by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It was time for Juwan Howard to tell his grandmother about life as a man, to tell her about college and basketball and the new fame he had found in Michigan. He leaned over. He began to speak.

“I’m doing good, Grandma,” he said. “College, it’s, like, not as easy as I thought it would be. But you know, I’m doing OK. I’ll get good grades, like you want. . . .

“Our basketball team is doing fine. We’re progressing. We just need a little time. The fellas are real nice and all. We’re like . . . this family.
. . . “

He paused. Tears were in his eyes now. Such a big man, with that stretched torso and those long arms and the goatee around his lips and chin, such a big man, to have tears in his eyes. Now he leaned a little closer. He whispered.

“I think about you all the time, Grandma. You’re always in my heart. You, you’re the No. 1 person in my life and I . . . I miss you, Grandma.”

He looked at the tombstone. He put down the flowers. And there, above the

earth where the only real family he knew was buried, the big man cried.

People see what they want to see. And so when some folks watch Juwan Howard this weekend as Michigan plays in the Final Four, they will see anger. A scowl. Rebounds, elbows, hard physical play. They might even see a replay of him strutting into the tunnel last week after a victory, yelling, “WE’RE GONNA SHOCK THE WORLD!” and undulating in a boastful dance, like some giant caterpillar. Maybe they say, “Great, another one.”

And as usual, they miss the point. If there is one thing Juwan Howard is not, it is “another one” of anything. In most ways, he breaks the mold of his circumstances. Here is a kid who never had a real mother or father, yet grew up with more manners than John Boy in “The Waltons.” Here is a jock who has every excuse to flop around in untied sneakers and dirty underwear, yet he irons his clothes religiously and never goes outside until he is perfectly groomed. Here is a tall, strong, powerful kid from the rough side of Chicago, who could have gone through life pushing his weight around, proving his toughness, yet, as it turns out, he never got in a serious fight, never fell into drugs, and came out of those hard streets with only one painful scar: He had lost his only real family.

This is the story of how he found a new one.
‘Gotta be neat’

“Our room is right here,” he says, pushing through the unlocked door on one of the upper floors of Michigan’s South Quad. The place is small, the decoration sparse; a brown carpet remnant covers the floor. Two butcher-block desks. A poster of a rap star. TV. A few videotapes. On one bed near the window sits Jimmy King, the buoyant guard and Howard’s roommate, who looks up from behind a newspaper, nods, then goes back to reading. Howard’s bed is against the near wall and he is fussing over that bed right now, fluffing the pillows and straightening the ends of the blanket, as if that’s the thing to do when adults enter the room, make sure the bed is made.

“It’s OK,” I say. “I’m not going to bounce a quarter on it or anything.”

“Naw, naw,” Howard, 19, says, with his deep laugh. “Gotta be neat, man. Gotta be.”

There were rules on 69th Street in Chicago, in that three- bedroom apartment where he lived with his grandmother. Being neat was only one of them. Do your schoolwork. Remember your manners. Say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.” And absolutely no cursing. One time, young Juwan got mad at a cousin, and, reciting words he had heard on the street, he squeaked, “I’m gonna f— you up.”

“What did you say?” his grandmother asked.

Next thing Howard knew, he had a bar of soap in his mouth. Not just a little. The whole bar. “To this day, I can still taste that soap,” he says.
“Uhhhh. It was terrible!”

He didn’t curse in the house anymore.
‘I’m not a Leroy type’

Juwan Howard got his mother’s last name. He didn’t get his mother. She was only 17 when he was born, had to leave school, wasn’t ready to marry the man
— “She still wanted to lead her life, go out, stuff like that,” Howard says with surprising understanding — and so his grandmother, Jannie Mae Howard, a Mississippi-born pistol with dark hair and a weakness for cigarettes, said she would raise the boy. She even adopted him, so it was legal. His natural father, Leroy Watson Jr., who worked for the telephone company, had wanted the child to be named after him. Leroy Watson III. The grandmother shook her head, the first of a million no’s.

“If I raise him, he carries my name.”

Howard. Juwan Howard.

“Hey, I’m not a Leroy type anyhow,” Juwan says now. “Can you picture that? I told Jalen (Rose) I was almost a Leroy, he about cracked up laughing.”

If you come from a safe, warm home in the suburbs, if you are lucky enough to know Thanksgiving meals and family vacations and walking your kid sister to school, then the idea that a mother and father could let someone else raise their son might strike you as absurd. You have not spent time in the inner city. Children find their own way there; they grow up the best they can. Aunts and grandmothers are often mother and father; cousins and friends play brothers and sisters. “Juwan grew up more attached to me than his mother,” says Thelma Howard, his aunt, who lived in the apartment, too. “I would have to carry him wherever I went. You know, he never had any brothers to play with. I think he always wanted that.”

“Hey, I’m not the only person in the city of Chicago who grew up the way I did,” says Howard, who has what he calls a “distant relationship” with his natural parents. “It’s the culture that surrounded us. I was grateful I had my grandmother.”

His grandmother. Yes. She woke him every morning at 6:30 — “C’mon, Nooky,” she would say, using his childhood nickname, “get out of bed, time for school” — she made sure he was dressed nicely, that his teeth were brushed, his hair neat, his schoolwork done. She couldn’t watch him play basketball, not in person, because she got too nervous. But hey, she knew he could shoot. She had seen him throw socks through a bent clothes hanger when he was a child.

When he needed advice, his grandmother was there. And when the gangs came around, and they always come around, Jannie Mae Howard chased them off. “They were more scared of her than they were of me,” Howard says, laughing.

A boy and his grandmother.

A family. End of childhood On the morning of Nov. 14, 1990, Howard dressed for school in a rayon shirt, slacks and black dress shoes. When he hugged his Grandma good-bye, she said, “Look nice today. You’re gonna be on television.”

It was the day Howard was to announce he had chosen Michigan, the first of the eventual Fab Five to do so. There were reporters waiting at 8 a.m. Reporters? Well, at 6-feet- 9, with a soon-to-be 27-point scoring average, Howard was already one of the top five prospects in the nation. As he sat down to sign his letter of intent, he almost couldn’t believe it. He was going to the Big Ten. All the work had paid off. He was getting out of the hard life.
“I was psyched,” he says.

It would be the best half-day of his life.

That evening, after practice, he drove home. He saw a family friend outside the door. She looked upset.

“What’s the matter?” Howard asked.

“I’m so sorry for you,’ she said.

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh. You don’t know. . . . I shouldn’t be the one to tell you.”

“Tell me what?’

“About your grandmother.”

He leaned into her. “What about my grandmother? . . . What about MY GRANDMOTHER?”

This: Earlier in the day, just hours after Juwan had signed his future, Jannie Mae Howard had collapsed in her daughter’s arms. The paramedics came. The sirens whirred. It was over very quickly.

She was dead of a heart attack.

“When Juwan came home, I was sitting inside, trying to figure out how to tell him,” Thelma says. “I heard this noise from outside. I looked out, and Juwan had this woman by the collar and he was yelling.

“I took him inside and told him what had happened. And he blew up. He started screaming and hollering and crying. He ran upstairs. That was the first time I’d ever seen him like that.”

Juwan didn’t come home that week. He stayed at his high school coach’s house. Every night. Slept there. Ate. Watched TV. There was no one to tell him he couldn’t. No one to tell him, “Juwan, I am your parent. Come home.”

His grandmother was gone.

So was his childhood. Movies and malls

“Good luck on Saturday,” the waiter says, pouring some ice water. Howard smiles and says thank you. He is unusually polite, and unusually mature. When he doesn’t understand something, he says, “Could you repeat the question?” When he agrees with something, he says, “Yes, yes. Certainly.” You wonder how he got this reputation as a tough guy. Maybe it’s the goatee.

“I think it is, yes,” he says. “I grew it in high school because I wanted to be like Magic Johnson and Charles Smith. But people say it makes me look mean. Maybe I’ll shave it off.”

He rubs his chin. ” ‘Course I told the guys that I would shave my head if we made it to the Final Four, but now I don’t want to. I’m gonna take a beating for that.”

“A beating?” I ask.

He laughs. “Yeah. That’s the way we are. If we say something, we have to stick with it, or else we beat on each other.”

We. We. There is talk about these Fab Five freshmen, how tight they seem for kids who really only came together seven months ago. Some of it, for sure, is the success they are enjoying. Like the early Beatles, the Michigan players are finding fame is something you share exclusively, selfishly, only you and the others know what you are feeling.

Yet in Howard’s case, it is more than that. From the first day he arrived at Michigan, he found something he had been looking for. He says he does everything with his teammates now. Goes to malls. Movies. “It’s like, it doesn’t feel right if I’m not with at least one of them. I’m so happy that I took a gamble and came here, and they all came, too.”

What do you do when you have no real home left? You find another one. So more than any other member of the Fab Five, Juwan Howard now revels in the team. He tells everyone about the things they will do. He says he is behind each of them “100 percent.” Even if they decide to leave school early.

“Unless we haven’t won a national championship,” he adds quickly. “First we have to do that.”

We. Best seat in the house

When Howard was in high school, he took the ACT exam three times before he passed. He was determined not to be shackled when he got to college. He wound up a member of the National Honor Society and homecoming king. “He has always been like that,” says his old coach, Richard Cook. “Seriously and focused. Even during practice, he never took a shot that wasn’t useful. He started with lay-ups, backed up to the foul line, then to the three-point line.”

And now he has gone all the way to the Final Four. It seems almost pre-destined. According to his aunt, the last thing Howard said to his grandmother before they closed the casket at her funeral was, “I’m going to Michigan. And I’m gong to win everything for you.”

“I know she’s watching,” he says now. “And she has the best seat in the house. Maybe even better than the press.”

He laughs. Sometimes basketball is about shooting and dribbling. And sometimes it’s about finding your place. There are those who watch the Fab Five and say they’re too young for all that is happening to them. Maybe some of them are. But when Juwan Howard takes the court Saturday, and the ball goes up, and he can see them all from the corner of his eyes, Jalen, Jimmy, Chris and Ray, together, forever, in a hardwood circle — with Grandma watching above — it is all he ever needed and he is right where he wants to be: in the cradle of loved ones, home at last.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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