Josh Howard’s life has come full circle.
Howard was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., played college basketball at Wake Forest – which is also located in Winston-Salem – and is now the head basketball coach at Piedmont International University.
By the way, Piedmont International University is located in, you guessed it, Winston-Salem, N.C.
This journey through the basketball cycle of life is a fairytale ride which Howard doesn’t take for granted.
“For me to be able to come out of my hometown, go out in the world, do what I’m supposed to do and come back and get to be a coach right here in my home city, that’s a classic story,” Howard told Mavs.com. “For me to be able to say that and experience that, it’s a blessing.”
Ironically, Howard, who played six-and-a-half seasons of his 10-year NBA career with the Dallas Mavericks, didn’t actively pursue a career in coaching. For him, it simply tuned out to be a right-place, right-time type of situation.
Howard was already in the midst of enjoying a close relationship with the powers-that-be at Piedmont when the chance to coach the team came in the middle of the 2016-’17 season. That came thanks to a conversation Howard had with Piedmont president Dr. Charles Petitt.
“I was doing individual workouts at the school, and the school and I had already formed a relationship through my after-school program and my foundation to try to figure out ways to connect with the low-income areas of Winston-Salem,” Howard said. “When I was in there doing one of my workouts, the president came to me and told me that the former head basketball coach had just resigned and he was looking for a basketball coach.
”I told him I might could help him out and call a couple of friends that could possibly become the coach, but by the time I got home to my house I thought maybe I should be the guy that coached the team. So I gave (Dr. Petitt) a call, and he was like, ‘You for real?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a shot,’ and the next thing you know I’m the head coach of Piedmont International.”
Pursuing a job as a head coach when his playing days ended was never part of the equation for Howard at any point in his life. Until he got the news that Piedmont needed a coach.
“It wasn’t a goal of mine to be a head coach once I retired from the NBA,” he said. “I just wanted to do what I did as far as living, and being an entrepreneur, and just continuing on with my life and being a successful father. The basketball job just fell in my lap.
“Me personally, I never thought I would be a head coach, but I enjoy giving back to my community and I just like helping out young people in general. So that was the perfect platform to continue doing what I was already doing.”
Part of Howard’s mission consists of steering young men in the right direction and guiding them on a path to success. Darrell Armstrong was a teammate of Howard’s from 2004-’06, and is somebody he leans on frequently. Armstrong said he was kind of surprised Howard entered the coaching profession.
“I never heard him talk about anything like the coaching staff,” Armstrong said. “But I’m not surprised. He’s been around and has always been a student of the game, and has been around enough good players and enough good coaches to pick up the game as a coach.”
So what’s been one of Howard’s biggest challenges during his coaching tenure?
“Getting these young men to understand that they’ve got to have their grades in order to play,” he said. “It was really a shock to me that a lot of these kids were thinking they were going to be able to get into school with a 1.5 (grade point average) and continue to play basketball.
“Or the ones that got into school by the skin of their teeth still thinking they can carry on the shenanigans they were doing when they were in high school, especially in the classrooms. I was one of those guys where I had to work hard to get to where I was, so I wouldn’t cut them any slack. I guess they assume I would do that, so that was definitely one of the toughest things to deal with – that some of these men thought I was going to let them slide.”
After being the 29th and last pick of the first round in the talent-laden 2003 NBA Draft that included LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony, Howard was a small forward who played on the Mavs’ frontcourt alongside the legendary Dirk Nowitzki longer than any other player.
“I learned a lot from him – his work ethic, his professionalism,” Howard said of Nowitzki. “To watch him grow as a leader was the fun part for me. To be able to watch him do that — and me now being the leader of a college team — and to come in and have to be under somebody like Dirk who definitely was a true leader, my hats’s off to that man.”
Howard, in fact, made his lone All-Star appearance in 2007. That’s the same year Nowitzki was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
In the 2006-‘07 season, Howard averaged 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds and shot 45.9 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from 3-point range. The following season he averaged career highs of 20 points and seven rebounds per game, and followed that up with 18 points and 5.1 rebounds during the 2008-’09 season before the Mavs traded him to the Washington Wizards on Feb. 13, 2010.
As for Piedmont, the Bruins are a small private school and are part of the National Christian College Athletic Association. Howard’s team posted a 13-19 record last season, but he said there’s a good explanation for it.
“We played 10 Division II schools and one Division I school, so I expected that,” Howard said. “But every year leading up to that we were over .500.
“On the flip side, we were able to make it to the national tournament last season and finished seventh in the nation. With that tough schedule it proved that it helped my guys out in the long run because we got a national invite.”
The tough schedule also provided his players with a new source of pride and confidence in their abilities.
“I don’t want them to think they play at the lower level,” Howard said. “I want them to understand that they can compete just as much as anybody — it doesn’t matter the division you’re in.”
This concept, combined with the trip to the national tournament, also gave Piedmont something else when the college recruiting season rolled around.
“That attention definitely was noted and put the school on the map,” Howard said. “I was able to land a 6-8, 245-pound big man (Kenneth Price Jr.). Of course, me being who I am, a lot of people didn’t know where the school was. But since I’ve been here a lot of people have found out where it is. I want to do great things here, but also see the school grow as well.”
Howard said he picked up some of his coaching acumen from coaches he’s played for over the years.
“A lot of lessons I learned from (former Mavs coach) Avery (Johnson) just about being disciplined, on and off the court,” Howard said. “Things that I learned from (former Mavs) coach (Don) Nelson about the offensive game and understanding why you’ve got to take advantage of opportunities. Those two were definitely big in that.
“My college coaches, definitely coach Skip Prosser and coach Dave Odom, were good about just keeping me informed on what’s going on around me. A lot of lessons that I learned from those guys that I’ve definitely passed over to these younger guys.”
Still, just because he’s moved on to the college game doesn’t mean Howard has forgotten his NBA connections. He keeps in contact with Mavs proprietor Mark Cuban, and with players he bonded with during his playing days.
“I keep those bridges that I’ve built with certain people,” Howard said. “Cuban definitely supports what I’m doing and it’s a blessing for me to have people that really care about what I do out here. Cuban has never lied to me. I respect a man like that.”
In addition, the “coach” in Howard affords him the opportunity to dissect the Mavs and see the combination of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis as becoming a viable force in the NBA for many years to come. And he still views the Mavericks as an “us,” not a “them.”
“The ceiling is high, man, and they definitely can reach it,” Howard said of the Mavs. “And if we can find one cornerstone defender, I bet we’ll be back in the championship again.”
Howard last played in the NBA for the San Antonio Spurs in 2013 before he was released after one day. He also spent the ’13-’14 season with the Austin Toros – the Spurs’ G League team – before calling it quits after winding up with the New Orleans Pelicans’ summer league team in 2014.
Besides coaching Piedmont, Howard’s undivided attention is squarely on his son, 11-year old Bryson Howard.
“He’s a left-handed basketball player and he’s pretty good,” Howard said. “I just sit back and watch him.
“I haven’t started training him yet, but he’s definitely getting it way better than what I was at 11 years old. He started the sixth grade this year, so it’s pretty cool to see him going through this.”
Howard is only 39 years old. He said he was recently asked by Big 3 officials to play in their league, but he declined because: “I enjoy coaching more than playing.”
On if he one days expects to be bitten by the NBA coaching bug like his former Mavs teammates Adrian Griffin (Toronto), DeSagana Diop (Utah) and Armstrong, Howard straddled the line with his remarks.
“You never know,” he said. “Definitely, if the opportunity presented itself I would. But at this point I’m enjoying college and enjoying the mentor part of it. I’m just riding my wave and enjoying life.”