Washington Wizards forward Juwan Howard thinks a lot of people would prefer that he, rather than Chris Webber, had been traded to the Sacramento Kings for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe in May 1998. He realizes that the love Washington fans once had for him has eroded.

Though coaches and opponents recognize him as one of the NBA's better all-around forwards, Howard said his detractors judge him on one thing--his contract. On Tuesday night, when the Wizards open their regular season against the Atlanta Hawks, Howard will be starting the fourth year of a seven-year, $105 million deal that calls for him to be paid $15 million this season.

Because the Wizards have qualified for the playoffs just once since making Howard the fifth overall selection in the 1994 draft and because he is not the team's primary offensive player, Howard said some people think he is an overpaid disappointment.

Howard said he remains undeterred.

"I think a lot of people want Chris here instead of me," he said. "When the trade [with Sacramento] went down, I think a lot of people wanted it to be me. . . . That's their opinion. The organization made a decision to keep me here, and they made a commitment to build the franchise around me. People are entitled to voice their opinion. I'm not out here to be the fan favorite."

Once, Howard was. During his first two seasons with Washington after he left Michigan following his junior season, he was adored.

Fans respected him for continuing to take college courses and quickly earning his degree, which is rare for players who leave school early. His community service was hailed. Plus, he was playing very well. In his second season, when he took center stage after injuries sidelined Webber for all but 15 games, Howard averaged 22.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game and was named to play in the 1996 NBA All-Star Game. After the season, he was voted third-team all-NBA.

He was everyman's Everyman.

Then the Miami Heat came calling. As a free agent in 1996, the Heat signed Howard to a seven-year, $98 million contract. Washington fans were stunned. How could the team let him get away? And maybe Howard didn't love Washington as much as they thought.

The NBA voided Howard's deal with Miami, saying it violated the league's salary-cap rules. Howard returned to Washington $105 million richer and apologetic for leaving in the first place. The marriage between the franchise, fans and Howard had hit a bump, but all seemed forgiven.

Then came a DUI arrest. Howard entered a pretrial safe driving class, which, upon completion, essentially exonerated him. On the court, Webber, Howard's college teammate and close friend, returned to form during the 1996-97 season. Howard's statistics dipped slightly, but Washington made the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. The Chicago Bulls swept Washington in three games in the first round, but the future seemed bright.

From that point, though, Webber--not Howard--captured the team's fans. His flashy game and infectious smile supplanted Howard's blue-collar style, on and off the court.

However, that also broke down. Webber and Howard were named, and later cleared, in a sexual assault case. Webber was arrested and cleared on misdemeanor marijuana charges.

Management decided to move Webber. There was talk that Washington tried to trade Howard, but that his lucrative contract made it impossible. A team source said that is false; if the team had wanted to deal Howard, it could have.

Instead, Webber went to Sacramento.

And in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, the Kings went to the playoffs as Webber had a second-team all-NBA season. He led the league in rebounding with a career-best 13 per game, in addition to averaging 20 points and 2.1 blocked shots per game. Meanwhile, the Wizards went 18-32.

"A lot of people would like to see me leave," Howard said.

Not the Wizards.

"Juwan is a very important part of what we're trying to do with this team," General Manager Wes Unseld said.

Though Webber was terrific last season, one Eastern Conference general manager said the Kings' and Wizards' circumstances likely would have been the same had Howard been traded instead of Webber. The Kings assembled a talented group of players who came together, while the Wizards had too many injuries and too much internal turmoil, including the midseason firing of coach Bernie Bickerstaff, to succeed in the shortened season.

Through it all, even now, Howard has not wavered.

"He's approached things the same way when Webb was here and when Webb was gone," point guard Rod Strickland said. "He works hard and he plays hard. Everything's the same."

Still, Howard feels he has been made the scapegoat for whatever has gone wrong with this team.

"When you lose," he said, "that's when people start to point the finger and they've pointed the finger at me because I'm the one making all the money. I'm the one they expect to carry this team. I'm going to carry the team with my leadership and energy.

"I have to accept a role and my role on this team is to share with all the other players. It's not designed for one individual. Basketball is a team game and in order for us to win, we have to win as a team. One person can't get the job done. I can't be the Michael Jordan; I can't be the Superman with the way our team is designed.

"I provide offense when I'm asked. I provide defense. I'm a playmaker when double teams come to me. I'm the guy who provides leadership on the floor, and I provide that workmanlike attitude and approach every night, like I've done ever since I've been here. I'm going to bring 110 percent, nothing more, nothing less."

The Wizards' new coach, Gar Heard, backs up Howard. The forward will not be the first scoring option much of the season. There are occasions when he will be the fourth, behind Richmond, Strickland and center Ike Austin.

"Everyone has to be involved, and everybody has to sacrifice," Richmond said. "You might have a quick shot that you think is good, but somebody might have a better one."

Added Heard: "People look at Juwan's contract and try to put him in the Michael Jordan category. You can't do that. Juwan is a solid player. You can't expect Juwan to get you 30 points every night. That's not his game. He does so many things that don't show up on the stat sheet that are crucial.

"Players don't have to be flashy to be good. Tim Duncan is a prime example of that. . . . Juwan's numbers have been real solid over the course of his career, but people don't look at that. They look at the team's success, and if it isn't there they say, 'You're making all this money, why aren't you making the team better?' "

Howard said he is determined to win--for his teammates, not himself or the public. So far, he's shown signs of accelerating his game. After missing the final 14 games of last season with a sprained left ankle, Howard was the only starter to make it through every practice, scrimmage and game this preseason.

He has shown an intense zeal to get rebounds, and he has been patient in getting acclimated to Heard's new system instead of trying to dominate. With Austin, Washington's first true center in three seasons, Heard said teams will not be able to smother Howard and his game will blossom.

"A lot of good things can happen for him this season," Heard said.

As far as his relationship with fans and the community, Howard said he will not stop being himself, no matter how heavily he is cheered or booed.

"My job is to go out and help this team win," he said. "I'm a people person. I love to help out. I do a lot of charitable work around the city and for the organization because I care. I came from a less fortunate family. I'm not going to try and come out and do anything extra to win people's love back for me. They're entitled to dislike me or like me.

"I'm not going to allow those things to affect my play out on the court. I'm not going to allow those things to affect me as a person. I know the people who really love me: My family and my friends who I grew up with. Those are people who have true love; those are the people who I love--them and my teammates.

"If we start winning, that love is going to come back quickly. When you're winning, everybody loves you. Fans, the whole city gets excited. When you lose. . . . I've been through it here. It's tough. . . . Our day is coming. We're about to turn it around."