For a guy who is trying to go through life without being noticed, Howard Eisley sure manages to find himself in the spotlight a lot. If he's not playing for the nation's top high school basketball team or an Elite Eight team in the NCAA tournament, he's playing in the NBA Finals and drawing attention to himself with his uncanny play as John Stockton's caddy. So here come the microphones, pens and notebooks. Speak to us, Howard.
"--------."Eisley is a quiet man. No, that's not quite right. "I'm a step beyond that," he confesses, sitting in the family room of his Salt Lake townhouse. Measuring his words carefully, he continues. "I'm not sure why. I just am. I can't explain it. I'm getting better, though."
For Eisley, that was a speech. He does not fill notebooks nor sound bytes. And to think, the Man of Few Words had a backup plan to be a sportscaster or sports writer, if things didn't work out in basketball.
Eisley has made an art form of quietness. Name another guy who could be invisible at his own surprise birthday party. He can run up and down the basketball court all night, but just turn on a TV camera and suddenly there isn't enough air in the room for him to breathe.
Eisley is so quiet and reserved that he is easy to overlook, and maybe that was why he was largely unrecruited in high school, waived three times by NBA teams, including the Jazz, and sat the bench at a CBA outpost. But ignore him these days, and he'll drop a three in your face.
"Howard is kind of like a silent assassin," says teammate Karl Malone. "He doesn't talk a lot, but if you take him lightly or for granted, he'll take it to you."
Eisley held down the fort while Stockton was sidelined with an injury last fall and had his best season ever in a reserve role. Eisley's performance against the Lakers in the conference finals last Sunday was typical. He played hide-and-seek behind a screen at the top of the three-point arc and dropped in three consecutive treys. Meanwhile, he defended, directed the team, ran the pick-and-roll and gave up the ball for teammates to score. This is how good Eisley has become: during the playoffs there were times when opposing fans screamed at the Jazz bench to put Stockton back in the game.
"He'd be starting for any other playoff team," says Gordie Chiesa, the Jazz assistant coach. "A playoff team."
There was little to suggest a couple of years ago that Eisley would become such a player, but, then, no one could have plumbed the determination that burned inside a man of so few words. Nothing sums up Eisley so well as what Chiesa said the other day in the Westminster College gym, shortly after he had finished feeding passes to him for dozens of jump shots and free throws after practice.
"Howard Eisley is very quiet," he said. "But he's got fire inside him."
When Eisley joined the Jazz three years ago, he had already been cut by two teams. He spent half of his rookie season with Minnesota, which had drafted him in the second round, and the second half with San Antonio. The Jazz, who had hoped to draft him themselves before Minnesota beat them to it, signed Eisley during the off-season but made him the team's last cut. Eisley wound up with Rockford Lightning of the CBA, as an 18-minute-a-game sub.
"I knew I could play in the NBA," says Eisley, warming to words. "I knew it would be tough to get back, but I was prepared to go through whatever to get there."
The Jazz had spent years searching for Stockton's backup, discarding one player after another - John Crotty, Eddie Hughes, Jim Les, Eric Johnson, Delaney Rudd, Eric Murdock, Jamie Watson, Jay Humphries. When Watson came up with a bum ankle, the Jazz recalled Eisley, little knowing that their search was finished.
After Eisley's first season with the Jazz, Head Coach Jerry Sloan told him to improve his shooting range. Eisley returned home to Detroit and haunted the old gyms of his youth. When camp opened he worked with Chiesa after practice, sometimes meeting him at the gym on off days.
He shot 500 to 600 shots in a typical daily session. He worked on the pick-and-roll, using a simple folding chair as the pick and playing out imaginary situations. He imagined the defender and where the screen was set and then reacted. Every day, he was back in the gym, often by himself, just he and a basket.
"There's no band, no NBC, nobody to cheer you," says Chiesa. "It's just you and your will to get better. It's just you chasing greatness. Howard has paid the price to be a good player. Everything he has gotten he has earned."
Watching Eisley perform shooting drills at Westminster, Jazz personnel guru Scott Layden noted, "It takes a lot of work to get better at this level. Guys have been playing basketball their whole lives. To make a subtle change is hard. To break the shot down takes hours and hours of drills, tedious hours spent shooting. Howard did it."
Eisley has become a deadly shooter, but he also has "mastered the pick-and-roll offense," says Chiesa. That's not as easy as it sometimes appears. Like a quarterback reading the defense, he is required to make split-second decisions according to how his opponents react. It might be a jump shot behind the screen, a jump shot to the side of the screen, a drive to the basket, a pass to the roll, or a pass to the roll flaring to the baseline or wing. Eisley and Stockton befuddled the Lakers with the pick-and-roll for four games; they still don't know what hit them.
Eisley, the CBA sub, is now getting serious playing time with arguably the best team in the world after passing up more money and more playing time as a free agent last summer to remain with the team. "I never seriously considered it," he says. "I just remembered how much fun it was in the Finals, and I wanted to have the opportunity to do it again. I don't know if I'm one of those guys who can make a lot of money and lose every night."
Eisley and the Jazz are back in the Finals again, but whether Eisley is truly having fun is open to debate. His face, with those sad brown eyes, is frozen in the same sober expression. His high school coach, Perry Watson used to wonder if Eisley was enjoying himself.
"I'm having fun," shrugs Eisley. "I just don't show it, I guess."
Eisley's fiance, Tai, threw a surprise party for him last December on his 25th birthday. His teammates turned out, as well as friends from L.A., Chicago and Detroit. Bryon Russell lured Eisley out of the house on the pretense of an errand. When they returned, the lights went on. Surprise! There they were, 6-foot-9 basketball players wearing pointy party hats, throwing streamers and shouting. And Eisley looks at his feet and smiles. Gee, thanks.
"It wasn't the type of reaction I expected," says Tai. "I'm going, `C'mon Howard, just give me a reaction.' I felt like punching him. He's just so humble and shy. I said, `Howard are you happy?' He says, `Yeah, I am.' "
Asked how he feels about his life, Eisley says, simply, "Blessed. Thankful. Fortunate." But, like Stockton, he does not enjoy celebrity or attention. It is not what motivates him.
"I don't ask for it. I don't desire it. I wouldn't care if no one ever asked for my autograph," he says. What drives him? "I just love to play. I still play a lot in the summer. I play more than I should. I play a lot of pick-up games."
Watson, his prep coach, used to give his players a list of conditioning exercises and drills to perform during the summer off-season - "the 40-day workout sheet," as it came to be called. Eisley followed it like a road map, which it was in a way. He carried it with him to the gym or to the concrete playground courts near his house and went through the list step by step. Shooting drills. Free throws. Ball-handling exercises. Full-court drives that ended with a shot. Half-court moves to a shot - crossovers, behind-the-back - all at game speed. Dribbling around bottle caps or chairs. Dribbling against imaginary traps and imaginary opponents. Watson used to see Eisley working out at Fountain Court as he returned to his house at the end of the day.
"When Howard was a sixth-grader, he watched the high school teams, and it gave him an idea of what he wanted to do," says Watson. "I didn't have to tell him get good grades and work hard. He was always a focused young man. He was very studious, and he had high morals."
Eisley was tall and wiry then, over 6 feet and maybe 150 pounds, all elbows and knee caps. "He was a wizard with the ball, you couldn't take it from him," says Watson.
He averaged only 10 points a game, and Southwestern High ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation his last two years at the school. All 15 players on that team won college scholarships, 11 of them to Division One schools, including Jalen Rose and Voshon Lenard, who play in the NBA.
Eisley's low-key personality has served him well. His ego, what there is of one, never demanded that he score, nor did he have to be the star. He had the perfect personality for a point guard. He was content with his role as a background player, a guy who helped others make headlines - first in high school with Rose and Lenard and then later with Boston College and the Jazz.
"Howard didn't have to be stroked," remembers Watson. "I didn't have to tell him, `Howard you had a great game.' Just a nod or a wink of the eye, and he knew I appreciated him. I didn't have to go to the paper and tell them to interview Howard. And there was no selfishness. It was just like playing with Malone and Stockton. He just ran the show. When he went to Utah, I thought that was perfect, he'll get them the ball."
One other thing about Eisley: He's always played on winners. Offered only a couple of scholarships, he started for Boston College for four years, and during his senior year he helped pull off an upset of North Carolina to advance to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament. He averaged 17 points per game as a senior, but he also put the ball in the hands of two future NBA players, Bill Curley and Malcolm Huckabee.
As a junior, Eisley began to think he had a shot at the NBA, but, to hedge his bets, he took a degree in journalism, reasoning that, if he couldn't play basketball, he wanted to be as close to it as possible.
"He was one of those kids who did everything the right way," recalls Watson. "He was raised in a place where children knew their place and weren't the center of attention."
Eisley and his younger sister were raised by their mother, Jeanetta, a medical secretary who divorced when Howard was 10. Like her son, she is quiet and private. A Jehovah's Witness, she is deeply religious and she ran a strict house.
"She set high standards," recalls Eisley. "She made sure we were on a straight path to do something with our lives. When discipline was needed, she did it."
She urged first of all that her children try to be good people and that they keep God in their lives. "Carry yourself like a Christian," she liked to tell her children. They held Bible study in the home when the children were young and went to church weekly.
She demanded manners, and even now, Eisley excuses himself when the door bell interrupts an interview and apologizes again when he returns. She demanded good grades, and Eisley pulled mostly A's and B's; a C grade meant punishment - no TV. She required a curfew - in the house before the street lights came on. She warned them about other evils. Drugs, says Eisley, "never interested me. I always felt they were trouble."
Eisley escaped the usual trappings of inner-city life, armed by his upbringing and his silent, withdrawn personality, which could never be mistaken as weakness in him, but also was non-threatening. He survived the streets because, he says, "I kept to myself. I wasn't loud and boisterous. I was taking care of business."
Eisley's silence should not be interpreted as unfriendly, or a cover for being inarticulate; he is neither. He speaks well, if quietly, when he speaks; and he is given to quiet introspection. "He's got a quiet confidence and toughness about him," says Layden. "It's refreshing. He's a modest and humble guy."
"He's a good person," says Tai. "He is truly a 10. He wears his number well. And he's funny. Very funny. You wouldn't know it, but he is. He gets silly."
"He's got a big heart, too," she continues. A birthday party is being planned for a sick boy who is also a Jazz fan, she explains; Eisley wants to show up unannounced.
"He's romantic, very romantic," says Tai, warming to the task. On road trips he sends her flowers and returns with gifts. When Tai returned from a holiday trip to her parents' home in Michigan, he sent a gift-filled limo to pick her up at the airport and deliver her to a restaurant, where he was waiting with roses.
"He's a sweetheart," she said.
Just don't tell anyone. He'd just as soon remain anonymous.
... Playoffs vs. Lakers
G 14 4
Min. 18.6 20.8
FG PCT .366/34-93 .542/13-24
3PT PCT .350/7-20 .500/4-8
FT PCT .900/9-10 1.000/1-1
APG 4.1 6.0
PPG 6.0 7.9