DALLAS — With his former team one victory away from the championship that he was unable to capture five years ago, against the same team that kept him from winning the ultimate prize, Josh Howard said he could only have a cursory interest in the outcome in the NBA Finals.
He is rooting from afar for former Dallas Mavericks teammates Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Erick Dampier, now of the Miami Heat, more than a particular team. The wounds of his unceremonious departure haven’t fully healed, but Howard is getting there.
He can actually watch the games, which is progress. Howard admits he would’ve had a difficult time handling the situation a year ago, just a few months after the Mavericks had shipped him to the Washington Wizards.
“It might’ve hurt my feelings, cause I was still connected to the team,” Howard said this week. “This year, it’s like, it’s a game. There’s emotion, because I feel I could still be here, contributing with those guys. But now that I’m not here, I look at it as a fan.”
When Nowitzki, Terry and Kidd were putting the finishing touches on a 112-103 Game 5 victory Thursday at American Airlines Center that gave them a three-games-to-two lead over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, Howard was in South Carolina, preparing to assist Wizards teammate Trevor Booker in the first fund-raising event for Booker’s nonprofit organization.
Howard’s absence from Dallas was purely coincidence; he had made plans to help Booker weeks earlier. Howard was hardly hiding out and moping this week with the Finals back in town for the first time since he helped the Mavericks make their first trip in 2006, when the team lost in a memorable six-game collapse that hung over the franchise through four subsequent first-round flops. But he couldn’t bring himself to attend any games in person.
“I can get tickets. It’s just the whole hassle, knowing somebody is going to ask me why I ain’t playing,” Howard said. “I don’t think it would be right for me show up. I don’t want to jinx them.”
Howard still calls Dallas home, mostly to be around his 3-year-old son, Bryson, who attends the same day care center as Terry’s youngest daughter. He feels comfortable, enjoys the cost of living, and is reassured that some fans that have refused to let go of a player who was a major piece of the last Finals team and ascended to all-star status before a series of off-court mishaps and injuries led to his exodus.
“I think I moved past it,” Howard said. “I learned from my mistakes. I can’t really take back what was done. I just have to apologize to those I offended and keep going.”
By 2 p.m. last Tuesday, Howard was ready for a nap after going through a full day of rehabilitating the left knee that has limited his contributions for the Wizards and sweating in a non-air-conditioned studio to film a series of radio and television commercials for his upcoming celebrity weekend in Dallas.
Howard visited a local seafood restaurant, one of the many he frequented during his 61 / 2 years with the Mavericks, and the waiters and bartenders were eager to greet him, with some telling him how much they wished that he was still with the team. Howard smiled and shook hands with the staff and said he gets similar treatment nearly everywhere he goes around Dallas. A few days before, Howard said, he walked out of another restaurant in Irving, where a fan was so giddy to speak with him that Howard said he told his mother, “I wonder if he thinks I still played for Dallas.”
The two key pieces that Dallas acquired in exchange for Howard — Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood — are sidelined with injuries, while DeShawn Stevenson is a reserve. Howard said thoughts of his lone trip to the Finals “still comes up every now and then. God blessed me with the chance to play in ’06. Ain’t too many guys that can say they made it to the Finals. I’m not upset I didn’t win a ring, right when I wanted to. I’m just hoping that I get another chance.”
Howard will be a free agent for the second summer in a row, but he feels more confident than last summer, when he was still recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He played just 18 games last season for the Wizards last season because of more complications with the knee. But he is still training three days a week at Texas Sports Rehab with other NBA players, such as DeSagana Diop and DJ Mbenga, and said his knee is back to “90-to-95 percent. That’s great for me, to feel this way. It’s been a long time.”
Though he has never had much of a chance to play for the Wizards since getting traded from Dallas, Howard would still like to return.
“I still see Washington as the number one option, or the option,” Howard said. “If that’s not the place that’s for me, I’ll have to weigh my options and go after what’s best for me.”
Could he see himself ever playing for the Mavericks again?
“Never say never. Great place to play ball. Mark Cuban has done a great job to get the city behind the Mavericks. I know I’d just come back in like I left off, if there was a chance,”Howard said. “Now, I’m cheering for Dirk and JT, ’cause they was there with me when we made it and of course, J-Kidd, because he was instrumental to my career, just staying positive. I know he’s an older vet and he wants to get a ring, so it would be great for him to get one. They have the pieces, hopefully they can pull it out.”