Column: Blazers' Howard evolves from a fabulous talent into the ultimate professional

Portland Trail Blazers guard Brandon Roy killed time at the free-throw line, ball in hand, joking and laughing with general manager Kevin Pritchard.

Portland coach Nate McMillan stood tall against a beige and brown wall, fielding questions and tossing back tight, perfect answers.

And while the three big Blazers chatted away Thursday morning following a workout at the team’s practice facility in Tualatin, Ore., forward Juwan Howard coached.

Howard backed down center Greg Oden. Then he raised his arms upward and outward, showing off an impressive wingspan that disguised his 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame. Next, Howard leaned over and butted into Oden, gaining position on the lower block. All the while, Howard talked, offering free advice and new ideas. And as Howard coached, Oden listened, nodding his head and paying close attention while the veteran worked his trade.

The former member of Michigan’s Fab Five may no longer be fabulous. Thirty-six years of living, 15-plus years in the game, and 1,073 combined NBA regular season and playoff contests have a way of wearing down even the strongest bodies, stripping away gloss and shine while dulling passion and heart.

But Howard can still bring it. He still loves and believes in the game that made him. And what he’s lost on the court in terms of energy and speed, he’s made up for with a sharp, strong mind.

“If it wasn’t for his mind, he wouldn’t be here,” McMillan said.

He added: “His IQ is very high.”

So is Howard’s ambition.

After being written off by a legion of basketball fans, critics and experts following a stretch from 2007-09 in which Howard averaged just 2.5 points and 8.9 minutes in 92 games while collecting garbage time for three different teams, the old man is young again.

“I’m a very prideful individual,” Howard said. “I compete and I’m very competitive. And I have passion and a love for the game. So, you put all that together, and that’s why I’m still in this league.”

Howard’s age-defying ability to not just teach and coach, but to also take and make shots, has allowed the Blazers to breathe easier.

For most teams, the early-season loss of key assets such as Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw would be major blows. But Portland has just kept playing — racking up wins, building confidence and weathering storms while evolving from a young team filled with promise and potential into a proven one that knows it can endure whatever the cold, hard NBA dishes out.

Now, McMillan has handed Howard a key role on the Blazers. And Howard said he plans to honor his coach’s commitment to and belief in him with old school — but still in fashion — fundamental basketball.

“It’s my job to go out there and play hard for this guy, and I will,” Howard said. “Not just for Nate, but for this team and this organization.”

Howard’s devotion to the game and his new teammates has made a deep impression on Roy, who called Howard an “ultimate professional.”

Portland’s star guard recalled being a kid and going wide-eyed as Howard and fellow Wolverines such as Chris Webber and Jalen Rose dominated the court while carrying college basketball from the old world into a new land covered by bright lights and ruled by big names.

“I was big on the Fab Five,” Roy said. “I watched a lot of Michigan, when he was athletic and running around.”

Running is no longer the main part of Howard’s game. Now, it’s soft baseline jumpers, smart passes and the knowledge of how to “trick some guys.”

But Howard still has a place in the NBA. And he has a new, important part to play for the Blazers. One where his still-in-demand talent and skill will be prized as much as his mind.

“He just loves basketball. He loves being around it,” Roy said. “And that’s something that, it’s not in everybody. A lot of guys don’t love the game. But he loves the game. He loves to travel, he loves to play. And that’s something that I think is great, because it rubs off on guys. It makes guys want to go out there and perform every night.”

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