By Mitch Albom
NEW ORLEANS -- When tonight's game is over, and the Michigan kids look anxiously for their parents in the tunnel, the way most college players do, Juwan Howard will be alone for one hurtful moment. He was raised by his grandmother. She died the day he committed to Michigan. So when his teammates share their joy, or seek parental comfort, when they hug their mothers and fathers, Howard will close his eyes and pretend he's hugging his Grandma.
"Just because I'm here, and she's there in heaven, doesn't mean we can't do the same thing as these guys."
Juwan Howard, all 6 foot 9 inches of his polite, grinning self, is in the middle of these remarkable Wolverines, who have gone from boys to men in front of their world. He is in the middle of it, but he is also at the start of it. He was the first to commit. The initial card in what many call the best recruiting hand in the history of college basketball.
So it is fitting that tonight, on the cliff of this team's destiny, Howard steps to the front. He will draw much of the work on North Carolina's Eric Montross, the 7-foot giant who stands tallest in the way of the Fab Five dream. Howard will bang him. He will try to score over him. He will be crucial.
But then, Juwan Howard has always been crucial.
"Without Juwan, I don't know how many of our players would have ended up here," Steve Fisher, the U-M coach, admits. "He was the first. He was the drawing card. Kids today want to play with other great players, and when we got Juwan, we got the first great player."
That he committed early, that he told Fisher he was coming in the fall of his senior year, only made Michigan's task easier. The magnet force that would become the Fab Five began to exert its pull:
Jimmy King, the star guard who had shared his official campus visit with Howard -- and had become friends with him, had even talked about being roommates -- heard the news of Howard's commitment. Then the phone rang.
"Hey roommate," Howard began, "it's your turn. . . ."
Soon King was in the fold. And Ray Jackson, who, like King, was a Texas recruit, was impressed that Michigan was getting another Lone Star plum. Before you knew it, Ray was phoning in his acceptance.
That alone -- Howard, King and Jackson -- would have been some impressive recruiting year. But when Chris Webber and Jalen Rose -- who were best friends and wanted to play together -- saw the terrific cast already headed to Michigan, with just two slots open, power forward and point guard, well, let's just say the saliva was flowing.
Presto! Fab Five.
"We owe Juwan," Fisher admits, "more than we can say." A long way
And not just because he was great basketball flypaper. No. Juwan Howard is one of those guests who honors your table. A fiercely polite, labor-intensive,
child-loving, seen-the-real- world-and-survived-it basketball player. That he was the best in the country at his position in high school is almost too good to dream. Especially considering his roots:
Howard lived in several Chicago projects with his grandmother and aunts. Today, one of those buildings is condemned. The others are not far behind. Howard's high school career was nurtured in a gym where the heater was often broken, and practice was periodically canceled due to cold weather. Basketball practice? Due to weather?
"Sometimes I think of where I come from, and then I look around at 62,000 people in the Superdome cheering for us, and man, it's unbelievable," Howard says. "I think, 'Michigan has done all that for me.' "
And, oh, what he has done for Michigan! From the day he arrived, Howard lived up to his shadow. He started his first game as a freshman. He played with vigor and intelligence, albeit with young nerves. He would come to practice early -- not all the Fab Five are like this, believe me -- and work on low-post moves, and turnaround jump shots. Last summer, he spent five days a week on heavy workouts, followed by basketball, shooting as many as 500 shots after weight training.
The result is the most improved player on the Wolverines, a guy who you now expect to make the big play, a guy whose form is so pure, you can look at him two seconds after the shot and he still has his hands in the follow-through position. He studies his physiology. He analyzes his stroke. When he misses a shot, "I know exactly what I did wrong, and if I don't, I ask." In Saturday's nail-biter semifinal against Kentucky, Howard did countless little things right: dribbling to break the press, squaring up before releasing a difficult shot, boxing out Jamal Mashburn on a loose ball until a U-M teammate could grab it.
Fundamentals. Court smarts. You can't buy that kind of value.
Oh, yeah. He also had 17 points.
"Juwan came up big," Fisher says.
He has a certain smile when he says it. New family
Three days after committing to Michigan, Howard was at his grandmother's funeral. His world was torn apart. Everything he knew, everything he had been taught, the woman who had kissed him and scolded him and ironed his shirts and called him "Nookie," was gone. At one point during the service, Juwan looked up and saw Fisher, his wife, Angie, and Brian Dutcher, a U-M assistant coach. The importance of that cannot be diminished.
"It was like I lost one family, and I got another one," he said.
And from that moment forward, he brought a dinner table feeling to this very diverse team. Jalen Rose may provoke them more and Chris Webber may inspire them more and Jimmy King may impress them more and Ray Jackson may amuse them more, but nobody loves the Wolverines more than Juwan Howard.
"These guys are like my brothers," he says. Often it is Howard, after a time-out or free throw, who calls the team together, his long arms up until they enter his tent. They talk, they rededicate themselves. They go on.
There are a lot of great stories tonight, the best Monday night in sports. And a lot of hearts on the line. But Juwan Howard is a special case: He is all that is right about college athletics, a guy who used his gift to rise above his circumstances, who used his scholarship to elevate his mind, who used the love of teammates to mend a broken heart.
If these kids indeed cut the nets down this evening -- national champions, the Michigan Wolverines -- I can think of only one thing they should do strictly out of protocol: They should let Juwan Howard go first.
He did it once, and look how things worked out.
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