I was supposed to have today off. And I could have used it. The red-eye flight from Los Angeles left me groggy and slow, tripping over my bags as I trudged through the airport. I had filled my weekly quota of columns. The cab dropped me off at home. The sun was coming up. The bed looked mighty tempting.

Instead, I am filling this space because I owe it to the subject, because his story deserves an ending more than I deserve a nap. After all, he came back to finish what he started. The least I can do is follow suit.

Saturday in Ann Arbor, Juwan Howard, a millionaire, will walk down the aisle and get his college degree. On time. As promised. He is an NBA player, a budding star, he has corpora- tions interested in him and agents drooling over him and enough money to get any luxury car he wants — without ever being asked for his educational credentials.

But on a cold November day five years ago, Juwan told the most important person in his life that he would graduate from college, be the first in his family to do so, and she kissed him a thank you before saying good-bye.

That was the last time Juwan saw his grandmother alive. At the time he was merely a high school player. He had no money, no guarantees, and when that day ended, he had no home — not if you define home as the place the person who raised you lives. Jannie Mae Howard died that afternoon, a heart attack, at the same hour her grandson was announcing he would play for Michigan.

It would have been easy, in the years that followed, to say, “My life has changed. I’m all alone. I have to take care of myself now. Forget what I said.”

Juwan Howard doesn’t forget. He doesn’t forget his basketball fundamentals, he doesn’t’ forget his manners.

And he doesn’t forget his promises.

Would the candidates for graduation please rise? . . . Something to be proud of

“I knew if I kept pushing it off, I’d never get it done,” Howard said earlier this week. “And I really wanted to do it. I know a lot of people doubted me. But — you’re gonna think I’m crazy when I say this — the degree means more than the money I’m making. It’s something I’ll have and put on the wall and always be proud of.”

When Howard announced he was leaving Michigan last April, after his junior year, some hearts were broken, others were skeptical. They wondered if his promise to graduate had any more weight than all the other promises before it
— ones that were never kept. How many athletes have said “I’ll be back” and never opened a book again?

Howard, in his own quiet way, said, “Watch me.” He needed 32 credit hours and began to chip away by taking courses last summer, even before he was drafted by the Washington Bullets.

Signing a contract for $1.3 million this year didn’t stop him. He studied communications on road trips and mailed in business papers from the nearest post office.

“We would see him on buses doing schoolwork and we’d tease him about it,” said Bullets teammate Doug Overton. “But we’re very impressed.”

They should be. A lot of athletes get to the NBA and feel compelled to fill the day with shopping, styling, making cellular phone calls about things that don’t really matter — all the trappings of what they call “living large.”

Howard lived large within himself. “It took me a few weeks to get used to NBA life, but after that, I saw that you have all this free time,” he said.
“Like after practice, you have the whole day to do what you want.”

This is so true. Many pro athletes could do so much more with their lives. But they sit around watching ESPN, then act as if their days are stuffed.

Howard saw through this lie in a week.

So he took correspondence classes and independent study and on Saturday morning, his credits complete, he will stand beside his friends Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, the two Fab Fivers who never left, and he “will be so happy I might burst out crying.”

Please come forward when your name is called . . . On being a role model

There is a lesson here, of course. It has to do with commitment and priorities. It also has to do with not being a hypocrite.

“When I go out to speak,” Howard said, “like at the NBA Stay in School Jam, what kind of message am I sending? I left after my junior year.

“But now I can say, ‘Yes, I did leave school but I went back and got my degree.’ And it didn’t take any time at all.

“I’m not telling someone to be like me, but I think we’re all role models out here.”

All during his years at Michigan, Howard always set the best example. He worked harder than most. He never got in trouble. He found time for charity work and hospital visits and he befriended a young patient who lived two years longer than doctors predicted. His family thinks Juwan was the reason.

So Howard has a history of bending time. And now he bends it in his favor. The 6-foot-10 forward said the blue gown might be a little short — “The biggest they have is XXL, and that’s for a guy 6-foot-6” — but he’ll get by. He’ll take pictures and toss his cap high into the air.

Juwan Howard, bachelor of arts, communications . . .

As for the most-asked question Saturday in Ann Arbor — “So, what are your future plans?” — Howard, already one of the most promising players in the NBA, has this response:

“I’m coming back for my master’s.”

You can wake me for that story. Any time. CUTLINE: Juwan Howard, with U-M coach Steve Fisher in the background, left the Wolverines a year early to play in the NBA. On Saturday, he returns to Ann Arbor to get his college degree.

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