Coach's Corner

Juwan Howard's negative image is almost entirely a media invention; moreover, he could be the key piece in the Dallas Mavericks' growth into a championship team.

Letting go of ignorantbut passionately held opinions isn't an easy thing to do. As a holder of many such views, I should know. Take new Maverick Juwan Howard. I think/thought/was sure! Howard was a lazy, overpaid bum, stealing some poor old man's money.

Just to confirm my views on this new, sorry-ass Maverick, I check my handy Official NBA Register. I'm shocked twice. The media's been dogging poor Juwan so long I was stunned to see he's only a seven-year pro. I thought he was Terry Porter's age. Then there are his stats. This season, Howard's recording 18 points and 7 rebounds per game. His career stats are 18 points and 7.4 rebounds, while playing 38.5 minutes a game, meaning he's played virtually the entire game, every game, for seven years for the worst-run team this side of Al Gore's. I guess it wasn't Howard's fault to get buried in Wizard hell. Or that Abe Pollin was crazy enough to pay him $109 million -- like you would've said, "No thanks, old man, I don't want all that money. You keep it. Buy some minks for your young wife. Be happy." It makes you ponder the bizarre, frightening power of the media to shape opinion: right or wrong. And I'm not talking about Arkansas hillbillies munching pig jerky while casting longing looks toward the sheep shed. I'm talking about you and me. Elitist swine -- or closet elitist swine wannabes -- who think we know everything.

Let's take the example of Michael Jordan. A man accorded wealth, fame, and unthinkable influence because he's the pre-eminent athlete of our generation, and has the brains to not threaten White America. What's the difference between Juwan Howard and Michael Jordan? You snort and scoff. You wonder how far over the edge I've fallen this time. Heavy drugs at an advanced age? Drink? Drink and drugs and a bad golf game? Indeed. But …

The difference between Jordan and Howard is: Pippen and Grant. Later Pippen, Kukoc, and Rodman. Throw in a coach who could keep the zoo in order. Toss in critical role players like Paxson and Kerr. Before the Bulls' first championship in '91 (Jordan's seventh season) the mainstream media (I'm talking Sports Illustrated) were calling Jordan a statistic-hungry, selfish, money-grubbing loser. Loser! A player unable, due to his own selfishness, to raise the level of his teammates. Looking back, it defies belief … but it's true. And most of us bought it. Glance at the painful career of Juwan Howard, see the God that is Jordan and understand that there -- but for the grace of good fortune -- goes Dominique Wilkins.

Yes, it was Howard's monster contract (along with Kevin Garnett's) that brought on the owner-instigated "lockout" a few years ago. But that doesn't make it his fault. Howard's numbers say he's a lunch-bucket, blue-collar guy who comes to play every night. So he'll get his 12 million and not give much thought to what car phone Mike from Waco thinks about the relative value of a basketball player vs. a software developer. Car phone Mike isn't signing his check, so get over it.

Midseason trades for a player who needs the ball can be tricky on team dynamics. It might take until next season for Dallas to see the benefits of this trade. But powerful teams are built in bits and pieces, and Howard is a major Dallas piece. It looks like the Mavs have finally healed an oozing, nasty, festering wound, replacing the most destructive Maverick and the single most important reason for their 15-year slide to NBA hell: Roy Tarpley.

I only know one living, longtime Maverick fan: my friend Teresa. She's suffering right now from an affliction common to fans of chronic losers. Its symptoms are more in line with a depressed poetry major: a morbid, jealous fixation on the solitary rewards of the true believer who must now chose between sharing her jewel with the bandwagon masses or finding another hopeless cause. I well understand this contradiction. It's a defense mechanism common to the oft-spurned lover. A transparent sheltering of the heart from more pain. A subconscious ploy where the mind understands the languid pain of hopelessness, but the heart knows that a new kind of pain -- more intense -- will follow with dashed hopes at much higher levels. I know. I've been there and back too often. I say to Teresa, winning is better. Even when you have to share it.

To a head unclouded by these sentiments, it appears that, from out of nowhere, the standard NBA championship formula seems to be in place in Dallas. Nowitzki and Finley are very close to the prerequisite two superstars. In Howard they have a tough, reliable inside scorer. The guard play is outstanding. There is the problem of the lack of anything resembling a center, vividly on display when Howard has to guard Tim Duncan, Nowitzki on Robinson. But then, the Spurs cause those problems for most teams.

Still, Don Nelson's on a roll. Maybe next year the "Shanghai Diesel" -- 7-foot center Wang Zhi-Zhi -- will get his visa problems cleared up and be able to smear some egg foo yung on the face of Mr. S. O'Neal.

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