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Cleaning UP
Johnette Howard
February 26, 1996
Juwan Howard, a do-everything forward the Bullets resignedly drafted, is wiping out his NBA opponents
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February 26, 1996

Cleaning Up

Juwan Howard, a do-everything forward the Bullets resignedly drafted, is wiping out his NBA opponents

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Ultimately Howard signed an 11-year, $36.6 million contract with an escape clause after two seasons. But he felt the Bullets doubted his ability and, worse, "didn't do their homework." He thought that they didn't give him credit for his hard work or his systematic approach to improving while he was playing college ball at Michigan. He believed that they didn't know—but should have known—what he had already overcome in his life, let alone the story behind that tattoo worn over his heart, the tiny red valentine with wispy script letters that read: JANNIE MAE

When the Bullets signed Howard and obtained Webber from the Golden State Warriors on the same day in November 1994, the immediate reaction in the Washington area was that the Bullets had created the second coming of their '70s Hall of Fame frontcourt tandem of Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Stoking the excitement were memories of the 1992 and '93 NCAA title games, in which Howard and Webber played as members of Michigan's Fab Five. Back then the 6'10", 250-pound Webber had established himself as more the showman, as a rawer but flashier talent than Howard. And Webber loved to talk trash. Howard did some occasional jawing too. But Michigan coach Steve Fisher told anyone who would listen that Howard was the Wolverines' glue, that he was the hardest worker at practice and the star at the front of every conditioning sprint. And he had come to Michigan under extraordinary circumstances. He had grown up in several low-income projects on the South Side of Chicago. His mother, Helena, was just 17 when he was born. His father, Leroy Watson Jr., was just back from the Army and soon dropped out of their lives. As author Mitch Albom wrote in Fab Five, Helena and Leroy had so little money that when they brought Juwan home from the hospital, they couldn't afford a crib. So Juwan's grandmother, Jannie Mae Howard, told Helena to open a drawer in a chest upstairs and put a pillow and a blanket in it. For the first week of his life, Juwan napped in a dresser drawer.

As it turned out, Jannie Mae, the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, raised not only Juwan but two of his cousins as well. "My grandmother was solid," Juwan says with pride. And he revered her. Their neighborhood was crawling with gangs, and there were shootings on the nearby playgrounds and streets. But to please Jannie Mae, Juwan stayed in school and trudged home by sundown. He rode the El to Chicago Vocational High, where his basketball team often practiced in an unheated gym. "We didn't even have a locker room—we dressed for home games in a history classroom," Howard says.

Despite these handicaps he still finished high school as the top-rated center in the country. On the day that he committed to Michigan, Howard held a press conference at Vocational High and happily hurried home—only to learn that Jannie Mae had slumped over at their kitchen table while talking about him that afternoon, dead of a massive heart attack.

As Juwan pounded the apartment walls that day, he shouted, "Why now? Why?" Though nearly 4½ years have passed since her death, Juwan still talks to his grandmother regularly. "All the time in my mind," he says. He visits her grave site, too. Especially every Christmas that he can. "See, Christmas is my grandmother's birthday," Juwan says with a smile. "I always tell her how my season's going."

The idea for the tattoo came to Howard just before he traveled home for Christmas break during his junior year at Michigan. "I wanted to do something really special for her," he says. He knew he would visit Jannie Mae and have to be on his way again. But a tattoo could stay with him forever.

As hard as he plays, Howard has a heart that dents like a pillow. He says he wants to be a role model because "growing up in a household with no parents, I know how it is for kids who look up to athletes. My favorite was Dr. J." Oozing class, Howard tries to emulate his articulate hero, Julius Erving, and wears a DR. J. tattoo on his left arm.

Howard doesn't confuse fame with greatness, and he doesn't measure how big he is by how badly he can get away with treating people. He's the sort of guy who'll do a favor for someone or break his neck to excel—then blink and look genuinely thrilled when anyone notices.

Ask Howard about playing with the Bullets' Romanian-born center, Gheorghe Muresan, and he says, "Did you know Gheorghe told a reporter I was his closest friend on our team? I was truly touched by that." Mention how Howard finished his Michigan degree (in communications) by hauling his books and homework on the road during his rookie NBA season, and he says, "I was the first person in my entire family to get a college degree, you know. I'm very proud of that as well." Go to breakfast with him, and he'll insist on picking up the check, gallantly explaining, "Just think of it as something nice that I can do, from me to you."

And though Howard's pro career began with a bitter story about money, it was not a parable about greed. As 1994's No. 5 pick overall, Howard, along with his agent, David Falk, reasonably asked for a salary between those that the No. 4 and No. 6 players received. Falk says Washington could have signed Howard to a six-year, $24 million deal with "no bonuses, no outs." But Falk claims the Bullets' best early offer was a three-year deal worth an average of $2.97 million per season—less than the $3.2 million average salary Philadelphia gave to Sharone Wright, the player drafted right behind Howard.

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