(Eds: Adds details, quotes. Should stand. With AP Photos.)By TIM REYNOLDSAP Basketball Writer
For the 20th straight year, Juwan Howard is taking part in NBA practices.
For the first time, he’s not doing it as a player.
A coach of sorts for the Miami Heat as his playing career wound down over the past two seasons, Howard has simply removed ”of sorts” from that title. He’s a full-fledged assistant coach with the Heat now, a move he knew would be coming last season and one that Miami announced last week just before this training-camp trip to the Bahamas.
”I’ve been thinking about this for a few years now, to come back to the game and be a part of the game,” Howard said. ”I had offers to work in TV, I had offers to be a scout in this league. But I wanted to coach. I wanted to be hands-on and teaching, teaching the game that I love. This was the perfect fit, to be with a classy organization, first-class, family-oriented in a great city.”
A season ago, he was one of the last three members of the 1994 draft class to be playing in the NBA, joining Jason Kidd and Grant Hill in that feat of longevity. All have moved on to the next chapter; Kidd is the coach of the Brooklyn Nets, Hill is taking over as host of ”NBA Inside Stuff” and Howard has traded the Heat red-and-white players’ practice gear for a black polo and matching shorts, the everyday coaching attire for staff members in Miami.
Howard is 40 now, but has kept himself in remarkable shape and even Heat coach Erik Spoelstra thinks he could have played two or maybe even three more seasons if given the chance.
But after being part of Miami’s last two championship seasons – the only rings of his career – Howard knew it was time to try the next thing. He’s one of only 29 players in NBA history to appear in more than 1,200 regular-season games, and he’s currently among the top 100 all-time in both scoring (95th) and rebounding (76th).
”He’s very mature,” Spoelstra said. ”I believe he’s made probably the toughest adjustments already, to get over thinking about playing and what you would do in your role as a player. He’s the first one here every day. I think he’s making a point of it to be the first assistant coach here on the early bus. He beats all of us and it’s not like we’re late-risers.”
Howard not only arrives early, he stays late.
He literally was the last Heat person – player or coach – to leave the floor after practice Wednesday, remaining out there probably an hour after the official work of the session had been completed.
”It’s been in him. It’s been in him for the last few years,” said Heat star LeBron James, the league’s four-time MVP. ”He was just wearing a jersey. Now he’s wearing a collared shirt. So it’s been in him and it’s an easy transition for him, for sure.”
Make no mistake, it is a transition.
Howard won’t be hanging out with players anymore; he’s not really a peer any longer, either. The personal relationships he built with guys since arriving in Miami will persist, but with him now being part of the staff that will dictate how the Heat go about their business.
He’s eager for the opportunity and the challenge.
”There’s always new things going on about this game of basketball, things you can learn,” said Howard, who aspires to one day be an NBA head coach. ”And I’m looking forward to learning them.”