He's young and inexperienced, but he asserts himself like a veteran. One night early this year Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard matched forearm shivers with Phoenix Suns star Charles Barkley on three successive trips downcourt—then dunked on Barkley's head and screamed. On another night, when Bullets forward Chris Webber and New York Knicks strongman Charles Oakley crashed to the floor, injuring Webber's previously dislocated left shoulder and sending him on a sullen walk to the locker room, Howard demanded the ball on Washington's next two possessions, muscled in two post-up baskets over Oakley and then won the game with six points in overtime.
And in late January the Houston Rockets, the NBA champions the past two seasons, came to town. When the Bullets arrived at USAir Arena that night, they received some unexpected bad news: Webber (that left shoulder again) and oft-injured point guard Mark Price (broken navicular bone in his left foot) were out—indefinitely. Knowing that Washington was left with only nine healthy players, Bullets coach Jimmy Lynam began his pregame address by saying, "I know we're a little shorthanded tonight...."
A voice interrupted Lynam: "Forget short-handed!"
Beside his locker Juwan Howard stood glowering.
The 6'9", 250-pound Howard is only 23 and is playing just his second NBA season, but inspired by his terse declaration, the Bullets roared out of the locker room and routed the dumbstruck Rockets by 35 points. Howard's teammates were also inspired by his example. In the first seven minutes he had a swooping dunk, a no-look touch pass to guard Calbert Cheaney for a slam, two 17-foot jumpers and another rim-snapping dunk that left both teams sneaking a look at the scoreboard replay. After Howard was done, Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, "He's me of the best young players I've seen."
Webber or no Webber, Howard has emerged as the Bullets' most important Mayer. On a team known for its persistent bad luck, he has made it clear that the past doesn't matter to him. "This is the '90s now," he says with a smile.
But don't confuse Howard with some of his contemporaries. "I don't want to be one of those young guys who take the money and don't care about anything else," he says. "It bugs me when you read the paper and some of the NBA veterans are saying, 'These young guys, they're messing up the league.' Well, I'm one of those young guys. And I don't only care about the money. I love the game of basketball.
"This is my dream. My livelihood. And I take it very seriously. I want to be the best. I want my team to win. I want to be a true role model for kids. When I think now of all the adversity I've been through...."
He smiles and doesn't finish.
On Jan. 30 the NBA's Eastern Conference coaches voted Howard to his first All-Star team as a reserve. That represented quite a turnaround from 19 months before, when Bullets general manager John Nash professed mild disappointment after having chosen Howard with the No. 5 pick in the 1994 draft; Nash later said he had hoped point guard Jason Kidd, drafted No. 2 by the Dallas Mavericks, would still be available. The ensuing contract talks were so bitter, Howard began crying during a break in a late October negotiating session at owner Abe Pollin's house.