Mitch Albom: Juwan Howard, Michigan basketball and the 'beautiful road' that reunited them
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Mitch Albom: Juwan Howard, Michigan basketball and the 'beautiful road' that reunited them

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Juwan Howard sits with his wife Jenine  as he waits to be introduced by University of Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manual as the new head basketball coach during a press conference on Thursday, May 30, 2019 at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Juwan Howard sits with his wife Jenine as he waits to be introduced by University of Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manual as the new head basketball coach during a press conference on Thursday, May 30, 2019 at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

There were two days in Juwan Howard's life that he chose Michigan. Both ended in tears.

The first was almost exactly 29 years ago, when he rose and got dressed in his grandmother's place on the south side of Chicago. She told him to wear something nice, because "you're gonna talk to those reporters."

Howard chose a rayon shirt and tan slacks. He smelled breakfast cooking and his grandmother's cigarette smoke. He hugged her as he headed off to high school and promised himself that when he made the NBA one day, he would buy her a big house.

Hours later, he chose the University of Michigan as the place he would play college basketball, becoming the first member of what would come to be known as the Fab Five. Cameras clicked. Journalists took notes.

And that evening, Juwan came home from practice to gathered neighbors and shocked expressions, and he burst through the door and saw his relatives weeping.

His beloved grandmother had collapsed from a massive heart attack. She was dead before they reached the hospital.

"Noooo!" Juwan screamed.

He cried for hours.

___

The second set of tears came last May, when Howard once again chose his clothes in the morning, and went off to speak before a group of reporters. Only this time, it wasn't to play for the Wolverines, it was to coach them. And he didn't kiss his grandmother goodbye, but rather his wife and two teenage sons.

Yet once again, when U-M athletic director Warde Manuel began to talk about Juwan's life and accomplishments, the crying began.

"I was like 'Oh, God.' The tears just poured," Howard recalls. "I had to turn my back to take a deep breath to gather myself. I probably would have just fainted or fell to my knees - because that's how much I care for this opportunity to be here."

To understand 46-year-old Juwan Howard, whose first game that counts as U-M men's basketball coach is Tuesday night against Appalachian State, you should first know that he has always been grateful.

He was raised with so little. His mother was a high school junior when he was born. He grew up in the projects of Chicago. His first crib was the drawer of a chest, stuffed with a pillow and a blanket.

His grandmother, Jannie Mae Howard, was the rock of his life; she raised him, kept him from danger, kept him from the streets. Juwan knew, without her, he might well be lost - he had little to do with his biological parents - and he thanked her all the time.

When she passed away, he would soon cling to Michigan basketball - Steve Fisher, Brian Dutcher, Jay Smith, the Fab Five teammates - as his new family. They gave him security. A home. He was endlessly grateful for that.

Howard became a first-round draft pick, had a long NBA career, made a ton of money, made an All-Star team, and won a championship with the Miami Heat in his final season. And as he was preparing for life after basketball - "planning to ride off into the sunset," he says - Heat head coach Eric Spoelstra and assistant David Fizdale suggested he'd be good at coaching. Why not give it a shot? they suggested

And he was grateful for that.

He started at the bottom. He asked for nothing more. He would work his way up, as he had always worked his way up. Howard was forever a hard worker. Fisher, his coach at Michigan, used to crow about how diligently Howard studied the game, how he worked at the small things, baseline moves, reading the defender.

As someone who covered the Fab Five extensively, I would have said if any of them would become a head coach, it would be Juwan.

But he disagrees.

"I wouldn't have looked at myself," he says. "I might have pointed to - it's easy to say Jalen (Rose), but I would say no - I would probably say Ray Jackson."

Why Ray Jackson?

"Because Ray is very laid back but he's also a people person. Great communicator. Very knowledgeable about the game. And if you don't like Ray Jackson, there's something's wrong with you."

___

Well. The same could be said for Howard. He is unfailingly polite, stops himself midsentence if he misspeaks and says "excuse me," was doing charity work even back in college and is consistently sensitive to how he comes across.

One morning, early in his first season as an assistant coach with the Heat, he came down to breakfast at the team hotel. The coaches were sitting at one table. The players were sitting at another.

"I was like, 'Wow, here are my former teammates. Should I go sit with them?' I did not want to look bad in front of my coaches. But then I was like, 'Should I go sit with the coaches?' And I was concerned that the guys who were just my teammates would look at me like I'm on the 'dark side' now."

So what did you do?

"I sat at my own table."

Your own table?

"Yeah. Neutral. It was a very uncomfortable moment for me."

Still, that should tell you something. A man that aware of how he is coming across can make a good leader in a profession where how you come across is everything. Howard is a solid communicator, an eternal student of the game, but never one to assume his own superiority.

Once, in that first season with Miami, he was directing Chris Andersen (the guy they called "Birdman") in some defensive drills. They had been teammates, but now one wore a uniform and one did not.

"We were talking about rebounding and pulse-line defense and pick-and-roll defense and Chris turned around and looked at me and he was like, 'Wow, you're right.' He's like, 'You got this coaching thing down. You're perfect for this role.'

"That was the first moment I really took time to say, 'Hey, you know what? Now I'm really a coach.' "

___

From there it was a steady climb up the NBA mountain. By his sixth season on the Miami bench, Howard was a high-level assistant coach, and was getting calls from other NBA teams. The Knicks. The Pistons. The Lakers. Cleveland. Minnesota.

But never college. It was a foreign world that held no real interest. The only school Howard might be interested in, he always said, was Michigan, only because it figured so prominently in his life.

But he never figured that to happen.

"Then one Sunday night (in May) I go to bed feeling comfortable, the season was over, looking forward to getting some rest - and that morning I turned on the television and I saw ESPN - bottom ticker said breaking news: Coach Beilein accepted a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"So I was like, "Whoa." That caught me by surprise. My wife looked at me - because during that time I was prepping to interview for the Minnesota Timberwolves head coaching position - and she was like, 'What are your thoughts?' And I was like 'Well, it's a shocker. I'm disappointed Coach Beilein left, but that's interesting.'

"So then they called me up for an interview. I said I'll definitely listen. I'll come in for an interview.

"And here we are."

It didn't take a lot longer than that. Howard says Manuel called and offered him the job the day after his interview. Juwan's first words?

"Wow," he says.

He told his wife and sons. He called Spoelstra to thank him. And then he started sweating. A cold sweat.

"My brain started moving at a rapid pace, thinking about putting together a coaching staff, communicating to current players on the roster, thinking about recruiting, thinking about style of play.

"Yeah. My brain hasn't stopped yet."

___

I ask Howard if he called any of his former Fab Five teammates to tell them the news.

"They all called me!" he said.

As for an eventual reunion - the often-asked question, since all five have never been back to Michigan at the same time - he is, fitting for a new coach, diplomatic.

"I have not thought about when or how - I just know that the guys have been proactive looking at their schedules and when they can come to support the team and support me."

So you think that will happen this year?

"I'm not sure. I'm not sure. That's a very good question. I'm not going to plan or say something like that will happen and then it doesn't there will be disappointment or backlash."

But you've spoken to everybody - Chris Webber included?

"Oh, damn right."

Meanwhile, the real work begins. Howard will no doubt have a learning curve as head coach. It's his first time calling the shots, and nobody slides into that seat without a few squirms to get adjusted.

But he's fine with that. He's already been swimming in the recruiting pool. He says he's only gotten one question about what it was like playing with LeBron James. I ask how often he brings up the Fab Five, and surprisingly, he says, he never does.

"The parents of the kids that I'm recruiting, they know about the Fab Five. I let them mention it. But it's not a part of my selling pitch.

"A lot of the kids don't know who the Fab Five was. Some do - they've watched the documentary. But I don't want to send the wrong message to people, that I'm trying to duplicate everything and do it how we did it with the Fab Five. That's not what's happening here."

Again, he's careful how he comes across. It's part of his DNA.

Michigan head coach Juwan Howard gives directions against Saginaw Valley State during the second half of an NCAA exhibition college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.

Michigan head coach Juwan Howard gives directions against Saginaw Valley State during the second half of an NCAA exhibition college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. (Photo: Paul Sancya, AP)

Howard has driven his wife, Jenine, past the old haunts of his Wolverine student days. He's even taken her to Mr. Spots, a chicken wings and cheesesteaks place that used to be his favorite haunt.

"I still love eating at Mr. Spots," he says. Back in the 90s, fellow students would ask for his autograph. Today, the students still ask for it, but then they want to know how the team is going to do this year.

It's a big chair to fill. Beilein was extraordinarily successful. And anyone who thinks Howard will instantly pick up where Beilein left off doesn't understand the complexities of coaching, recruiting, and building a culture.

But if Howard has his way, he'll be here for the long run. There was a moment, he says, after the press conferences and the congratulations and the endless articles and photos, that he found himself alone in the Crisler Center, looking up at the rafters. And it all started to hit him. He welled up.

Then he went to his new office, and looked at the desk and the nameplate that said "Juwan Howard, Head Coach," and he welled up again.

Then he thought about his grandmother, and how proud she would be, and what she might say, and it all but left him shaking.

"I know she would be in tears if she saw that I got the job at the University of Michigan," he says.

Tears have been an integral part of this journey. Tears of grief. Tears of gratitude. I ask him to look back on this nearly 30-year odyssey, from recruit to player to famous alumni to head coach. This is how he sums it up:

"A beautiful path."

On it goes.

Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com

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