NBA: Josh Howard’s awakening arrives at perfect time for Utah Jazz
Published: March 6, 2012 04:09PM
Updated: March 5, 2012 11:48PM
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Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Utah Jazz’s Josh Howard has worked hard to shed the bad-boy label he earned early in his career.

Cleveland • Josh Howard in Salt Lake City: After 36 games of proof, the basic idea still seems absurd.

There’s no way Howard can fit with the Jazz or last in Utah. It’s an impossible experiment certain to fail.

Right?

In Dallas, Howard was as bad as the NBA gets. Marijuana, street racing, to hell with the national anthem, birthday-party flyers passed out in the locker room after a crucial defeat, a missed game reportedly due to a hangover.

Two years after bottoming out, Howard’s still living it down. His fall was swift, unmerciful and self-induced. And even though everything’s appeared perfectly professional nearly three months into his one-season tryout with the Jazz, the nine-year veteran still must atone for his past.

Utah beats Miami on Friday, another sellout crowd in Jazzland embraces what it adores, and Howard’s left after the celebration to answer another Mavericks question.

Write whatever you’re going to write, Howard coldly says. I’ve moved on.

He’s also returned home.

Not fully back to Winston-Salem, N.C., where Howard first learned everything in life has two sides — one sharp, one smooth. But the quiet, gracious, smiling kid raised by his mother and grandmother still exists. The young man humbled by the unrelenting power of his Baptist church; who served as a father to his younger brother because their first dad wasn’t around; who evolved from a skinny teenager trying to prove the world wrong into a freakishly athletic adult doing the same — that’s still Howard.

He’s forever changed. Tattooed and scarred. Self-protective and self-reflective. He doesn’t deny his fall and accepts his mistakes. But he also knows there’s more to life than just looking back.

Today, Howard sees himself as a proud, intelligent, grounded man. Father of two. Proven pro. More like himself than he ever was during the lost years in Dallas. And no matter what, he swears, he’s never falling down again.

“I’ve been like this for 31 years now and I don’t think too much is going to change,” Howard said. “Just continue to be myself and know who I am with the Lord and that’s it.”

Self-awakening

Howard grew up in what he simply calls The South. His youth belonged as much to his Baptist church as Pop Warner football. Wednesday and Sunday services, Thursday praise and worship — his young body was washed in prayer.

“I pretty much was in church every week with my mom,” Howard said. “I had a lot of good values and morals instilled in me.”

The church also caused his first break. At Wake Forest, Howard didn’t buy into the stereotype of being just another dumb basketball player — initially reinforced by his struggles passing the SAT. Once enrolled, Howard started flipping pages. He dived into religion and international studies, soaking up new ideas. Intrigued by Islam, he never converted but was awed by the dedication of the devout.

“I learned too much and opened my mind,” Howard said. “Not saying that I totally disregard any of the views as far as the Baptist church, I’m just more open.”

His awakening had only begun. Years before he became national talk-show fodder during his personal trials in Dallas, Howard questioned the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hate mail poured in. The message: stay in your place, don’t talk, just play ball.

“When I read it, I seriously took offense — you really don’t know who I am or what I know or what I do,” Howard said. “It was just a part of life and part of growing up.”

Today, Howard’s learned to balance what he privately thinks with what he publicly says. He’s smarter, deeper and more experienced than he ever could’ve imagined when he first set foot on Wake’s campus. But Howard also knows he can be more productive funneling his energy into support for inner-city charter schools than polarizing those who watch every move he makes.

Even Howard’s faith has turned inward. He has an aunt who’s a preacher in Shreveport, La.; she has a husband who’s adamant Howard has a natural-born calling to spread the gospel; and scriptures are regularly mailed his way. Another life, Howard says and smiles. His young son might pick up God’s work. But right now, Howard has a job to do.

“My preaching is just being out here, leading by example, carrying myself the right way,” Howard said.

New man

Earl Watson stands by Howard. Same for C.J. Miles, Devin Harris, Jamaal Tinsley and coach Tyrone Corbin, among others. They’ve spent 36 games with the player Dallas gave up on. They’ll proudly spend at least 30 more.

Reinvention, renewal, resurgence — those words came up when Utah discussed Howard. And an even more important one: leadership.

“I don’t think it’s fair to judge young people ... when they come into this league,” Watson said. “[It’s] not even the money. Just transitioning from a young adult to a man. Transition’s tough. We all can’t be judged for the times when we was in our early 20s — that can’t define us forever.”

Howard continues to make amends. Being a father has changed him, as did his underwhelming run in Washington. It was two long seasons and just 22 games filled with injuries and on-the-court frustration. But during a time when Howard could’ve unceremoniously ended his once-promising career, he quietly started writing his next chapter.

“He just took me under his wings and he still talk to me from day-to-day and give me advice throughout the whole year,” Wizards guard John Wall said. “He’s very mature. He’s a professional. He knows when to do the right things and when not to.”

Lately, the right thing has been making it work in SLC. Not only has the experiment been a success, but Corbin’s also debating whether to make Howard a permanent starter once guard Raja Bell returns from injury. Utah’s coach loves what Howard brings on and off the court. Dallas couldn’t be farther in the rearview.

“A lot of folk, they just ... hear a couple things about him in the media or just through some stories about a guy,” Corbin said. “But he’s an intelligent player that understands where he is in his career and what it’s going to take for him to continue to play in this league. And he’s preparing himself for when he get out of the league, and he’s very smart in that way.”

The man who almost gave it all away now has a new home. It could be temporary. It could be the start of something that lasts — Howard will give Utah full consideration once free agency begins. Either way, his first 36 games in a Jazz uniform have initially proved general manager Kevin O’Connor’s gamble was dead on: Howard’s been little risk, high reward.

“I’ve started to show people what I can do and what I used to be able to do,” Howard said. “It’s just a matter of time and prayer.”

Jazz at Cavaliers

P At Quicken Loans Arena

Tipoff • 5 p.m., Monday

TV • ROOT Sports

Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM

Records • Jazz 17-19, Cavaliers 13-22

Last meeting • Jazz, 113-105 (Jan. 10)

About the Jazz • Coach Tyrone Corbin said Saturday that guard Raja Bell (strained left adductor) could return against the Cavaliers. Bell said he will try to, but he planned to test his injury Sunday before making a decision. … Utah entered Sunday in fifth and last place in the Northwest Division and 11th in the Western Conference.

About the Cavs • Cleveland has lost five consecutive games. … Rookie point guard Kyrie Irving leads the team in average points (18.5). He’s shooting 48.1 percent from the field and 43.2 percent behind the 3-point line. … Cleveland ranks 22nd out of 30 teams in average scoring (93.7) and 24th in points allowed (98.2).

Josh Howard

Position • Forward

Year • Nine

Age • 31

Vitals • 6-foot-7, 210 pounds

Stats • 8.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists

Career • 14.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists

Draft • No. 29 overall by Dallas in 2003

College • Wake Forest

Born • Winston-Salem, N.C.