Matt Howard Leads the Butler Bulldogs into the Final Four

by Kent Sterling

When I watch Matt Howard play for Butler, I’m reminded of the kid that came to the Spiece

Matt Howard in his Spiece Central Stars Uniform. This was one of the six moments he spent not smiling off the court.

Central Stars as a sophomore-to-be from Connersville.  He showed up early for practice with either his Dad or brother driving, and he would shoot.  His Dad, Stan, and I would talk about things.

One thing was clear, Stan was a family guy, and as I came to know the Howards, it was clear the most important thing to all of them is family.  It took years for me to remember any of the brother and sisters names, and long for me to apply them to the right people.  Stan was a good athlete himself – a solid pitcher who once struck out Mike Schmidt.  He only told me that story once – which speaks to the kind of modesty the whole family shares.  If I had struck out Schmidt, a picture of that moment would be tattooed on my chest and back – on the chest would be me throwing the pitch, and on the back Schmitty’s errant swing.  That I’ve given it that much thought speaks to my idiocy.

Matt shared that modesty through the 225 games he played for the Stars.  That fit right in with the other kids on that team,  They went to work early, pushed each other hard, and won 90% of their games.  Most of the teams watched our guys warm up and thought they could beat our asses.  After two-minutes, the score would be 14-2 and their coach would call that beautiful first timeout that let all of us know that the game was over.  When the Stars won, there was no cocky preening.  Our player would flip the ball to the official and the team would line up to shake hands.  There were occasional smiles after a big win, but that group knew it was going to win and it did.

Matt was a big part of that success.  He fit perfectly among a bunch of kids who were outstanding teammates.  There was a practice early in Matt’s first year with the team where he was draining shot after shot from beyond the sideline – about 28-feet.  I told him he needed to step out and shoot a few times a game to show the college coaches that he was damn good at it.  He said, “Nope.  Why would I shoot when we have Zahn (Hahn), Ryan (Sterling), and John (Ashworth).”  It wasn’t best for the team, so despite it being in his best interest, the fact that it wasn’t in the team’s best interest made it seem foolish to him.  I argued for a minute, and he just smiled.

Matt was very adept at catching down low, drawing help, and then kicking it out to the guy the defense abandoned in order to double him.  If you are a big guy and want to make friends with good catch-and-shoot guards, give them a nice crisp inside-out pass right in the pocket.  Our guards loved playing with Matt.

He was as goofy off the court as he was on it.  To the adults, Matt seemed shy and stoic.  The players though would tell stories of the endless goofy things that Matt would do.  This was a very close-knit group of kids, just as I like to think Butler is.  Our players started transposing the first letters of their first and last names, which I thought was odd.  I asked my son why.  “Because Matt thinks it’s funny to do that, and now we do too.”

The players, parents, and coaches of the Stars (so ironic that their name would connote arrogance when that was one trait no kid on the team possessed) were the only people in summer basketball who believed they were any good.  The kids would win tournament after tournament (30 over four years together), and I would be harangued by people in the airport on our way home by people telling me why the kids should have lost and why they wouldn’t be recruited (too slow, can’t create their own shots, too dependent upon streaky shooting).  Then they would go out the following week against Top 50 kids and win some more.

Over time, Matt earned the respect of recruiters, and was ranked anywhere between 60th and 80th.  He never let that color the way he played.  Matt was the same kid and player in 2004 as he is today.  He still won’t step outside and shoot.  He still supports teammates – I guarantee you that Matt was first in line to congratulate Gordon Hayward after he succeeded Matt as the conference player of the year.  He works hard in the classroom – earning a spot on the Academic All-American First Team.  And he surely still takes odd joy in transposing the first letters of his teammates’ names – Hordon Gayward and Hach Zahn.

His parents, brothers, and sisters, who almost fill a section at Hinkle just as they did at the Spartan Bowl in Connersville, are more proud of the kid than the player – for good reason.  Hang around after a Butler home game, and watch Matt sign autographs for every kid who asks, and talk to each of them.  He’s not just a great player and kid, but an incredible ambassador for “The Butler Way”.

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