In depth with MVP candidate Natasha Howard

Natasha Howard made her first All-Star game appearance last month. Neil Enns/Storm photos.
Natasha Howard made her first All-Star game appearance last month. Storm photos.

Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard is in the running for the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player award this season, after claiming the Most Improved player award last year. In 2019 she was the player of the month for June, and she has been the player of the week three times.

The former Florida State standout from Ohio was drafted by the Indiana Fever in 2014, where she played for two seasons before being traded to the Minnesota Lynx, where she also played two years. Howard helped Minnesota win a WNBA Championship in 2017 as a reserve. In coming to Seattle last season she became a starter, a double-digit scorer and almost tripled her rebounding average in helping the team win a WNBA title. Howard became the first player in league history to win back-to-back championships with two different teams.

This year she averages 18.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 2 assists and 1.7 blocks per game – career-highs in all categories. She became the franchise’s single-season steals leader last weekend, as her 62 eclipsed the previous record by Sue Bird and Sonja Henning. She has also made a career-high 25 three-point shots this season, after making 21 in her first five years in the league. Howard was named a WNBA All-Star for the first time this year.

The Storm lost All-Stars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird to injury in preseason, and various others, including starting guard Jewell Loyd, have been out multiple games with injury. Howard has helped Seattle surpass expectations and guide them to a 15-13 record and a probable playoff spot as the regular season winds down.

Howard, who turns 28 on Sept. 2, has continued to have a banner year despite dealing with a mid-season divorce. In the second week of July, Howard’s wife Jacqueline began posting a series of statements on Twitter alleging that Howard had physically abused her. Howard and her attorney, Lorraine Rimson, filed a petition for divorce Monday, July 15. Howard denied the abuse allegations.

Rimson said Jacqueline Howard has complied with restraining orders placed that same day that prevented her from posting on social media and being in the arena where Howard was playing. Additionally, the order prevents both parties from spending $588,000 worth of funds that Jacqueline Howard transferred to her own account without Howard’s knowledge, according to Rimson.

Jacqueline Howard has since disappeared, and thus hasn’t been served with divorce papers, Rimson said. A court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 9.

“At that time, Natasha, though counsel, will be asking the court to require the funds to be returned and placed in a blocked account,” Rimson said in a statement. “We believe that the court will grant our request. Then, from our perspective, the only remaining issue is the determination of a ‘fair and equitable’ division of these funds.”

“We have not been able to note this motion earlier because we have not been able to find Jacqueline for service. While we still do not know where she is, it is our hope that her current attorney will assist in that process. Such assistance is common practice.”

Howard has been reunited with friend Shavonte Zellous, with whom she played in Indiana, as the Storm signed her in free agency over the winter. Howard’s sense of humor comes out with friends, and was apparent in this face-to-face interview.

Natasha Howard makes a running shot. Neil Enns/Storm photos.
Natasha Howard makes a running shot. Neil Enns/Storm photos.

So how did you get from Toledo to Florida State?

With Florida State, the main thing that stood out to me was their academics. They were top five in the country, so that’s why I went there. I didn’t really care about basketball; I just wanted to get my education. And I wanted to be somewhere different – somewhere warm. I’d never been to Florida so I just took the opportunity to go to Florida State, and I had an amazing time there my four years being there. Coach Sue – me and her still keep in contact – and me and coach Brooke. Coach White, he just came to DC to watch us play with Zellous, because he’s the coach at Pitt now. So I still have that Seminole family.

How old were you when you started playing?

I was 10. My uncle Greg Howard taught me.

Was it love at first dribble?

No. To be honest, I didn’t really want to play basketball; I wanted to be a kid at the age of 10. He just told me to to start dribbling and I’ll give you a dollar. So I said OK!

He saw some talent in you.

Yeah, he did.

Were you always tall?

I didn’t hit my growth spurt until sixth grade. My uncle thought I was going to be a guard, but my mom is 6-foot and my dad is 6-7.

When did you know basketball was for you?

Probably when I hit the sixth grade. I started playing with boys in elementary, me and my best friend. In fifth and sixth grade they finally had a girls team, so I took advantage of it, and I started loving it. And I started loving it even more in middle school. I thought oh, this could probably take me somewhere. A free education, possibly. My uncle was guiding me until I got to high school and then my other coaches jumped in and critiqued my game a little bit more.

What was your favorite part about it, and what did you need to work on more?

At the time, my ball handling. I was taller than everybody, so I had to (deal with) being a 5-11, 6-foot guard in middle school, and coming into high school. Because when I got to high school everybody was kind of bigger than me. I was still growing at the time.

Seminole coach Sue Semrau always said you were selfless, as did other coaches you’ve played for. I kept seeing that coaches would tell you to jump in and get involved more because you’re almost too selfless. Where did those tendencies come from?

That’s just been me. I’ve just been a team player, a coachable player. I think it’s just – my dad played basketball, so I don’t know if I got it from him or my other family members.

But that’s just your first instinct?

Yeah, it’s my first instinct – teamwork. When you have that, everything gets going. I’ve never wanted to be that “give me the ball, give me the ball” type of player. That’s when teams start dividing. I knew I was going to become a good player by the people in my corner, in my circle. I can’t win a game by myself. My coaches were always telling me, “you have to get the ball in your hands,” and I was like, “I understand that.” My Florida State coaches were: “you’re too selfless! We need you to score!” And I was like, “I know, I know, but……if four people are on me, that means three people are open.”

Natasha Howard jumps to defend the basket. Neil Enns/Storm photos.
Natasha Howard jumps to defend the basket. Neil Enns/Storm photos.

At what point did you begin to take more ownership and start stepping up? Granted, you were playing behind some other great players on your last two teams. But do you have more of a chance to shine with the Storm?

Those years I was with Indiana and Minnesota, I really tried to learn from those veterans: Tamika Catchings, Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson. Lindsay Whalen. Just watching their actions and how they lead their teams with their voice and also with their game as well. Sylvia Fowles isn’t really a talker either. But learning from them and putting myself in their shoes when it comes to playing, and being that leader on the floor.

What is something you learned from each of them that’s helped you go forward?

Tamika Catchings: just be patient and your time will come. I’ve been patient, and my time has come. And with Tamika, just being poised and having that passion when I get on the floor. Whatever minutes I have, just take advantage of it. She taught me that.

With Syl, she said I remind her of her, a baby version of her. I take that to the heart a lot. And just the passion that Syl has in the paint, too. And I’m kind of like, being that type of player in the paint.

With Brunson, she’s a rebound machine, so I kind of take her game a lot too because she’s really good at rebounding. I have three people boxing me out and she’ll always have three or four people boxing her out, but she’ll still get the rebound. So I’d try to understand “how did she do that?”

And now people say that about you.

Yeah.

You’ve got a diverse skill set. It’s struck me that the way you lay in those soft shots is kind of like your personality: you don’t come hard, necessarily, but you make your point. Is that anything conscious or is that just you?

That’s just me, because they always say, post players don’t have touches in the paint. Yes we do. We do have touches in the paint. I just read my defender, and if I need to go hard in the paint, that’s what I do. But if I know a defender will take a charge, I just go with my little soft floater or bang it off the backboard.

I was told you’re into music right now. Tell me a little about that.

I’m not doing music, but I’m making beats. I have the DJ turntable, so during my off-time if I’m not playing video games, I get my iPad and I start making beats. Sometimes I just have music in my head, or if I’m driving I’ll think of something. I like music because some of my family are singers and rappers.

So this isn’t new to you.

Yeah, kinda, but not really.

Is it anything you might want to do later?

Yeah, maybe when I get done.

Obviously you’ve got a lot of basketball ahead of you, but I know you’re thinking ahead.

Yeah. I would like to do (beats).

What other pursuits occupy your off time?

(Long pause) Nothing really. Just making beats and playing video games.

This Storm team seems to have a lot of good chemistry and a lot of love between teammates. Do you feel pretty comfortable with this group of people?

Absolutely. This group has been together for a long time. Me coming in, being my second year, I feel like I’ve been on the team for the same amount of time as the other players.

We’re doing good; we’re doing really really good so far, the way we’ve been playing. (For) having two, three people out, we’re doing really good. There’s still a lot of people that’s still like “is the Storm going to make it to the playoffs?” “is the Storm doing to do this, is the Storm going to do that?”

It doesn’t matter that we don’t have the pieces that we normally have. We’re still going to get to the playoffs. I have faith in this team. I would bet my last buck on this team.

Does the playoff race add any pressure to your mentality?

No, not at all. I’d go to war with these women. We fight day in and day out.

What are you working on with your game to take it to the next level?

Just being more patient when I’m double-teamed, triple-teamed. Just being patient and knowing when the defense is coming and knowing when it’s not coming. And just working on my three-point shot, because I’ve been struggling with that a little bit. So I’m working on that and continuing to do what I do best, which is running the floor and playing good defense.

You’re also on the quiet side and don’t necessarily feel the need to talk all the time.

No, because I’m an introvert. I just watch everything and I stay in my own lane. And when something goes bad I’m like yeah, it’s none of my business. I just stay in my own lane.

You don’t feel the need to pop off on issues or anything.

No.

Sometimes introverts can be pretty shy, but it seems like you’ve always been pretty openly out. How have you always been so comfortable being yourself?

I’ve been comfortable with myself since my sophomore year in high school.

Natasha Howard on the orange carpet at the 2019 WNBA All-Star game in Las Vegas. Neil Enns/Storm photos.
Natasha Howard on the orange carpet at the 2019 WNBA All-Star game in Las Vegas. Storm photos.

That’s a long time. The world is much more accepting now, but it seems like you were ahead of the game. How did that happen?

My mom. My mom said she knew it from jump. She told me, “I knew you were gay. You’re my child.” I’ve been out since my sophomore year in high school.

That’s amazing, because there’s a lot of discrimination out there.

There is – there really really is. It’s so crazy what other people do to homosexual people. It would be crazy if we did some of those things to heterosexual people. We don’t do stuff to you guys, but you want to beat us down, wanna fight us, wanna do crazy stuff to us, wanna throw stuff at us. And for what? We’re human just like you all.