He's young and inexperienced, but he asserts himself like a
veteran. One night early this year Washington Bullets forward
Juwan Howard matched forearm shivers with Phoenix Suns star
Charles Barkley on three successive trips downcourt--then dunked
on Barkley's head and screamed. On another night, when Bullets
forward Chris Webber and New York Knicks strongman Charles
Oakley crashed to the floor, injuring Webber's previously
dislocated left shoulder and sending him on a sullen walk to the
locker room, Howard demanded the ball on Washington's next two
possessions, muscled in two post-up baskets over Oakley and then
won the game with six points in overtime.
And in late January the Houston Rockets, the NBA champions the
past two seasons, came to town. When the Bullets arrived at
USAir Arena that night, they received some unexpected bad news:
Webber (that left shoulder again) and oft-injured point guard
Mark Price (broken navicular bone in his left foot) were
out--indefinitely. Knowing that Washington was left with only
nine healthy players, Bullets coach Jimmy Lynam began his
pregame address by saying, "I know we're a little shorthanded
A voice interrupted Lynam: "Forget shorthanded!"
Beside his locker Juwan Howard stood glowering.
February 26, 1996
The 6'9", 250-pound Howard is only 23 and is playing just his
second NBA season, but inspired by his terse declaration, the
Bullets roared out of the locker room and routed the dumbstruck
Rockets by 35 points. Howard's teammates were also inspired by
his example. In the first seven minutes he had a swooping dunk,
a no-look touch pass to guard Calbert Cheaney for a slam, two
17-foot jumpers and another rim-snapping dunk that left both
teams sneaking a look at the scoreboard replay. After Howard was
done, Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, "He's one of the best
young players I've seen."
Webber or no Webber, Howard has emerged as the Bullets' most
important player. On a team known for its persistent bad luck,
he has made it clear that the past doesn't matter to him. "This
is the '90s now," he says with a smile.
But don't confuse Howard with some of his contemporaries. "I
don't want to be one of those young guys who take the money and
don't care about anything else,'' he says. "It bugs me when you
read the paper and some of the NBA veterans are saying, 'These
young guys, they're messing up the league.' Well, I'm one of
those young guys. And I don't only care about the money. I love
the game of basketball.
"This is my dream. My livelihood. And I take it very seriously.
I want to be the best. I want my team to win. I want to be a
true role model for kids. When I think now of all the adversity
I've been through...."
He smiles and doesn't finish.
On Jan. 30 the NBA's Eastern Conference coaches voted Howard to
his first All-Star team as a reserve. That represented quite a
turnaround from 19 months before, when Bullets general manager
John Nash professed mild disappointment after having chosen
Howard with the No. 5 pick in the 1994 draft; Nash later said he
had hoped point guard Jason Kidd, drafted No. 2 by the Dallas
Mavericks, would still be available. The ensuing contract talks
were so bitter, Howard began crying during a break in a late
October negotiating session at owner Abe Pollin's house.
Ultimately Howard signed an 11-year, $36.6 million contract with
an escape clause after two seasons. But he felt the Bullets
doubted his ability and, worse, "didn't do their homework.'' He
thought that they didn't give him credit for his hard work or
his systematic approach to improving while he was playing
college ball at Michigan. He believed that they didn't know--but
should have known--what he had already overcome in his life, let
alone the story behind that tattoo worn over his heart, the tiny
red valentine with wispy script letters that read: JANNIE MAE.
When the Bullets signed Howard and obtained Webber from the
Golden State Warriors on the same day in November 1994, the
immediate reaction in the Washington area was that the Bullets
had created the second coming of their '70s Hall of Fame
frontcourt tandem of Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Stoking the
excitement were memories of the 1992 and '93 NCAA title games,
in which Howard and Webber played as members of Michigan's Fab
Five. Back then the 6'10", 250-pound Webber had established
himself as more the showman, as a rawer but flashier talent than
Howard. And Webber loved to talk trash. Howard did some
occasional jawing too. But Michigan coach Steve Fisher told
anyone who would listen that Howard was the Wolverines' glue,
that he was the hardest worker at practice and the star at the
front of every conditioning sprint. And he had come to Michigan
under extraordinary circumstances. He had grown up in several
low-income projects on the South Side of Chicago. His mother,
Helena, was just 17 when he was born. His father, Leroy Watson
Jr., was just back from the Army and soon dropped out of their
lives. As author Mitch Albom wrote in Fab Five, Helena and Leroy
had so little money that when they brought Juwan home from the
hospital, they couldn't afford a crib. So Juwan's grandmother,
Jannie Mae Howard, told Helena to open a drawer in a chest
upstairs and put a pillow and a blanket in it. For the first
week of his life, Juwan napped in a dresser drawer.
As it turned out, Jannie Mae, the daughter of Mississippi
sharecroppers, raised not only Juwan but two of his cousins as
well. "My grandmother was solid," Juwan says with pride. And he
revered her. Their neighborhood was crawling with gangs, and
there were shootings on the nearby playgrounds and streets. But
to please Jannie Mae, Juwan stayed in school and trudged home by
sundown. He rode the El to Chicago Vocational High, where his
basketball team often practiced in an unheated gym. "We didn't
even have a locker room--we dressed for home games in a history
classroom," Howard says.
Despite these handicaps he still finished high school as the
top-rated center in the country. On the day that he committed to
Michigan, Howard held a press conference at Vocational High and
happily hurried home--only to learn that Jannie Mae had slumped
over at their kitchen table while talking about him that
afternoon, dead of a massive heart attack.
As Juwan pounded the apartment walls that day, he shouted, "Why
now? Why?" Though nearly 4 1/2 years have passed since her death,
Juwan still talks to his grandmother regularly. "All the time in
my mind," he says. He visits her grave site, too. Especially
every Christmas that he can. "See, Christmas is my grandmother's
birthday,'' Juwan says with a smile. "I always tell her how my
The idea for the tattoo came to Howard just before he traveled
home for Christmas break during his junior year at Michigan. "I
wanted to do something really special for her," he says. He knew
he would visit Jannie Mae and have to be on his way again. But a
tattoo could stay with him forever.
As hard as he plays, Howard has a heart that dents like a
pillow. He says he wants to be a role model because "growing up
in a household with no parents, I know how it is for kids who
look up to athletes. My favorite was Dr. J." Oozing class,
Howard tries to emulate his articulate hero, Julius Erving, and
wears a DR. J tattoo on his left arm.
Howard doesn't confuse fame with greatness, and he doesn't
measure how big he is by how badly he can get away with treating
people. He's the sort of guy who'll do a favor for someone or
break his neck to excel--then blink and look genuinely thrilled
when anyone notices.
Ask Howard about playing with the Bullets' Romanian-born center,
Gheorghe Muresan, and he says, "Did you know Gheorghe told a
reporter I was his closest friend on our team? I was truly
touched by that." Mention how Howard finished his Michigan
degree (in communications) by hauling his books and homework on
the road during his rookie NBA season, and he says, "I was the
first person in my entire family to get a college degree, you
know. I'm very proud of that as well." Go to breakfast with him,
and he'll insist on picking up the check, gallantly explaining,
"Just think of it as something nice that I can do, from me to
And though Howard's pro career began with a bitter story about
money, it was not a parable about greed. As 1994's No. 5 pick
overall, Howard, along with his agent, David Falk, reasonably
asked for a salary between those that the No. 4 and No. 6
players received. Falk says Washington could have signed Howard
to a six-year, $24 million deal with "no bonuses, no outs." But
Falk claims the Bullets' best early offer was a three-year deal
worth an average of $2.97 million per season--less than the $3.2
million average salary Philadelphia gave to Sharone Wright, the
player drafted right behind Howard.
When Howard rejected the proposal and held out, Falk says, Nash
became angry that Howard didn't come to rookie camp. When Pollin
invited Howard and Falk to his house in late October, neither
the tone nor the terms of the Bullets' offer had significantly
changed. Howard and Falk were given a moment alone and, Howard
says, "That's when I broke out in tears.''
Nash now says, "I was wrong. And I approached Juwan one day at
practice halfway through last season, and I told him that ... I
didn't think he'd be as good as he turned out to be." Beyond
that, Nash says, "it doesn't do any good to rehash the rest.''
But Howard made it abundantly clear after he made the All-Star
team that he has never forgotten the "little things" about his
first contract talks. In addition to the other indignities,
Howard recalled an incident before a game against Dallas last
season. Howard says he was talking to Kidd when Nash
''interrupted us and said, 'Juwan, this is the guy we really
wanted. But we chose you.'''
"I felt really disturbed by that," says Howard, who as a rookie
averaged 17.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game,
compared with Kidd's 11.7, 5.4 and 7.7. So after this season
Howard will exercise the out clause in his contract, and it will
probably cost Washington an average salary of $10 million over
five or six years if they hope to fend off suitors such as
Dallas, the Detroit Pistons, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami
Heat and the Knicks.
"I remember John Nash telling me [last time], 'Here's $36
million,''' Howard says, "and he was like, 'Take it or leave it.
That's a lot of money.' And I said, 'Sure enough, it is. But
it's not about how much money. It's about what's fair. It's
about getting the respect you truly deserve.'''
Howard has the game to be a leader. He has always been a sharp
passer, a big forward who gets the timely rebound and runs the
break. Webber's arrival meant a switch from power forward to
small forward for Howard, and Howard has worked hard to remake
his game. He improved his ball handling, his first step to the
basket and his jump-shot range. Defenders must now choose which
direction to overplay Howard when he's out on the wing. And
Howard's post-up moves are so polished that Pistons coach Doug
Collins says, "How-ard reminds me of Kevin McHale. He's a
thinking man's post player.''
Howard is steadily spectacular: Through Sunday he was averaging
20.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game. "Just as
important," says Lynam, "night in and night out he doesn't take
a backward step from anybody. And that's contagious.'' Though
they've slumped lately, the Bullets have remained in contention
for their first playoff berth in eight years. After a recent win
over Dallas, Howard sat in front of his locker and said, "If we
don't make the playoffs this year, I'll be very, very depressed.
I think we're not just good enough to get to postseason. I think
we can truly make a very good run." He added, "I know this: I'm
not going to be satisfied until I get a ring."
Webber may have more breathtaking talent. But for now, Howard is
The Franchise. And the Bullets have become Howard's team.