked open in the paint, took a feed
from Terry and made the game-winner over a leaping Chris Bosh with 0.9 of a
second left as Dallas beat the Toronto Raptors 97--96.)
"It's never in
my mind to outscore Dirk," says Howard. "I try to get us going and let
him take us to the finish line."