When Butler’s Matt Howard corralled that loose ball and dumped it into the basket to beat Old Dominion in this year’s first dramatic buzzer-beater, he issued one awkward and violent fist pump. Within maybe three seconds, though, the emotion was gone, and he just sort of looked regular.
“That’s him,” Butler’s Emerson Kampen told me in the victorious but subdued locker room. “You see us before the game, we’re always jumping around, and you can tell he’s not into any of that hoopla, any of that hype. It’s all about just playing.”
In fact, Kampen described Howard as a “minimalist.” Other teammates used a different word.
“You can officially write Matt’s the weirdest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Shelvin Mack said. “He’s just a weird dude.”
“He’s Tom Hanks from Big,” assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry told me. “That’s it.”
I asked for some examples. Here you go.
The Bike Crash
Howard is famous for riding his bicycle around Butler’s Indianapolis campus, no matter the temperature or weather conditions. This is apparently quite a sight.
“If it’s like 15 degrees outside, he’s riding his bike around campus, wind blowing in his face, eyes tearing up,” Ronald Nored said.
“In the dead of winter we had an ice storm, and Matt still rode his bike over to practice every day,” Shrewsberry told me.
“He just trucks along through campus, talks to people as he goes, says hi,” Zach Hahn added. “He’s just a gentle giant on the bike. He would never run anybody over.”
No, but his bike isn’t as kind. Shortly before the Horizon League tournament, Howard was on his trusty bike. Then the unthinkable happened.
“The bike crash? Who told you about that,” he said with a laugh Thursday afternoon. “Probably riding too cheap of a bike, that’s the first problem. It’s been out in the rain quite a bit so it’s a little rusted, and I think the rust started to take over. And for some reason the handlebars sort of broke to the side and I went down....I didn’t have my knee pad on at that point, which sort of sucked, because I scraped my knee up a little bit, but I’m all right. It didn’t bother me too much.”
If you think the bike is the only thing that was used to the breaking point, you don’t know Matt Howard.
“He has socks that are so stretched out, they don’t even fit on his legs,” Grant Leiendecker told me. “They’re disgusting.”
“Unless they’re completely broken down, doesn’t matter,” Kampen said. “Unless his socks just have holes in them, he doesn’t get new ones.”
“But you know what, we’re winning and he’s playing tremendous basketball, so I guess the socks are working,” Hahn said.
“We joke that he’s had them since eighth grade,” Nored said. “They just kind of fall down. So we call them his turtleneck socks.”
“He’s got some terrible socks,” Mack said.
“I overuse things,” Howard admitted. “Again, like I’m saying, I’m low-maintenance, is how people describe me, and that’s true. I get ridiculed about the knee brace. Obviously it’s not in perfect condition. The socks are not tight to my leg. They call ‘em the floppy socks and turtleneck socks. I think they’re jealous, personally.”
If he doesn’t change his socks, he’s sure not going to change his trusty tennis shoes, right?
“He has a ton of tennis shoes,” Nored said. “We get all kind of shoes. Matt wears one pair. He’s wearing the same pair I think that he got freshman year. We tried to get him to wear these Kobes, because they’re pretty nice. He didn’t want to wear them. He’s ok with what he has, and that’s all he needs.”
“His sneakers is terrible,” Mack said. “I try to get him to wear the Kobes, but he will never wear him. I think he’s gonna wait until his shoes just fall apart.”
“Those are just the shoes I wear around,” Howard laughed. “What is this? What is this story? Who’s giving you all this information? I mean, they still feel good, so why not keep wearing them?”
Howard also seems to have a somewhat unique sense of humor in the world of big-money Division I athletics. Like, one of his favorite things is to reverse the first initials in two-word combinations. He calls Mack “Melvin Shack.” He calls Hahn “Hach Zahn.” He calls himself “Hatt Moward.”
“What’s your name?” Hahn asked me. “He would say Stan Deinberg. He can do it with anything, sentences. It’s something that he’s developed I think with his family a long time ago, and it’s kind of rubbed off on us.”
“It’s kind of hard to have a conversation with him,” Mack said. “You ask him what’s up, he’ll say the ceiling.”
“He’ll walk through the office,” assistant coach Matthew and you’ll say ‘Hey Matt, what’s up?’ The sky. He’ll just keep on walking. Doesn’t break stride.”
“Some of his jokes are so intelligent, you sometimes almost don’t even get it,” Nored said. “He challenges you in a conversation, that’s almost how it feels every time we’re in a conversation, and he actually makes me want to use bigger words to try to beat him.”
During a road trip to face Cleveland State this year, the Bulldogs took a team trip to the movie theater. Howard told them it was his first time seeing a movie in a theater since he graduated high school.
“I always feel like if you stay two years behind or however long it takes to get out, that’s like a brand new movie to you,” he explained. “So why not just wait until it comes out on TV and then it’s free? That’s the way I look at it.”
Surely you remember last season, when Howard’s ‘stache was one of the enduring stars of Butler’s run to the national championship game? Well, it won’t be back, but Howard thought it did the team no small bit of good.
“I think I did us a lot of favor by having that mustache,” he said on Thursday. “I’m serious. I think to some degree some teams had to look at that and just be like, ‘There’s no way this guy can play the game at all.’ Maybe there was some validity to that. But I just couldn’t do that to my team and to myself again this year.”
Someone suggested that Butler didn’t win the “look test” against Old Dominion this week.
“We almost never win the look test,” Howard agreed.
Indeed, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder — that would be Howard — hasn’t cut his hair since before the season started. Teammates said they thought he was too lazy. Or maybe he was just being low-maintenance.
“His hair is nasty,” Nored said. “It’s just everywhere, all the time. And he doesn’t care. I mean, that’s just who he is.”