- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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Sometimes, athletes have to remind us that the things they value aren't necessarily the same things that we -- fans and the media -- do.
For example, you might assume that Josh Howard, who spent seven years with the Dallas Mavericks before he was traded last February, is laced with regret right now and moping around somewhere because he isn't with his old team in the midst of its competitive NBA Finals with the Miami Heat. You might assume Howard is bitter about the perception that the Mavericks were happy to be rid of such a problematic player even though he was a major cog on the 2006 Dallas team that lost to the Heat for an NBA championship.
Your assumptions would be wrong.
Howard is not angry at the Mavs for trading him to the Wizards and he is not bitter about the people who refuse to see beyond some of the controversies he's created.
In fact, he's honest-to-goodness happy, despite the reality that things for him professionally are as uncertain as they've ever been.
"Of course I want to be a part of it," Howard says. "I think any player who spent as many years as I did there and did the things that I did, as far as on the team, it's hard to lose those feelings. But it's good to see those guys, especially Dirk [Nowitzki] and 'Jet' [Jason Terry], get a second chance to go back and try to win a ring again."
With Dallas trailing 2-1 to the Heat ahead of Tuesday night's Game 4, it was hard to resist jumping into the what-if machine and wonder if Howard, a versatile swingman who averaged nearly 20 points per game in three of his last four seasons with the Mavs, could be playing the same role with the current team that he did in '06, when he averaged 15.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
Because for all of Nowitzki's offensive brilliance through the first three games of these Finals, the Mavericks' only lead in the combined 36 minutes of the fourth quarters lasted a total of six seconds. If not for a still-unfathomable Heat collapse in Game 2, Dallas could easily be trailing 3-0.
To be fair, injuries have undermined the tantalizing what-ifs that exist with Howard. Caron Butler, a key piece in the deal that sent Howard to Washington, has missed most of this season with a ruptured tendon in his right knee. There's no question that if Butler were healthy, this might also be a different series. And Howard played in only 18 games for the Wizards this season while he recovered from a torn ACL suffered last year.
Would staying in Dallas have brought about a different outcome for him?
The irony is that as much as Howard might be suffering professionally -- the Wizards were a basement team this season, there is expected to be a lengthy NBA lockout and Howard is a free agent who'll have to prove he's the player he once was -- he's flourished personally.
He left Dallas with some very controversial baggage. During the Mavs' 2008 first-round playoff series with the Hornets, he admitted he sometimes smoked marijuana in the offseason. A few months later, he was arrested for street racing in North Carolina, though he was found not guilty of that charge and instead was convicted of speeding. And then a video of Howard being critical of the national anthem at a charity flag football game surfaced on YouTube.
The incidents created the worst kind of reputation for him, one in direct contrast to many of the things he'd achieved. For openers, Howard attended a military prep school and chose to stay at Wake Forest for his senior year rather than declare early for the NBA so he could become the first member of his family to graduate from college.
That doesn't sound like someone who, for a time, carried the public image of just another brainless athlete.
"Things happen for a reason," Howard says. "I can't change the past. You just have to learn from it. It took time to realize the things that I did wrong. At the end of the day, I know that I'm human and things happen and I just have to get better from my past and know that I have."
A lot of people believe an athlete can change what people think about him only if he's successful in his sport. Remember the old saying? Winning cures everything.
That isn't always the only way to do it, though. Howard's time with the Wizards suggests that sometimes you can change what people think just by being a better version of yourself. With Washington, he is considered one of the team's best leaders. While Howard was battling his knee problems last October, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis blogged that he "is a respected leader and has promised to make a comeback from injury."
John Wall, the young face of the Washington franchise, had equally high praise for Howard.
"He still is a leader on this team, a guy everybody looks up to, and we just got to do what he says," Wall told reporters. "Josh gives us a lot of advice. He's probably one of the main ones that's talking [to] on the sidelines or when we're in the huddle. He says, 'No matter if you're up or if you're down, you've got to go hard, every minute, every second you're out there.' When we're not doing that, you see the results in the game."
Considering the turmoil in the Wizards' locker room at times, it would have been easy for Howard to remain uninvolved. Reports indicated he was attracting interest from the Celtics and the Bulls last summer, but he chose to stay because he had grown attached to the younger players and signed a one-year deal.
In fact, when I caught up with Howard on Monday, he was in Maudlin, S.C., where he and Wizards teammate Trevor Booker will host the TRU BALLERS 5-on-5 tournament to help raise funds for their respective charity foundations.
Howard always has been dedicated to community service. He turned down an opportunity to try out for the U.S. Olympic team in 2006 because he didn't want to disappoint the kids in North Carolina who attended his annual basketball camp.
Now that he's created some distance from his past mistakes and appears to be taking a more mature perspective on his life and his career, there seems to be more to Howard than what many people originally believed.
He has a lot of good things to say, and a pretty good story to tell. He was born crippled, and doctors had to break his legs as a baby just so he could walk.
And of all things, he became a basketball player.
So maybe, in the end, it's good that Howard isn't with Dallas, because sometimes, the best place to be isn't on the biggest stage.
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.
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