WICHITA, Kan. — It’s funny, sometimes; the ones you expect to grab never do.
Juwan Howard had that right. To grab. From the day he came home from the hospital — and his teenage mother put him in a clothes drawer because she didn’t have a crib — Howard was on the debit side of life. Short on money. Short on comforts. Short on love and, quickly, short on parents, as both mother and father left him to be raised by his grandmother.
He grew up anyhow, in brick buildings along Chicago’s South Side. He discovered basketball, excelled as a prep player, and it looked as if he’d found an escape hatch from the urban death march. But the day he chose Michigan, he came home to find his grandmother had collapsed in the kitchen, a heart attack. His only real family was gone. He was alone.
He could have grabbed then. He could have taken one of dozens of offers, money, cars, special favors, in exchange for selling his soul to some college, some flesh peddler, some broker. Once he got to Michigan, he could have grabbed, too, the easiest classes, the cheater’s route, the lion’s share of his coach’s patience. Face it. When you have talent, people cut you lots of slack. All he had to do, so simple, so easy, just reach, close the fist, grab.
Somewhere along the line, Juwan Howard never picked up that habit. So it comes as only a mild surprise that here, in the NCAA tournament, where players are showcasing themselves for the BIG grab, the NBA, Howard, a bona fide star, keeps talking about a fourth year of college basketball. And sounding like he means it.
“Oh yeah, I’m coming back, that’s my intention,” he says, sitting in the team hotel lobby. “I’ve got a senior year to look forward to . . .
“I came to this university on a four-year scholarship, and my intentions were to win a championship. I have not done that yet. Besides, I’m getting good grades, and I’m having fun in college. It’s the part of life you’re gonna miss later on.”
He crosses his hands. He is 21 years old.
Please, let him be for real. Like a rock — but not his shot
Not that he hasn’t been so far. Oh, if the other Fabs were as true as Juwan Howard — or his jump shot! So direct, that shot, so accurate, so purposeful, body squared, legs straight, hands in wonderful sync, pointing to the basket, directing the ball like a veteran traffic cop, up and in and wave bye-bye with those extended fingers. Swish. Swish. It seems, at times, that Howard could shoot all night, and he almost had to Thursday against Pepperdine. He scored 28 points, the only steady ship in the shaky Wolverines armada. He is the reason Michigan is still in this tournament. Everybody knows it.
And yet they tease Howard in the locker room. Jalen Rose says, “You’re Coach Fisher’s first-born son. That’s why he loves you best.” And, yes, Howard was the first of the Fab Five to commit, a magnet to the others.
But the fact remains that, while at Michigan, only Howard, of his Fabulous peers, has never had his name linked with an off-court controversy. No summer camp money fiasco. No friends with drug links. No free beer in convenience stores. You don’t catch Juwan Howard in trouble — and he comes from as bad a place as any of them — and you don’t catch Juwan Howard on academic probation, although he comes from a place where books make good fire material.
If Fisher loves him for anything, it’s this. He’s a man, not afraid to cry
But the point I want to make has to do with the future. Usually, when players think about leaving college early, I discourage them, because they’re not mature enough, or they need an education to fall back on, or they’re not ready physically. Anyone who watches Howard knows that last one isn’t true.
But beyond that, hear this story, about Howard and this young fan, Randy Walkowe. He was a hemophiliac, afflicted with cancer and AIDS, stuck in a wheelchair most of the time. Howard met him on a hospital visit, and while those things are often over quickly, this time there was a real connection. Howard saw him regularly, gave him clothes, gave him a Chicago Bulls cap, got him to eat cheeseburgers when doctors could not.
Randy’s mother was amazed. Her son virtually rose from his deathbed for two more years of life. He cherished the photos of him and Juwan, he went to every game he could. In the tunnel, when other players found their parents, Howard found Randy and said, “What’s up, big fella?” That always got a smile.
Randy died in January. Juwan Howard went to the funeral. When he walked past the casket, he saw a piece of his own reflection; the body was dressed in a Michigan sweater with Juwan’s No. 25, and the Bulls cap.
Howard bit his lip. He kept a straight face. He went home, that afternoon, sat in his apartment, and “burst out crying.”
Juwan Howard gets good grades, he’s on line to graduate, he knows how to play ball. Most important, he knows how to cry for others. And so, he has become a man. While we all would be delighted to have him around for another year, if he changes his mind — and they often do — I will say now what I rarely say, and say it wholeheartedly:
You are ready. You are able. Grab it, and go light up the world.