(Part 6 of a 20 part series, Pradamaster is up next with Michael Jordan. Until then, enjoy LoDawg31's awesome write-up on Juwan Howard. -Jake)
In order to fully appreciate Juwan Howard, I have to bring you back to where Bullets fans were the year he was drafted. Welcome to 1994. Your Washington Bullets have not made the playoffs for 7 years in a row. If a fan base could be said to be located in the doldrums, Washington's fans are growing roots there, settling in, and thinking about putting a pool in the backyard for the kids. The last 4 first round draft picks resulted in Calbert Cheaney, Tom Gugliotta, LaBradford Smith, and Tom Hammonds. Aside from Gugliotta, they're all first round busts and none of those draft picks, or anyone else on the team for that matter, has the It factor--something that could bring people to the arena in Landover and get even non-basketball fans talking about the Bullets.
Being a Bullets fan back then was strictly a local thing. Nobody outside the DC area even seemed to know they exist. When people from outside DC asked me what my favorite NBA team was and I told them I was a Bullets fan, what I often received was the Face. The Face started off with a confused look, ("is that an NBA team? Oh yes, that's right. The team that season ticketholders try to dump on me when they come to my town"), which then transformed into some version of incredulity and pity. It was in those moments, seeing the Face, that I realized how boring the team that I was following truly was. My excitement for things like Pervis Ellison winning Most Improved Player was quite clearly grasping at straws.
Enter Juwan Howard, the 5th pick of the 1994 draft.
Juwan, as we all know, was a member of the Fab Five from Michigan. Howard and the other Fab Fivers had electrified the college basketball scene with highlight reel fast breaks and dunks. They won with style and flash. To top it off the Bullets traded for Howard's Fab Five teammate Chris Webber. Now, Juwan himself was actually the least flashy of the crew. He was the quiet guy, the one who had some of the flash but was much more about the substance. The point is there was finally a reason to be excited to be a Bullets fan. Some may argue that the arrival of Chris Webber really was the driving force behind basketball being big in DC again, but they would be wrong. Webber was oft-injured during his first two seasons with the Bullets and it was Howard who held down the fort while he was gone.
Juwan's averaged 17 points and 8 rebounds his first season with the Bullets, finishing second on the team in both categories. He was hardworking and, for the most part, conducted himself with class and dignity on and off the court. People forget that during the mid-90's there was a growing backlash among fans with the new breed of NBA players who were perceived to be spoiled, arrogant, jerks, drunk off their million dollar contracts. Juwan was about the farthest thing from that as you could get. He became heavily involved in community outreach programs, finished getting his college degree while playing in the NBA, and did it all with out self promotion.
After two excellent seasons with the Bullets (but with the team still struggling), Juwan became a free agent and briefly signed a $89 million deal with the Miami Heat, much to the dismay of Bullets fans. Then, the league voided the contract saying that Miami's violated tampering rules and salary cap restrictions. Given the do-over and after seeing just how furious the fan base was that our most promising player was leaving after two seasons, Washington overpaid and signed Juwan to a staggering $105 million contract.
The following season Juwan and a healthy Webber helped us get back into the playoffs, ending the 8 year drought. It was surreal to see, especially if you were like me at the time, and didn't actually remember ever seeing the Bullets in the postseason before. Sure, they lost 3 straight to Michael Jordan's Bulls in the first round, but they competed in every game and Jordan himself said afterwards, something along the lines of, "Those guys are the future." That never ended up happening, but at the time, it was damned exciting. Regardless we were relevant again and even non-basketball fans took notice.
Then, as they say, things fell apart. Management traded Webber and Strickland away and Howard's huge contract hamstrung the team from getting help. The team was mired in mediocrity and Juwan was greeted by a sea of boos every time he touched the ball until mercifully he was traded away to Dallas. I always thought that it was supremely unfair that people booed him that lustily. Sure, he wasn't the kind of player who deserved a gigantic contract because, much as I liked Juwan, he just wasn't a number one alpha dog who could put the team on his back and carry them and that's what $100 million dollar players are expected to do. But you can't say that he took the money and mailed it in. He wasn't Derrick Coleman who threw away his God-given talent through apathy or Shawn Kemp who threw it away through gluttony. He played hard every game despite the boos and I respected him for it. Besides how could you boo someone who grew up with nothing in the projects of Chicago, whose first crib was a dresser drawer, and grew up to be such a solid citizen?
What else do I remember about Juwan? The awkward looking jump shot where he held his arms straight up over his head, seemingly holding the ball as high as possible before he flipping both his hands forward. Juwan was never able to get the Bullets back to the playoffs, but he helped end the playoff drought and made the Bullets relevant again. Also, the Face was nowhere near as prevalent after Juwan got here.