The Unfinished Odyssey of Juwan Howard

This aborted "Kid and Play" could hardly have ended worse.

Suppose that Ringo Starr had signed on with U2 in 1984.

Or that Al Pacino, 20-plus years after headlining “The Godfather,” crawled through 500 yards of shit-smelling foulness in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

It’s almost unprecedented for one person to, at either end of a 20-year gap, find himself at the center of an era-defining phenomenon. And no, “Scent of a Woman” doesn’t count for Pacino.

But that’s right where Juwan Howard is. In 1991, Howard was a part of the Fab Five, the University of Michigan freshmen whose style (as we’ve all been reminded lately) remade basketball culture in the 1990s and early 2000s. If you’ve followed basketball for very long, you know all the Fab Five cliches: baggy shorts, black socks and braggadocio. Only John Thompson, Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson have done more to shape the current basketball landscape.

Today, Howard is the 12th man for the Miami Heat, borne aloft on the cloud of hot air that accompanied Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh’s decision to sign in South Beach.

Oddly, Howard occupies the same position in both groups: elder statesman. Howard was a preternaturally calm 18-year-old, brash but not given to the same histrionics as classmates Jalen Rose and Chris Webber. He always seemed to be a calming influence on the group. And watching the ESPN documentary last week, it was hard not to note that Howard has always looked middle-aged.

Howard very nearly became part of an earlier stable of Heatles. In 1997, he signed a seven-year, $101 million offer to join Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway in Miami. The league voided that contract because it would have put Miami over the salary cap. Howard subsequently signed a $105 million deal with Washington, making him the league’s first $100 million man. Howard’s was also one of the league’s first legitimately cap-killing contract. He should be a useful resource for Chris Bosh in two years, should he stick around that long.

It’s also an odd bit of symmetry that Howard is paired with James, who is (in many ways) the mirror image of Chris Webber. Blessed with a similar build and spectacular court vision, James would have been Webber, had he come along 12 years earlier. And vice versa.

James and Webber could each claim to be the most gifted player of his generation, yet each also reaped criticism for failing to reach his potential. James and Webber both suffered PR problems: Webber because of a glut of self-awareness and James for a lack of same.

Since the July signings, everyone with a keyboard or microphone has analyzed the Heat. The person I’d most like to hear from is Howard. He’s said little of substance about the experience, so far.

2 Responses to The Unfinished Odyssey of Juwan Howard

  1. Grant Jones says:

    Good work, Mr. Ryals. I’ve been wondering about this phenomena myself and this is the first mention I’ve seen of it on the internets.

    But I want to hear more about why you think it was self-awareness that held Webber back. That’s an interesting claim. What’s at the heart of it?

  2. Jimmy Ryals says:

    I’ve been going back through old feature stories and Mitch Albom’s “Fab Five” (thanks, Google Books), looking for some basis for my feeling that Webber was a particularly self-aware athlete. No luck, so far, so I’m going to have to go evidence-free here.

    I don’t think self-awareness (or thoughtfulness or however it’s called) stunted his development. I think the sense that he never reached his potential is as much about bad luck as anything else. The timeout, the screwing in the 2002 WCF, his knees going bad on him — those things were mostly a matter of bad luck. He was still one of the best PFs ever.

    I do think his thoughtfulness defined his interactions with the media, and I think that kept him from being truly embraced by the media and (by extension) the public. He always split the difference between the super-brash, Iverson-ish guy some wanted him to be and the squeaky-clean Grant Hill type others expected. He was both, and neither; he did the Nike barbershop commercials, and he invited Business Week to write about his African-American history collection.

    LeBron tries to be all things to everyone, too, but there’s just something extremely shallow about how he’s done it. The LeBrons ad campaign says a lot about that, I think: he hints at this deep, textured personality, but he mostly just seems to be playing dress-up.

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