Posted Jan 31 2010 1:27PM
The role had pretty much been scripted for Juwan Howard: experienced leader, strong locker room presence, hard worker in practice and cheerleader during games. Contending teams don't usually bring in 36-year-old vets for any other reason, right?
"That's what the media has told me," Howard said. "Nate never told me that."
Howard and Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan probably didn't predict many nights like Saturday, when Howard nailed the game-winning jumper in a 114-112 overtime victory at Dallas. The 15-footer with 45 seconds left were his only two points of the game.
"I was waiting patiently," Howard said with an ever-expanding smile. "Just trying to be helpful when needed."
McMillan was smart not to put any limits or expectations on Howard because he didn't have any. McMillan has been around long enough, and understands the psyche of players well enough, not to sell Howard short.
Not that McMillan planned to use Howard extensively during a season that started with championship aspirations. Injuries to centers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla forced McMillan's hand. Howard gladly took it and has played a significant part in keeping Portland afloat in the Western Conference playoff hunt.
"The main reason we brought him in is because we knew he stayed in shape and would understand his role of we're going to call upon you when we need you," McMillan said. "That may be November or it may be March, but he would have himself ready. And he has."
Howard has gone from making cameo appearances early in the season to being a critical part of the rotation the last two months. He's moved into the starting lineup and is producing despite being closer to McMillan's age (45) than teammate LaMarcus Aldridge (24). Howard turns 37 on Feb. 7.
"I always try to keep myself ready for anything," said Howard, the game's high rebounder Saturday with 12. "I didn't expect to be a starter, but I've played so many years in this league and I've been predominantly a starter. I know how to play the game. What I'm doing is no surprise to me."
It also doesn't shock one of Howard's oldest friends. Chris Webber has known Howard since they were 15, and they later starred together as part of the Fab Five teams at the University of Michigan.
"I'm really not surprised because his game has never been above the rim," said Webber, an analyst for TNT and NBA TV. "He's always been very cagey with the way he's scores and plays defensively. I always knew that he can outsmart any player that was across from him."
Howard has outlasted his Wolverine buddies thanks to his preparation, work ethic and a game that's aged gracefully. His vertical leap is virtually unchanged in 16 years, to put it kindly, but he works angles and anticipates. He just knows how to play.
"In this situation with Portland, he has been a key player," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "He really has because he understands the game. He knows where he's supposed to be all the time and, from what I hear, he's a great guy in the locker room with the younger players."
Just because he's playing doesn't mean Howard has abandoned his mentoring duties with the Blazers' youngsters, including rookies Jeff Pendergraph and Dante Cunningham. Aldridge, a budding star, routinely asks Howard for pointers on how to deal with the league's big men.
"His years have been big for us, as far as teaching us things to do, playing the five, guarding Shaq and guys like that," Aldridge said. "He's an example of being a pro. He's played so many years in the league, but he's still productive and he's always ready. He does everything with the utmost professionalism."
Webber said that few in the league today are as universally respected as Howard, naming off a select group that includes Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and Shaquille O'Neal. So when things turned chippy in the fourth quarter last week between Portland and New Orleans, Howard channeled that respect and did his best to diffuse the situation.
He took it upon himself to calm down Chris Paul. The Hornets star listened.
"It's almost better to let Juwan play peacemaker because he can knock you out as well," Webber said. "I think players understand that. He's a really nice guy because he restrains himself, not because he can't handle a little scuffle on the team.
"That's just part of the evolution of Juwan. Nobody is from a worse neighborhood, nobody has grown up in a worse environment than he had and he's overcome it. Basketball is the least of the things that he's overcome, and he carries that professionalism and he carries that humble attitude and thankfulness for even being here on the court."
Howard has remained uncorrupted by the NBA lifestyle. As one of the first players to cash in on the $100 million contracts of the mid-'90s, he could have easily checked out. Howard didn't. He's continued to find a place in the league, even as he's bounced around the last few years.
Howard signed a one-year deal with Portland, his seventh team, less than a month before the start of training camp.
"I've always done a good job taking care of my body and, more importantly, having pride and being passionate about the game of basketball," he said. "When you make a lot of money in this league, guys look at it as a situation where I can stop working. I've always been a competitive person and I've enjoyed playing."
McMillan added: "I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to coach him and he's a sharp guy. This guy will be able to do whatever he wants. He'll be able to coach if he wants. He can run an organization. He's a people's person and he can communicate. After basketball he'll be able to do a lot in this league if he chooses to go in that direction."
That's Howard's plan.
"My goal is to have some type of job close to the game of basketball," he said. "Preferably I'd like to be part of the front office. If not, coaching is another option. I love it. It's fun to me. I enjoy the teaching aspect of it. I enjoy the business side of it. I've experienced both sides.
"I've been on good teams, I've been on average teams, I've been on mediocre teams, I've been on underachieving teams and I've been on bad teams. I've seen it all. I know what it's like."
He doesn't have to be told.
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