The Education of Juwan Howard

by July 16, 2012

Juwan Howard, drafted in 1994, finally won an NBA Championship last month, and the veteran getting his first ring made us think about what he was like way back in the day. We dug up this profile and interview featuring the then-Bullets big man published in SLAM 17 (April, 1997).

by Tonya Pendleton

The Gymnasium Exhibits The comfortable weariness of age. The echo of sneakers squeaking and the noise of games won and lost long ago linger in the air. Though sunlight streams in through three windows set high in the far wall, the light inside is the dingy hue of a police precinct’s.

There is a game underway. In these surroundings, the guys on the floor look at first like city-league rivals deep into a hotly-contested mid-season game. Without names emblazoned on their backs, they enjoy a few seconds of anonymity before faces and bodies become recognizable, and their level of play reveals their true identities.

In those few moments, it is possible to grasp the love that brought them here–the love honed on broken concrete streets and in plush prep-school gyms, the love bouncing through rims without nets and through Sears backboards mounted over garage doors.

Juwan Howard is here, talking to a small child, while his teammates play. Then he excuses himself and enters the game. Before the nine figures that would give him the economic wherewithal of a small nation, before the agents, baggy shorts and championships lost that would make him and his four compadres household names, there was this. The hypnotic sound of a bouncing ball. The thwack of a hard pass slapping against an open palm. The sweet squeak of rubber on hardwood. The thousands of days of play and practice while dreaming of becoming the next George Gervin or Julius Erving.

It’s a man’s game, now. There’s no longer street pride at stake; it’s megabucks and market value and competition against others who are the best at what they do. Sometimes it can get ugly–the posturing, bragging and bullshit scrape away at the fun.

You’re barely 24, and while no price can ever be put on a human being’s value, it’s hard to believe that bouncing a ball could ever be worth what you’re being paid to do it. The Contract and the Controversy mean pressure and expectations will dog you for the rest of your career.

Yet the fans love you. Kids love you. What other people do for fun, you do for a living. And when you look downcourt, you see your buddy, your Fab Five partner Chris Webber, the same way you’ve seen him during the defining years of your career.

“I don’t think I’ll appreciate it until we retire,” says Webber. “I think we might take it for granted. By knowing somebody so long and laughing and playing with him and telling your problems–I don’t know what it would be like without him. I just appreciate the relationship.”

Juwan Howard’s career as a basketball player started at Vocational High in Chicago. Teaming up at UMichigan with Detroit talents Jalen Rose and Chris Webber and Texans Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, Howard became part of the very-televised revolution of college basketball. Talking more trash than Tupac, wearing black sneakers, bald heads and oversized shorts, the Fab Five’s precious talents help them ascend to the lofty heights of the championship game as freshmen. And do it again, a year later.

They never won, but they lost in style, making Webber’s accidental time-out one of the most famous, but forgiven, misplays in sports history. Howard a solid player whose dependability made him Michigan coach Steve Fisher’s favorite, averaged 15.3 ppg and 7.5 rpg during his three–year college career.

After forgoing his senior season, Howard selected David Falk as his agent and was picked fifth overall by Washington in the ’94 draft. In the ensuing negotiations, Bullets GM John Nash expressed doubts about Howard’s ability, saying at one point that the team really wanted Jason Kidd, who, who had been drafted higher. Howard elected to hold out, missing all of training camp; a meeting with Bullets owner Abe Pollin left him in tears. But on November 17, ’94, the Bullets signed him and acquired former Michigan teammate Webber in a trade with Golden State for Tom Gugliotta.

Fast-Forward two years:

Howard’s original contract has an out clause that allows him to become a free agent. In those two years, he’s become a hard–working, fundamentally–sound player whose rebounding (8.1 pg in ’94-95), points (22.1 pg) and post play improve each year.

Despite his NBA schedule, Howard has made history as the first player ever to leave school and graduate with his class. (By doing so, he fulfilled a promise he made to his grandmother, who died the day he signed his letter of intent to play at Michigan.) He’s established a charitable foundation that actually seems to be doing something for people, instead of just being good p.r., and has become one of the most popular athletes ever to play in Washington. He’s even respected by one of his own idols, NBA legend Julius Erving. Howard has a homemade tattoo on his left bicep that says “Dr J.” The affection is mutual.

“He represents something that’s very good in professional basketball,” says Erving. “He’s one of the guys I pull for.”

In the wild summer of ’96, contract negotiations begin. The Bullets take out a full–page ad in The Washington Post, urging fans to contribute to Howard’s foundation (the team will match contributions) and pledging to keep him a Bullet. But they come up several million short of offers tendered by Detroit, New York and Miami. Howard signs a $100.8 million deal with Miami on July 13th. The Bullets are excoriated in the press for letting him get away. But on July 31, the deal is vetoed by the NBA; they say the Heat have exceeded the salary cap by signing Howard. (The league counted a previously agreed–upon deal with Alonzo Mourning and incentive bonuses in P.J. Brown’s and Tim Hardaway’s contracts against the cap, effectively nullifying Howard’s deal.) For a minute, Howard–who’d proudly sported a Heat cap and his eagerness to play alongside Mourning when the deal was first made–is a man without a team.

The ensuing legal mess is finally resolved when the Bullets are allowed to re-sign Howard on August 5, for a seven–year deal in excess of $100 million. The Heat, who had threatened to hold up the deal in arbitration, relent, despite Riley’s public ire. Bullets coach Jim Lynam, the surprised beneficiary of a Capra–like turn of events, is one of the many who are Happy Howard remains a Bullet.

“Juwan is about as good as it gets. He’s a terrific player and a solid guy. C’mon, what more is there?” Lynam says.

Still, there have been some missteps. Howard was arrested for drunk driving after leaving a Washington nightclub, last winter. He says he hadn’t had much to drink that night but has learned a lesson. If he successfully completes alcohol counseling classes before next spring, the charges will be dropped. (DC police insist it is the same exact sentence received by anyone for a first offense of that kind.)

In September of last year, The Washington Post reported that Howard was named in a paternity suit by a Michigan woman who at first had thought her son’s father was someone else. A blood test voluntarily taken by Howard indicated there was a 99.99–percent probability that Howard is the father of the boy, born in February of ’92. He says he can’t comment, since the legal action is still pending. But he does smile and suggests that if he could tell the entire story, people would understand.

After what has certainly been an eventful and eye–opening few months in Howard’s life and career, he sat down to talk to SLAM.

SLAM: Let’s go back to Michigan. What stands out about when you think about being part of the FAB Five?

Juwan Howard: I had a chance to play with four of the greatest players to come out of high school during that time. It was like a born–again family. We all became like five brothers–not to leave out the other guys on our team, but we all lived in the same dorm and were roommates. We shared a lot of clothes, shared money at times; Jalen and Chris had a car, and we often shared that.

SLAM: All of you fit in one car? Was that like those ads where a bunch of people try to fit in a Volkswagen?

JH: Absolutely. It was an Escort. We went to practice like that sometimes. Those are the times we remember and cherish the most. But if you add on to that what we experienced on the court, it helped college basketball in so many ways. Some people thought it hurt college basketball because of our style and demeanor on the floor. Some people didn’t like it because we were having fun. We didn’t take it as a negative. We continued to be ourselves and have fun out there and win ball games.

SLAM: People criticized the FAB FIVE for trash–talking, show–boating; some were even critical because it was an all black squad. Did that criticism trickle down to the team?

JH: We didn’t like the negativity or the fact that the media tried to exploit it. At times we thought that race played a major role in that. You’ve got five talented, young, black players. They started calling us thugs and gangsters and said we played like we were in the ‘hood or on the playground. We played just like any other team out there–the Dukes, the North Carolinas. We were well–coached by Steve Fisher, a guy who had already won a national title. But we didn’t get enough credit for that.

It upset us at times, but we used that to make us stronger. We felt we had a lot to prove to ourselves, not just to other people. We got a lot of respect and support from the inner city. Everyone there wanted to be like Michigan. The paraphernalia–the long shorts, the black socks and shoes.

SLAM: You played for the national championship twice and lost twice. Was that a negative experience?

JH: I would say it was a positive. Not too many college basketball players have the chance to go out and play in the national title game. That’s something everyone works hard for all season–to be one of the last two teams playing for that title. We had that opportunity two years in a row. That’s a blessing. Our freshman year, I didn’t believe we would make it to the title game to play Duke. But I guess when you work hard and play like a team, things happen.