All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers
Zac Crain is a senior editor at D Magazine and author of the Dimebag Darrell bio, Black Tooth Grin. Follow him at @zaccrain.
Josh Howard didn’t stop being a Dallas Maverick because he loves weed or hates the national anthem. That was cover fire. Josh Howard stopped being a Dallas Maverick because he became conventional.
When he entered the league as part of (but not really) the fabled draft class of 2003, he was wholly unpredictable, something the Dallas Mavericks lacked at the time. Don Nelson gave that squad the illusion of unpredictability, but that team (and pretty much all others Nellie has coached) was incredibly predictable within his framework. He’s like Wes Anderson or any other director that has been called quirky, or similar. If you walk in halfway through one of their films, it might seem so, but not if you have seen all of them from the beginning. Then the quirks are rote and easy to anticipate. Nellie has been Nellie for long enough that every ace up his sleeve is, by now, a two of clubs.
But Howard was genuinely wild, in his way. He was part of the team but apart from it at the same time. That isn’t to say he broke plays, or was a problem in any way. He had a game that seemed concocted on the fly. It was all impulse. He, more than any Mav at that time, could leave the crowd gasping. Dirk Nowitzki was the inevitable. Josh was the possible.
And then he turned into Michael Finley. Worse, he turned into late-career Michael Finley.
When it comes to Howard, I’ve always thought of Michael Finley as secondhand smoke. He is a power plant behind the back fence. He is a microwave tower hovering over a quiet neighborhood. I could (probably) make a scientific case that Finley gave Howard’s career cancer. But more than that, I simply believe it’s true, maybe because I want to and maybe because I can’t explain it otherwise. I don’t want to blame chance. It has to be the fault of someone or something.
So I always think of Mike Finley.
Specifically, I think of the Finley that I grew to despise during the last few years of his time in Dallas, which coincided with Howard’s first few seasons in the league. Even more specifically, I think of one play. It’s not a single moment, exactly. It’s a sequence that seemed to happen every game.
It is the end of a quarter, or a half, or a game. The shot clock is off but there is plenty of time left on the clock. Let’s say 17 seconds. Finley gets the ball near the three-point line on one side or the other. And then he turns into a bad Michael Jordan impersonator. Let’s say Harold Miner. He palms the ball, arm extended, holding it away from his defender. You’ve seen this. Yes. Finley keeps holding it, and holding it. You reach, I teach, and, man, fuck Jordan, too. He made this happen.
Ten seconds. Jab step. Jab step. Five seconds. Finley takes a dribble than in no way could be considered as progress toward the basket. Two seconds. And here we are again: a heavily contested, step-back, fall-away jumper that only succeeds in drawing a groan from the crowd and maybe a bit of rim. It is a single shot, but it means everything. This is the signature move of someone who has put pride above all else. It was Finley’s move, and it became Howard’s.
Howard is sort of the son and grandson of this—affected by Jordan through Finley, and affected by Jordan directly. (That they were both handpicked by Jordan to be part of his Jumpman 23 roster and therefore under his wing is, I guess, my smoking gun.) A good enough player can handle it. For a time, Finley was good enough. With tons of qualifiers, yes—The Man, but on a terrible team, etc. But still: good enough. Howard never was. He was close. But he didn’t have the right make-up or the right situation.
The off-court PR problems? Those were maybe symptoms of his newfound pride. But I don’t believe that. Those made him more of a real person. He said the shit he wasn’t supposed to say but wasn’t alone in thinking or doing. He was maybe wrong in his choice of venue for one of those statements, but that didn’t make him wrong, or at least not wrong to speak his mind.
Be he was wrong on the court. That was more unforgivable. He fell in love with a jumper that, at best, wanted to be friends, maybe make out a little every once in awhile if they both had too much to drink. He decided he was 1B to Dirk Nowitzki’s 1A based on an injury-replacement All-Star selection and little else. He made superstar mistakes (picking up bad T’s at worse times) without superstar production.
It could have been different. He could have actually earned that 1B status. He could have been—and generally was, early on—a great defender, but he stopped trying on that end around 2005. Somehow, he was a much better defender under Don Nelson.
(Aside: You could sort of see where this was headed during the 2004 Rookie Challenge. That he was there was victory enough, given his draft position and everything else. He was a footnote to an afterthought, in a game dominated (on court) by Amar’e Stoudamire and (media-wise) by LeBron and Melo. Nelson told him to just do what he’d been doing to earn rotation minutes: rebound and play defense. Instead, and I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I feel as though he went something like 0-12 from three-point range in about eight minutes of playing time. I know, I know—wrong to judge ANYTHING in a glorified pickup game. But still. Omens are omens.)
He should have flourished playing with Jason Kidd, but the opposite happened. The Josh Howard that would have flourished in that situation—the one who always seemed to appear out of nowhere somewhere around the rim and, less relevant, regularly shut down clubs with Marquis Daniels—was long gone. He didn’t need (or want) a point guard, or anyone else, really. He had a fat man’s game: nothing but jogging and fadeaways.
In a way, Howard was still unpredictable, because I never expected that.
And so he is in Washington now, trying to come back from a knee injury and various other psychic damage from the six-month period where his status was fired on from pretty much every angle. This could come full circle. He is, more or less, forgotten now. It’s the perfect time for him to fly in from out of nowhere again.