At All Levels and From All Over, Basketball Players Head to Houston to Train
It's early Tuesday morning in the Downtown Club at the Met, and Matt Howard's next project has just arrived.
His name is Augustine Rubit, a recent graduate of the University of South Alabama and the 2012-2013 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in men's basketball. An undersized power forward at 6-foot-7, Rubit is considered a fringe prospect for the upcoming NBA Draft.
Chances are, if Rubit is going to make it to the NBA, it's going to be the hard way — undrafted, summer league and then maybe some time overseas.
The only way for Rubit to possibly work himself off of the margins, Howard thinks, is to develop some perimeter skills, work on his dribbling and his long-distance shooting.
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"We got to get him handling the ball with both hands and working on coming off screens, things that wing players do. The stuff that made him great in college, that stuff won't work in the league. Not at his size," Howard says.
So, for Rubit, it begins.
"All right, Aug, let's do machine gun...GO!" Howard shouts.
With that, Rubit begins simultaneously rapid-fire dribbling two balls, one in each hand, while running the entire width of the Met floor and back.
"All right, Aug, let's do crossover...GO!"
Rubit runs again, dribbling two balls, up and back.
"All right, Aug, let's do figure eight...GO!"
With every sweat-soaked trip back and forth across the floor, the rewards of repetition Rubit is seeing are subtle but evident. Meanwhile, you can see Howard working, grinding, yelling. He's a more intense, modern-day Mr. Myagi, trying to will muscle memory into his protégé, with "crossover," "figure eight" and "windshield wiper" as his basketball versions of "sand the floor" and "wax on, wax off."
"Helping a guy like Augustine become more versatile and become the best player he can be, that's what I do," shrugs Howard. "That's what I do for all my guys."
Howard's "guys" he refers to are a long and distinguished list of basketball players, ranging from high school All-Americans to accomplished collegians to dozens of NBA veterans. Since moving to Houston from Philadelphia in 2007 ("My son lived in Texas, and I wanted to be closer to him," Howard says), he has been a driving force behind the growing movement of basketball players at all levels, from all parts of the country, making Houston their place to train in the off-season.
The seeds of that trend were planted and nurtured over the past decade by former Houston Rocket and former NBA head coach John Lucas, who is generally seen as the godfather of basketball trainers and who Howard counts as his mentor and a father figure.
It was Lucas who gave Howard his start training players in Houston about six years ago, after a quasi-job interview that was set up by a mutual friend.
Howard met up with Lucas at a local gym during one of his training sessions to discuss a position with Lucas's staff. Howard, whose idea of sartorial splendor has always topped out at "shorts and a T-shirt," actually went to the trouble of getting dressed up to meet with Lucas.
Slacks, loafers, dress shirt, the whole nine yards.
So the two met at the gym, and amid a handful of NBA players frenetically running through drills, Lucas chatted with Howard. Howard told Lucas exactly why he needed to hire him. Lucas took to him immediately and hired him on the spot.
Literally, on the spot. Like, Howard started coaching that day in slacks and a dress shirt.
"Coach Lucas told me I was hired, pointed over at Damon Stoudamire and Othella Harrington [both in the NBA at the time] and said, 'Now, go over there and make sure Othella is keeping his elbow up on his jumper,'" recalls Howard. "There I was in slacks and dress shoes telling Othella Harrington to keep his elbow up. Othella was like, 'Who is this guy?'"
But that's Lucas — a hundred miles an hour, no rest for the weary. And at times, no mercy.
It takes a special kind of player to survive the John Lucas workouts, which are legendary for their breakneck cardio and, at times, their ridiculous heat index. "Coach Lucas is known for turning off the air conditioning. In fact, in the summertime, he will put a lock on the thermostat," chuckles Howard.
It's those next-level workouts that have kept Lucas's regulars coming back and that beckon new players who feel the need to take their game up a notch. Three years ago, during the NBA lockout, NBA players descended on Houston like poker players descend on Vegas.
When the lockout ended, and two of their proteges (Thaddeus Young of the Sixers and DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers) immediately signed $43 million contracts, Howard and Lucas couldn't contain their excitement.
"That's what's up right there, seeing guys like Thaddeus and DeAndre get rewarded. We feel like 'Those are OUR GUYS,' Howard proudly says.
The Houston training circuit is a multi-locational operation, with some training sessions taking place at the Met, some at local hand-picked high school gyms and some at the indoor full-size court at the home of 16-year NBA veteran Mike James.
James, the quintessential NBA survivor, has played in eight different leagues and, in the NBA alone, for 11 different teams. Along the way, he has managed to grind his way to more than $30 million in career earnings.
A maniacal worker and longtime Lucas trainee, the 38-year-old James works individually with Howard on a near-daily basis in the summer months. "I got to do the work. I can't just rely on my talent; I rely on my preparation. Matt is great at getting me ready. I wouldn't be the player I am without him," James says.
In July and August, there are pickup games played in James's gym that would be worthy of NBA Network coverage. That's the depth of the roster of players who come to Houston to train in the summer.
"Coach Lucas started Houston as this hotbed, and now guys have houses and apartments here because Houston is the place to keep your game sharp," James says.
Howard, with Lucas's full blessing, has been on his own training players for nearly two years. Still, he is close to Lucas and Lucas's family. "Little John and Jai (Lucas's two sons) are like brothers to me. In a sense, I'll always be part of Coach Luke's staff."
But being on his own invigorates Howard. Ask him about the potential for growth of his Houston client base, and he gets visibly excited.
As a player development and skills coach for the Houston Hoops Association of American Universities team, Howard has worked with many in what will ultimately be the next generation of NBA trainees, Houston-area players like Kelly Oubre (committed to Kansas), Justin Jackson (North Carolina) and Justise Winslow (Duke).
Winslow was a McDonald's All American this past season at St. John's School and is the son of former Houston Cougar Ricky Winslow, a connection that made for an easy "in" with Lucas and Howard.
"The level of attention and focus I get working with Coach Howard has been a huge help to me," Justise Winslow said between training sessions with Team USA in Colorado. "Also, playing in full-court games with actual NBA players, and taking my lumps, has made me the player I am today."
That's where Augustine Rubit hopes to be next season — in full-court games with actual NBA players. The NBA is a long way from South Alabama, though. For now, he's just happy to be finished with his set of dribbling drills.
Soaked in sweat, Rubit is ready for a water break.
"All right, Aug, you can take a break after you make two free throws in a row," shouts Howard. "Got to make 'em while you're tired, man! You're gonna be tired in a game. Refs ain't givin' you a break in a game!"
Howard tosses a ball to Rubit, strolls away and with a smirk on his face, semi-whispers to himself, "Got to make 'em while you're tired...
"That's how you get better, man."
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