Gamon Howard doesn’t smile when he’s playing sports.
Cool, calm and collected, he’ll go hours without cracking anything that resembles one, showing only intense focus like Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, a player he models his game after.
Howard’s demeanor isn’t calculated or by design, either. Like Westbrook, the American Canyon High standout draws his athletic intensity from one of the simplest aspects of competition.
“Just the willingness to win,” the 16-year-old Howard explained. “I love winning and I hate losing. I’m going to do whatever it takes to win.”
It’s not just that, though. Howard was raised in and raised by Vallejo. His father, also named Gamon, who grew up in “The Crest” — one of the most notorious areas in the city — passed on that toughness. He also helped Howard refine his skill set and channel his desire to become a well-rounded athlete.
“I just grew up athletic. I grew up playing football, baseball and basketball, and I just stuck with it. I got better and worked at it,” Howard said. “I worked out with my dad and he kind of put me through (drills and) stuff like that, and always pushed me (to be better).”
He played football for the Vallejo Raiders and AAU basketball as a part of the famed Oakland Soldiers program, which has notable alumni like LeBron James, Chauncey Billups, and Drew Gooden. That’s where his eyes were opened to the talent and drive required to be successful, often playing against older, stronger athletes.
Still, it wasn’t until Howard reached the high school level that he began eyeing a future in athletics and started working toward becoming the best football and basketball player he could be.
An award-filled year
Howard’s numbers this season aligned with his emulation of Westbrook — one of the most talented, stat-stuffing point guards in the NBA — leading the Wolves with 13 points, nine rebounds, four assists and four steals per game.
A nice place to start is with his accolades. The 6-foot-2 junior captain was voted First Team All-Solano County Athletic Conference for the second year in a row. He was named the MVP of the San Rafael Dawg Classic and made the All-Tournament team at both Vacaville’s Honk Williams Classic and the Rodriguez Mustang Holiday Stampede. The Wolves reached the championship game in all three, winning the first two.
In the opening game at the Vacaville tourney, Howard had the best game of his career, notching a triple-double in a 58-48 win over Dixon. He scored 25 points, corralled 12 rebounds and had an eye-popping 12 steals.
“I think Gamon can score at will, generally. He probably could score more points than he does, but he always looks to pass first,” said Wolves head coach Brett Wedding. “I think in that game, it was just a game where he decided he was going to score more. He was going to the hoop a lot, getting tons of rebounds, and pretty much put the team on his back.”
His play through the entire campaign culminated in the Napa Valley Register’s 2015-16 All-County Boys Basketball Player of the Year award — part of an American Canyon sweep with senior Jessica Maguire taking it on the girls’ side.
“This award means a lot to me, really. It means a lot,” Howard said. “I know my dad’s going to be happy when he finds out.”
The double-double machine is reluctant to embrace those kinds of accomplishments, though. Many athletes throw the word “humble” around, but Howard embodies it. To him, winning is the most important objective and everything else comes second.
That’s where he diverts from Westbrook because, on any given night, Randy Valdez, Malik Ghiden, Tristien San Juan, Joee Gantan or Devin Booker could soar into double figures. Like the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs or Atlanta Hawks, the Wolves’ offense is at its best when the ball isn’t stagnant and everyone is getting involved.
“I think that’s just us having the chemistry together,” Howard said. “Everyone on the basketball team is pretty much like brothers — we’re close. There’s no selfish play (among) the players and it doesn’t matter who scores. I could score 20 one game and my teammate could score 20 the next game and it’s like, who cares? We won. It doesn’t matter.
“It’s easier to stop one player but it’s hard to stop five. That’s how I see it.”
Creating a legacy
American Canyon caught fire out of the gates, starting the 2015-16 season with a 14-3 mark and, in most of the games, it was a balanced effort on both ends of the floor that was propelling them to victory.
“I think we worked hard in practice and, in the games, we just did what we practiced and worked hard,” said Howard. “I think it was mostly defense because our defense won a lot of games. Even when we played bad, our defense picked up when we played bad on offense.”
But then SCAC play began and the Wolves’ steam began to fizzle out. They went 3-7 in league for the second consecutive year, only beating Vallejo and Fairfield — the other two teams in the bottom half of the standings.
It was a perplexing way to close out the year, finishing with the second-best win percentage in the league (.630) but fifth out of the six spots on the totem pole.
“I feel like we let up a little bit towards the end of the season,” Howard said. “We thought we were going to come in the league and blow past teams and that wasn’t what happened. That first loss in the first game against Bethel, it kind of brought us down.”
The program has still managed to improve each year. The Wolves went winless in league the first three years before Wedding took the helm in 2014 and picked up six in the last two.
Since American Canyon High opened its doors in 2010, it’s constantly setting and breaking records as it develops its footprint in the region.
“This school isn’t known for being a basketball school, so that’s one of my big things I want to bring to this school,” Howard said. “Like build a legacy in basketball and not just football and baseball.”
It’s that type of mentality that makes Howard such an asset to Wolves athletics, as a whole.
“He’s a great guy to have part of our program. He’s a phenomenal athlete in whatever he does,” said Wedding. “It’s just nice to have that type of player on the court to complement some of the other players because I do think he makes other people on our team better. Some teams, if Gamon doesn’t maybe have a high-scoring night, maybe the teams were focusing so much on him that it allowed other players to contribute a little bit more on any given night.”
Barring any kind of setback, Howard’s senior year is likely to be a big one. As a do-it-all, two-way talent on the gridiron, he’ll be looking to build on a year where he started at quarterback and ended at receiver, earning All-County Offensive Player of the Year finalist honors after finishing with 881 combined yards and seven total touchdowns.
Howard hopes to play football at the next level and has been actively campaigning so he can take that next step. He’s been to showcases at schools like Oregon State and plans on attending as many camps as possible this summer. Over the weekend, Howard tweeted that he received his first offer courtesy of Kentucky Christian University.
“I’m so excited for next year,” he said. “I can’t even explain how excited I am just to get on the field and grind during the summer. And in basketball, I feel like we’re going to go way farther than we have.”
With the blend of top-tier facilities and diverse talent, the ceiling is high for Wolves athletics.
And until Howard graduates next May, he’s going to be American Canyon’s leader in the locker room and one of its model student-athletes.
“I know he’s gotten a lot of interest for football scholarships and I believe he could get some for basketball, too,” said Wedding. “Whatever he’s doing, he’s going to give it 100 percent whether it’s football season — he’s going to give it 100 percent; basketball season — he’s going to give it 100 percent.
“I’m excited to see what he’s going to do because he’s probably still growing. He’s going to keep getting better just because that’s the way he is. He’s competitive and he’ll continue to get better and continue to compete, and that kind of attitude is what we’re trying to install throughout our program.”