When Howard rejected the proposal and held out, Falk says, Nash became angry that Howard didn't come to rookie camp. When Pollin invited Howard and Falk to his house in late October, neither the tone nor the terms of the Bullets' offer had significantly changed. Howard and Falk were given a moment alone and, Howard says, "That's when I broke out in tears."
Nash now says, "I was wrong. And I approached Juwan one day at practice halfway through last season, and I told him that...I didn't think he'd be as good as he turned out to be." Beyond that, Nash says, "it doesn't do any good to rehash the rest."
But Howard made it abundantly clear after he made the All-Star team that he has never forgotten the "little things" about his first contract talks. In addition to the other indignities, Howard recalled an incident before a game against Dallas last season. Howard says he was talking to Kidd when Nash "interrupted us and said, 'Juwan, this is the guy we really wanted. But we chose you.' "
"I felt really disturbed by that," says Howard, who as a rookie averaged 17.0 points. 8.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game, compared with Kidd's 11.7, 5.4 and 7.7. So after this season Howard will exercise the out clause in his contract, and it will probably cost Washington an average salary of $10 million over five or six years if they hope to fend off suitors such as Dallas, the Detroit Pistons, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat and the Knicks.
"I remember John Nash telling me [last time], 'Here's $36 million.' " Howard says, "and he was like, 'Take it or leave it. That's a lot of money.' And I said, 'Sure enough, it is. But it's not about how much money. It's about what's fair. It's about getting the respect you truly deserve.' "
Howard has the game to be a leader. He has always been a sharp passer, a big forward who gets the timely rebound and runs the break. Webber's arrival meant a switch from power forward to small forward for Howard, and Howard has worked hard to remake his game. He improved his ball handling, his first step to the basket and his jump-shot range. Defenders must now choose which direction to overplay Howard when he's out on the wing. And Howard's post-up moves are so polished that Pistons coach Doug Collins says, "Howard reminds me of Kevin McHale. He's a thinking man's post player."
Howard is steadily spectacular: Through Sunday he was averaging 20.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game. "Just as important," says Lynam, "night in and night out he doesn't take a backward step from anybody. And that's contagious." Though they've slumped lately, the Bullets have remained in contention for their first playoff berth in eight years. After a recent win over Dallas, Howard sat in front of his locker and said, "If we don't make the playoffs this year, I'll be very, very depressed. I think we're not just good enough to get to postseason. I think we can truly make a very good run." He added, "I know this: I'm not going to be satisfied until I get a ring."
Webber may have more breathtaking talent. But for now, Howard is The Franchise. And the Bullets have become Howard's team.