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

You do not write the script. All athletes learn this eventually. You can affect the script. You can star in the script. You may die at the end of the script. But you cannot write it. Too many things happen.

So here was Juwan Howard, in his first game at the Palace this year. Coming back to Detroit is still a big deal for Howard. Lots of friends in attendance from his days at Michigan, lots of people who like him, even love him. His old coach, Steve Fisher, and Steve’s wife, Angie, who occasionally cooked a meal for Juwan, and Brian Dutcher, the guy who recruited him from Chicago, were all in the building Friday night.

Had Juwan written the script, he would have entered smiling, strutting with the pride of a local hero-made-good. After all, this kid — who used to play in a gym with no heat — now has a new, $105-million contract and a starring role on a rising team.

But Juwan does not write the script. So, instead, he returned to Detroit just four days after the most embarrassing off-court incident of his career, a drunken-driving arrest in the wee hours of Monday morning. He was coming out of a Washington bar named LuLu’s. There had been a big party. Juwan had been drinking.

Juwan is not a monk. He has drunk alcohol before. But this time he made the dumb mistake of getting into his car. He ran a red light. He had not gone more than a few blocks before sirens were whirring in his rearview mirror.


Now, here he was, at the shoot-around Friday morning, and when reporters gathered around him, he had to say, “Just questions about basketball, OK? Just basketball questions.”

You do not write the script. Trouble along the way

Chris Webber knows this as well. Detroit is his home, and Friday night was another of his homecomings. The previous ones have not gone well. In his first visit, his rookie season, he hit he floor, injured his ankle and was taken to the hospital. In subsequent games, he’s been on the bench with a bum shoulder, or watching as his team went down to defeat.

Friday was no better. The Pistons were sharp, the Bullets were off, and Webber was ineffective. With dozens of friends, family and acquaintances looking on, Webber stood around more than he contributed. He saw his inside shots roll off the rim, and he had as many turnovers as he did baskets. When he walked off the court, he looked in the stands and saw his younger brother wave an annoyed hand at him, as if to say, “Man, you guys were lousy tonight.”

“It’s not the story I wanted,” Webber said afterwards.

You cannot write the script.

Now I have known Howard since his arrival at Michigan, and I have known Webber since high school. I remember visiting Webber’s house when he was a senior at Country Day, seeing the boxes of letters from colleges around the nation. Webber smiled like a big kid back then, and he still smiles that way when he sees me now. It makes me feel good, I will not deny that.

Likewise, I remember my first interview with Howard, driving him home from a practice, and he sat in my car, which had a cracked windshield, and he pointed and said, “I can relate to this.”

I learned his inspiring story, how he was raised in the Chicago projects by his grandmother, who died the day he committed to Michigan. How he promised her he would get a college degree, which is why he came back a year after turning pro, just to walk on stage and to get his diploma, to keep his promise.

Now, Friday morning, all these years later, Juwan saw me and said, “Hey, you still driving that car with the hole in the windshield?”

And in moments like that, you feel touched, and you like to think they never change, these kids.

But they do. They have to. They grow up.

And they have to act like grown-ups. Happy ending still possible

So Juwan was wrong for what he did. He knows it. He should have had a limo, or a designated driver that night. Instead, he has a big black eye on his image. He admitted to me later that the whole thing had been “embarrassing.”

He said, “I just thank God I’m still here and able to do something about it, you know?”

“You can’t make a mistake at your level,” I said.

“No, you can’t make a mistake,” he said, shaking his head. “One mistake and they blow it up.”

It’s not the “they” he should be worried about. It’s the “I.” He is too smart to be this foolish, and even though he was not much over the legal limit for intoxication, when you live in that big a spotlight, you have to be as careful with your behavior as a surgeon is with his scalpel. Juwan knows better. I believe he will do better.

Same goes for Chris. He is a terrific guy, but Friday was not a terrific game. He can play better. And he should. Word is, his father, Mayce, came to see him play at the start of the season and was so disturbed he told Chris to get himself more into the game. This from a man who almost never told his son a thing about basketball.

Sometimes, when success comes early to players, they begin to think happy endings will come simply by wishing them.

It doesn’t work that way. Howard and Webber, two good kids with a lot of fame and money, are learning that now. You cannot write the script. But you can play your part the best you know how.

Both of them will in the future. I believe that. Or at least I want to.


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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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