Rebirth, rejuvenation define Howard as a Blazer
Bring up the old man, and each Trail Blazer has a story.
A tale that signifies what 16-year veteran forward Juwan Howard has meant to the team. A symbol that captures Howard’s wisdom, passion, inner drive, confidence — and sometimes much-needed humor.
Howard as an inspiration. Howard as the backbone. Howard as the glue that binds. The always-flowing source of energy that reminds rookies they can never take a day or play off, while reinforcing the will of star players who have temporarily lost their way.
To Blazers forward Martell Webster, Howard’s brightest moment this season came inside a small, nondescript room during an off day. The Blazers were about to practice in preparation for a road game Feb. 23 against New Jersey. But before the team took the court, the 6-foot-9, 253-pound Howard gathered the black and red for a players’ only meeting. Then the 37-year-old Howard spoke from the heart. He reminded his teammates about what they had already overcome during an injury-plagued season, and what was still at stake.
“(He) brings the team together when we’re going through adversity,” Webster said. “And he helps us to be just a little more optimistic about situations and things that are happening.”
One day after Howard’s speech, the Blazers downed the Nets, 102-93. Portland then went 4-1 during a crucial five-game road trip, setting the stage for a late-season surge that has the team on the verge of making the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
To Blazers guard Brandon Roy, Howard’s brightest moment was a heart-to-heart.
During the days that followed the NBA All-Star break, Portland’s star player felt he was finally ready to return to the court, after dealing with a nagging hamstring injury that forced him to miss 14 out of 15 games. Roy wanted to take everything slow, though. He thought that the best thing he could do was lay low and try and blend in. Partly out of respect and deference; partly out of the fact that the Blazers had changed: Travis Outlaw and Steve Blake had been exchanged for Marcus Camby, while Andre Miller and LaMarcus Aldridge were now guiding the team’s offense.
Howard knew what Roy was thinking. And the veteran stood up and said no way. Roy was the team’s guiding light — he would carry the Blazers when no one else could. So Howard pulled Roy aside and reminded the three-time All-Star of the power he held. This is still your team, Howard told Roy. Dive in headfirst.
“He called it before I even started,” Roy said. “I hadn’t even practiced yet.”
Portland has gone 15-5 since the break, and Roy had led the Blazers in scoring 10 times during the stretch.
Wisdom and respect
Speeches filled with wise words and the belief that an NBA player must prove themselves each and every day have defined Howard’s time in Portland. During a season filled with setbacks, disbelief and temporary disappointment, Howard has been rock-strong. The former Michigan standout has averaged 5.9 points and 4.8 rebounds this season, while playing in 66 games and starting 26. And the fact that Howard has even had to start a single game or fill in at the center position for Portland — a team that began the 2009-10 campaign with one of the deepest rosters in the league — says everything about how bright expectations can give way to sudden, cold reality.
But the forever-young Howard as a still-thriving contributor is old news, Roy said. What has made Howard’s achievements even more remarkable is that he has continued to produce strong numbers and provide key minutes even after the Blazers acquired Camby. And when Howard is not running the court, he is teaching the game. The sight of Howard giving insider tips, trading jokes and egging on Portland rookie forwards Jeff Pendergraph and Dante Cunningham is a common one at Portland’s practices.
“Sometimes he’s messing with Jeff and getting him all hyped up,” Roy said. “And all of a sudden, Jeff’s having the greatest practice of his life.”
Howard said he is simply setting a positive example. Providing the next generation with proof of how to play the game the right way and treat a sport he loves with respect.
“I’m passing it down,” Howard said. “Showing the guys that, Hey, here’s an example of a guy who played 16 years. If you don’t want to listen and get the valuable, free information from him — soak it up like a sponge — then you’ve got to be a damn fool.”
Howard’s wisdom is free for the taking. But not even he could have predicted the sudden evolution of his role in Portland.
When Howard joined the Blazers last summer as a free agent, he knew next to nothing about the team or its key personnel. The one person Howard did have a feel for, though, was Portland coach Nate McMillan. His gut-based belief in McMillan was enough to take a chance.
“When him and I met over the summer … he asked me what I thought of this team,” Howard said. “And I said, ‘First, let me start with you. I’ve always respected and admired the way you’ve coached. So, I would love to work with you.’ ”
Their relationship has only blossomed.
McMillan beamed when discussing Howard’s contributions and overall professionalism. To McMillan, Howard is exactly the type of player an NBA coach wants. The 16-year veteran rivals rookie Patty Mills as the first Blazer to take the practice court. And Howard’s understanding of the game and those who play it make him indispensable — especially in a league in which coaches sometimes struggle to relate to and connect with the players who often control their fate.
“If you can’t respect what this guy is doing as a player, as a teammate … if that doesn’t grab your attention, then nothing will,” McMillan said.
Howard is adamant that his best season in three years will not be his last. After playing for eight teams in 15 seasons, Howard’s 16th year in the NBA has been one of rebirth and rejuvenation. His on-the-court contributions have been a reminder that the biggest name to emerge from the Fab Five in some ways does not belong to Chris Webber or Jalen Rose. The old man still views challenges as opportunities, and he still does not hesitate to step up and prove doubters wrong.
“I could’ve easily just rolled off into the sunset and ended my career and said, ‘Hey, I’m set for the rest of my life,’ ” Howard said. “But it shows that I have a lot of pride and I am competitive and I have passion for the game.”
But his 16th go-around has not been just about vindication. Howard acknowledged that the support of his teammates, as well as Portland’s coaching staff and the team’s devoted fans, have made a lasting impression. Yes, this is the home stretch of Howard’s career. But pride, happiness and an overall sense of accomplishment have characterized Howard’s time in Portland. He referred to his stay in the Rose City as a storybook ending — one he would be a fool not to appreciate.
“I want to end my career off with winning a championship,” Howard said. “If that does not happen — and it’s not guaranteed — is my career considered a failure? No. Do I leave being happy? You damn right I am. Because of where I ended up and where I landed. Here in Portland, where fans appreciate basketball.”
Interview: Check the Blazer Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter for a transcript of an interview with Howard.
Position: Power forward/center
Vitals: 6-foot-9, 253 pounds
Stats: 5.9 points, 4.8 rebounds
Career: 14.4 points, 6.5 rebounds