What makes a man? Strong hands, to bend destiny in his direction. Strong shoulders, to bear the weight of his actions. Strong heart, to weather the ups and downs of life, the grins, the headaches, the tears.
The tears. There were plenty of those in Steve Fisher’s car last week, the
night he and Juwan Howard went for a ride and talked about the future and came to a decision. The coach cried. The athlete cried. They were like family members parting at a train station, whistle blowing, steam rising.
And yet, for all the tears, can there be any doubt that Juwan Howard is a man? That he has the shoulders, hands and heart for the step he took Monday afternoon, in the wood- paneled room of Crisler Arena?
“My dream has come true,” said Howard, 21, announcing he would turn professional, skipping his senior year at Michigan to enter the NBA draft. He is projected as a lottery pick; with one contract, he can be set for life. But, although the words were familiar — how many athletes pay lip service about returning for a degree — on Monday, the difference was, everyone believed.
And all seemed to nod OK. The room was filled not only with reporters, but with players, assistant coaches, their wives, their children, other students. It was different from the frenzied crowd at Chris Webber’s dramatic press conference last year, and different, no doubt, from what we’ll see today, at Jalen Rose’s press conference, when he’ll likely become the third Fab Five player to leave early.
Howard’s liftoff was, well, pleasant. Calm. Most attendees wore the satisfied expressions of uncles and aunts, watching the kids drive away. More than anything else, it seemed, they wanted one last look. Fisher tried to talk him out of it
Ah, the looks of Juwan Howard: the scowl of determination as he ripped down a rebound, the glare of concentration as he fired a trademark turnaround jumper, the wink he would sneak you while bent over at the free throw line, the innocent smile and deep, hearty laugh he saved for sick kids in hospitals, visits he refused to be publicized.
I have seen all these looks. I have been with Howard as he drove through his neighborhoods on Chicago’s south side, pointing to a condemned building with boarded-up windows and saying, “See that? That’s my old house.”
I have witnessed his confidence, as he pranced around a Lexington, Ky., arena after Michigan beat Ohio State to reach the Final Four, shouting: “DO YOU BELIEVE US NOW?” And I have seen his manners, as he alone, in a group of his teammates, stood in a restaurant and said to an elderly woman, “Would you like this seat, ma’am?”
The first time I interviewed him, his freshman year, I wore a leather coat and sunglasses. He looked at me and said, “So you’re like a rock-star writer?”
I laughed, and he quickly apologized. “I didn’t mean nothing, I was just teasing.”
That was Juwan. Curious, funny, but acutely aware of his effect on others, never wanting to hurt anyone, not with a fist, not with a word. In three years at Michigan he did nothing but honor his school, in the classroom, in public, and of course, with his workmanlike excellence on the court.
“I’ve been here since ’82,” said Fisher, whose face was so red with emotion Monday, he looked as if he would burst, “and we’ve never, ever had anyone better.”
Little wonder that Fisher, who once talked Juwan into being the first of the Fab Five to choose U-M, tried to talk him out of leaving — something he didn’t try with Webber.
“Maybe it was for selfish reasons,” the coach admitted, forcing a smile.
“We all just want Juwan around.” Howard makes his own decisions
Howard began his announcement Monday this way: “I’ve made the decision — and I stress the word I. . . . ”
Understand the significance of this. Juwan Howard is not Chris Webber, with two loving and influential parents. He is not Jalen Rose, with a savvy mother to advise him.
Since the day he declared he was coming to Michigan, Juwan Howard basically has been on his own. That day, the woman who raised him, his grandmother, Jannie Mae Howard, died of a heart attack at the kitchen table.
Juwan has been a grown-up ever since.
So when time came to make this decision, he went inside himself, where Jannie Mae’s memory lives, and he asked what she thought. And satisfied, he consulted himself. And satisfied, he told his coaches, and his teammates. He didn’t ask. He told. The only victim is memories. There will be fewer with the big fellow gone.
What makes a man? The last time Howard called his own press conference, commitment day in high school, it was the worst day of his life, the day his grandmother died. He cried then for what he’d lost. He cried Monday for what he’d found.
And in between, he developed what he needs, hands to pull himself to another level, shoulders to bear responsibility, and a heart that can handle pain and not grow cynical or impolite.
In general, you hate to see athletes leave early. In reality, there are times. Monday, when the interviews ended, a crowd of friends pushed Howard toward the door. Suddenly, as if forgetting something, he broke free and went back, found Fisher, and shook his hand gratefully.
“All right, Coach,” he said, with that smile, “all right.” And the funny thing is, it was.