SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – It was less than four years ago that Josh Howard earned $10 million for the NBA season. He was playing for the Washington Wizards in the third season of a four-year, $40 million extension the Dallas Mavericks had given him. A former All-Star, the 2003 ACC Player of the Year at Wake Forest, and still just 30 years old, Howard appeared to have a handful of productive NBA seasons still ahead of him.
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Then he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Two years later, he suffered a meniscus tear in the same knee. Nine months after that, he tore the ACL in his right knee.
All of which helps explain why Howard is currently playing for the Austin Toros in the NBA's Development League, making $25,000 for the season.
"Beggars can't be choosy is what my grandma said," Howard told Yahoo Sports. "I'm just happy to be out there playing.
"I love the game. Ultimately, this is a game I played as a kid to get outside of the house away from grandma and mama – 'You ain't going to make me vacuum today. I'm going to play ball.' "
Howard said he was "at his lowest" after injuring his knee for the second time. Rather than attempt yet another comeback from knee surgery, Howard could have opted to retire. He said he's invested well and saved money after listening to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
"Cuban gave me a lot of good advice," Howard said. "I really wasn't a big spender."
Howard, however, never really considered retiring. He chose instead to join Antoine Walker as the only former NBA All-Stars to join the D-League. Playing in Austin also has kept him close to his two kids and a stepson, who live less than a three-hour drive away in Dallas.
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"Those tears dried up quick," Howard said. "I'm a fighter. I will never quit. I want to go out on my own terms, not nobody cutting me, me walking out saying, 'I'm done.' "
Howard's agent, Derrick Lafayette, warned him transitioning to the D-League from the NBA wouldn't be easy – on or off the court. Long used to NBA charter flights – Cuban once used his private plane to take Howard to the 2007 All-Star Game – Howard and the Toros flew Southwest Airlines (with a connecting stop in San Diego) to Santa Cruz for a couple of games. Long bus rides also aren't uncommon.
"That took it back to AAU right there to get here," said Howard, who admits he was "spoiled" by the NBA.
Howard also had to have a roommate on the road until that player was waived. The Toros practice in a community center with a locker room so small the players often change in the storage closet. Senior citizens often work out near the court while the Toros practice – and joggers circle them on a track above.
"The hardest thing is changing in the storage closet, if I had to complain about anything," Howard said. "That was a humbling experience."
Howard made his D-League debut against the Santa Cruz Warriors in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,600 on Friday. He forgot to bring his basketball shoes on the trip because he was accustomed to the trainer bringing them in the NBA, so the shoes needed to be overnight mailed in time for the game. With the crowd quiet during visiting team starting lineup introductions, Howard joked that he booed himself "to get my motor running."
Howard scored 16 points and made two 3-pointers during the Toros' 121-102 loss. He said his knees are 100 percent now, but admitted he doesn't jump as high as he used to and no longer likes to dunk. After the game's final buzzer, he received a thank you for playing hard from a fan and his young son. Then Howard and his teammates went to the visiting locker room: a trailer that reminded him of his middle school classrooms.
"My body still feels like I'm 27 even though I'm 33," he said.
The Wizards and Jazz had scouts at the Toros' second game against the Warriors on Sunday to see Howard total eight points and five fouls in 18 minutes of a 117-103 loss. One NBA scout thought Howard looked rusty and could probably better re-evaluate him in a month.
"His game is more cerebral now," the scout said. "He relied on his athleticism at the peak of his NBA career. He lacks lift right now."
The San Antonio Spurs own and operate the Toros, but Howard is free to sign with any NBA team. If no one signs him, he thinks he'll try to play in the summer league for someone. Whenever he does decide to retire, he hopes to open a chain of childcare centers.
For now, though, Howard is determined to try to work his way back to the NBA through the D-League, no matter how unglamorous his current surroundings.
"I don't feel sorry for myself," he said.