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Senior Citizens

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

Persistence, Maturity, Toughness Helped Create Team Leader, Hometown Hero, ACC Superstar By Bob Sutton
Burlington (N.C.) Times-News
March 10, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM — The best thing to happen to Wake Forest's basketball program might have been Josh Howard's ankle injury late in his junior season.

It made way for an unforgettable senior year. Nixing the idea of leaving college early, Howard stuck with the Demon Deacons and solidified his status as a hometown hero in Winston-Salem.

“Coming back, that has helped me focus and concentrate,” Howard said.

Howard's on-court accomplishments had been creditable during his first three seasons. But until he guided a youthful Wake Forest team to unexpected heights this year, the recognition had been sporadic. There has been nothing irregular about his 2002-03 performance. The 6-6 forward has answered the calls.

While the tributes roll in, Howard tends to take a different approach. Often fiery on the court, still prone to an occasional tantrum even though usually demonstrating a new level of maturity, his personality off the court is laid-back and gentle.

Howard has given Wake Forest fans coveted victories against key rivals. Yet he's almost uncomfortable when the praise is sent in his direction. As his college career winds down, he would rather be the one distributing the thank-yous.

“I really appreciate the fans,” Howard said. “It has been a wonderful four years, and I appreciate everything everybody has done for me. It has been a real blessing to have been here for four years.”

It has been somewhat unconventional, too. Howard felt out of place when he arrived at Wake Forest because his version of Winston-Salem (the other side of town) was a different world from the small, private school. Sure, Wake Forest fit his criterion of staying close to home, but the university community was far from what he knew home to be. Further complicating his arrival, he was the only member of the basketball team's recruiting class. He had to work harder to fit in.

All the backslapping he might receive on campus couldn't ease some natural apprehension that he was out if his element. Less than four years later, he has the best of both worlds.

“Every time we go out, everybody knows Josh,” teammate and roommate Steve Lepore said. “I'm just along for the ride.”

In that regard, Howard pulls a rather heavy load. As the ACC's leading scorer on a regular-season championship team, he's a lock for the ACC player of the year honor. As it turns out, his presence has extended to one of the most noteworthy careers on record.

Howard is one of four players in ACC history with more than 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists, 200 steals and 100 blocked shots. Add in more than 100 baskets from three-point range, and only Shane Battier — the former Duke All-American and national player of the year — shares such a distinction. When the Demon Deacons need a play in a critical situation, they know where to turn.

“You know he's going to step up,” teammate Taron Downey said.

Howard scored at least 20 points in 12 of 16 ACC games this season. That's just a footnote among a long list of contributions.

“He's the best player in our league,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He's a beautiful player to watch on both ends of the court. Everyone wants to talk about his offense, but he'll guard whoever is hot on the other team.”

Howard wasn't a hot recruit while at Kernersville (N.C.) Glenn. Recruited to Wake Forest by former coach Dave Odom, he made the biggest impression on the staff from the school in his hometown.

Others were less certain about Howard's long-term potential. When he was at Siena, a mid-major program near Albany, N.Y., Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt tried to recruit Howard, but the player showed little interest. By the time Hewitt took the job in the ACC, he was surprised at the caliber player Howard had become.

“When I saw him as a sophomore, I couldn't believe how complete he was then,” Hewitt said. “To see him go in transition and just create shots for himself and his teammates — there's nothing he can't do on the floor. Whether it's stopping somebody, playing great defense, blocking a shot, you can go right down the line. Ö He is the most complete player in our league.”

Howard's development into one of the most well-rounded players in ACC history escalated at Hargrave Military Academy, where Odom suggested he attend to improve his grades. There, Howard moved from the post to the wing, creating a need to establish smoother perimeter tools.

Now, his combination of talents makes him difficult to defend and difficult to score against. The skills aside, Howard brings to Wake Forest something that wasn't learned anywhere, yet instead adopted out of necessity while growing up.

“He has got that toughness about him,” North Carolina coach Matt Doherty said. “He's a tough, nasty competitor. It's that personality that comes through on the court. He's maybe the best offensive rebounder I've coached against. That's what star players are supposed to do. They're supposed to make those plays.”

Several scenarios this season have added to Howard's reputation for toughness. The preseason was filled with concerns about persistent shin splints, so much so that doubts surfaced about how effective he would be. When another ankle injury created speculation that he might be limited in his final home game, he quashed that as well.

With Howard, it's never about setting limitations. It's always about what he can achieve.

“I just continue to fight through it,” he said, a typical response to often-asked questions about his ailments. Those injuries, he'll remind you, might be the reason he's still playing for the Demon Deacons, delaying pursuit of an NBA career.

Howard, though, never imagined landing in such an important leadership role. Faced with what some programs might have viewed as a rebuilding season, he realized that if he didn't embrace the influence he could have on his new teammates, there might be little special about his senior season.

Howard, who turns 23 in April, enjoys the “old man” label that's affectionately placed on him by some of his younger teammates. He has rubbed them the right way because, without prodding, they refer to wanting to play well for him during his final season. As if winning hasn't been enough, they want to do it to honor a player who has set the ideal example. More than passing him the ball with the game on the line, the confidence of having Howard on their side is a boost to teammates.

“I didn't think we were going to be No. 1 (in the ACC),” freshman guard Justin Gray said. “I didn't think we were going to be seventh, either. I knew we had Josh.”

For Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, there are endless one-liners about his star player. Most of them are true.

“He's like Father Josh in Father Flanagan,” Prosser said.

This isn't to say that Howard has lost his exuberance. He's as likely as anyone wearing a Wake Forest uniform to throw his arms in the air with excitement after a big play or add that extra body English on a dunk. And he's still as likely as anyone in the league to exchange elbows while jockeying for rebounding position. It's that kind of passion that fans around the ACC have learned to expect from Howard, who has been in the starting lineup for all but eight games in which he has played during his college career.

Prosser is aware of players across the country who have helped their teams to national prominence. Howard is different, the coach insists, because those other players suit up for teams expected to excel in 2002-03. Among the top player of the year candidates, Howard may have had the most challenging task.

“He has meant more to his team,” Prosser said, “than any other player in the country.”

Howard picked up the nickname “J-Ho,” which is now used as part of a promotional push to gain him more widespread recognition for national honors. His game, though, is free of gimmicks. He has grown into such a role that his maturity level, which once drew raised eyebrows, might have become one of his best assets.

“He provides a tremendous security blanket for their young players,” Hewitt said. “I think it's a tremendous amount of confidence for their young players to have him out there. Ö I'm looking forward to going to his graduation. I want to make sure he's not coming back.”

Howard already came back for his senior season. That alone is something that won't soon be forgotten in the ACC.

Howard At Wake Forest

1999-00 24.9 9.3 4.7 1.8 46.8 58.3 28.6 Semis
2000-01 27.2 13.6 5.9 1.8 49.0 68.5 39.1 Quarters
2001-02 27.4 13.9 7.7 2.1 50.4 65.7 32.9 Semis
2002-03 32.0 20.1 8.0 2.0 49.3 83.8 40.9 ???

Deacons' third ACC player of year (Rogers, Duncan) since 1977
First-team All-ACC in '03; second-team in '01; third-team in '02
Fourth in ACC: 1,000 pts., 500 rebs., 200 assists/steals, 100 blocks

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