Thursday, March 20, 2003

Howard grows into leader Wake Forest needed

By Jenna Fryer
The Associated Press

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - When Skip Prosser was hired at Wake Forest, he asked forward Josh Howard to drive him around and show him the sights. As a Winston-Salem native, Howard knew everything there was to see. But he wasn't sure what to show his new coach, so Howard took him to his comfort spots: His old high school, his grandmother's house and the neighborhood where he grew up.

"I could tell in that car ride he was a man of intense pride," Prosser said. "He's extremely proud of where he's from."

Howard focused his pride onto his basketball team, leading the Demon Deacons (24-5) to their first outright Atlantic Coast Conference title in 41 years this season.

For that, the senior was the unanimous selection as ACC player of the year.

"It's a great honor and a great feeling, but I can't get the big head over it," Howard said. "I have to keep leading my team because we don't want to lose any more games this season."

Howard will lead Wake Forest, the No. 2 seed in the East, into the NCAA tournament on Friday when the Deacons play East Tennessee State.

Their spot in the tournament still surprises many - after all, the Deacons were picked to finish sixth in the ACC in the preseason poll.

With just two seniors on the roster and a starting lineup of Howard, three sophomores and a freshman, Howard had to take charge.

It was a role he wasn't always comfortable with. Admittedly, leadership wasn't his strong suit. But Howard was determined to go out a winner, and to turn his hometown university into a winner again, so he knew he had to learn to be a mentor.

"I'm not that vocal, I'm the type of person who wants you to figure it out on your own before you come asking me questions," Howard said. "But I knew if I wanted to take this team as far as it could go, I was going to have to step up to the challenge.

"Now I'm more comfortable with it, with building relationships with the players and helping everyone through the good times and the bad times."

Howard has been accepting challenges since he was an infant, when his legs were curved and crooked because of a difficult birth. They had to be broken and straightened with casts that ran from his toes to his thighs for three months of his life.

He was raised by his mother and grandmother, not even speaking to his father until he was 11 when the man, a local legend on the basketball courts, called him out of the blue. To this day, they don't have much of a relationship.

And he struggled to get into college, failing the SAT out of high school. After a year at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy, he passed the entrance exams and then-coach Dave Odom fulfilled his promise to give Howard a scholarship if he could get into school.

"My legs, growing up without a father, not passing the SATs, my story is the same as almost every other black athlete," Howard said. "I grew up, I accepted it and I worked hard to overcome it."

He continued to overcome hurdles all year, bouncing back from a bad case of shin splints that ruined the end of his junior season, then accepting Prosser's challenge to step up his game by increasing his time in the gym.

And he accepted, albeit reluctantly, his role as leader of the young Deacons.

"Josh is our backbone and we are his limbs, his arms and legs," freshman guard Justin Gray said. "He's the leader I want to be when I'm a senior. He doesn't say much until we're on the court and that's when he steps up and shines. To me, he's hands-down the best player in the country."

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