Not long ago at all, Juwan Howard was beloved here in Washington. He was cheered virtually everywhere he went, lauded in the city's churches, held up as an example to the local schoolchildren.
Today, Juwan Howard is booed in his home gym, cursed as a matter of course at MCI Center. The people who pay to watch the Wizards scream that he should be traded, that they wish he'd gone to Miami in the summer of 1996. The taunting is so mean, Howard said Tuesday night, "I don't even want my family and friends to come to the home games. . . . I don't want them to come and end up in a fight in the stands because of what somebody is saying about me."
Tuesday night, after another home loss, Coach Gar Heard called his team "soft." Everybody was booed, but especially Howard. A man sitting in the designated family section threatened to throw ice at Howard after Howard made a mistake. An hour after the game, I asked Howard to think back to the spring of 1996, when he was enjoying a love affair with D.C. "No way did I ever foresee that things would change like they have," he said. "No way."
There's essentially only one question to ask: What happened?
Likewise, there's essentially only one answer: Money happened.
A new deal in 1996 took him from about $4 million a year to about $15 million per season. At $4 million, he was a bargain. At $15 million, people expect a franchise player, and Howard isn't that. You know the other guys who are making or have made $15 million or more in a season? Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett. David Robinson was close a couple of years ago. All were--or are--franchise players. Howard has been an all-star once, in 1996, when he averaged a career-high 22 points just as he was about to become a free agent.
There were circumstances: Chris Webber was hurt much of that season, making Howard the team's primary scorer. Salaries, in that old NBA marketplace, skyrocketed for the free agent class of '96. The Bullets hadn't anticipated any of that when they refused to lock him up as a rookie for six years at a total of $24 million. Management, thinking it was playing hardball at the time, made an $80 million miscalculation. Now, under a new league-union agreement, not many folks are in Howard's salary neighborhood. It's tough to trade a guy making more than $15 million. It's tough to acquire top talent, especially for a club as unresourceful as the Wizards, when so much of your salary cap is tied up on a complementary player. So Howard hears the boos, and they are personal.
"It's got to be the money," Howard said. "What else could it be?"
Reminded that he could be in the last year of a $24 million contract instead of the fourth year of a deal worth more than $100 million, Howard said: "That's true. But you know what? I'm not giving one penny of it back."
The easy position to take is that the booing is a direct result of Howard playing poorly. Sure enough, he hasn't been what he was when the love affair began. He has averaged 19.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 48.2 percent shooting per game over his five-year career. This season: 13.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 43.7 percent. There is no way, no how, that these numbers add up to $15 million. But the booing didn't just start; the hecklers were in full voice last season when Howard averaged 19 points, 8.1 rebounds and shot 47.4 percent. This year's statistical drop-off simply justifies in the minds of the boo-birds the resentment they were already feeling.
"Look, I know my numbers are down," Howard said. "I've never averaged 4.8 rebounds in my life. If I played power forward, I wouldn't be now. But the coach is asking me to play small forward. I've never complained about it, but since you're asking me, I'll say it: I'm not a natural small forward. But I'm willing to do whatever the coaches ask. I have to adjust to a different role, and I'm trying as hard as I can. But if my role isn't the same, why do people expect the same statistics?"
The worst of the boo-birds scream that Howard is a slacker. Howard and Heard have their differences, to be sure. But Heard saw how impressive Howard was his first three years in the NBA, how much Howard cared, how hard he worked to overcome certain limitations. So, the question was put to Heard late Tuesday: Is Howard's effort satisfactory to you? "Yes, absolutely," Heard said. "He tries extra hard, perhaps too hard. He says it doesn't bother him, but it does. People look at his contract and they say, 'He's got to give you 25 a night to justify what he's making.' That's not what I expect. If he can give us 18 points or so a night and rebound the ball [as he did earlier in his career], that's fine. People want him to be a guy who can carry the whole team, night after night. But that's not his game. But let me say this again: It's not a lack of effort. I think he wants to win them over. He tries so hard."
Howard says of the booing, "I'm not going to let it get to me. I'm going to play harder. I'm not going to wait for positive reinforcement now when I haven't had it for two years."
I know he believes that he can turn a deaf ear, but this has to get to him. Think about who Howard is and how sensitive he is. His first few seasons, he cried on the bench when the Bullets lost critical games. The night Tim Legler suffered a serious knee injury, Howard rushed onto the floor to put a towel under his teammate's head while he was writhing in agony. The secretaries who have worked at Washington Sports have stories about Howard refusing to go home during a snow storm until he first shoveled their cars free. I'm not suggesting Howard's an angel. He's had some public indiscretions that have brought justifiable criticism and censure. But the filth and anger directed at Howard during games is inappropriate on any and every level.
I asked Howard if he stopped doing the community service work he was so dedicated to. Is he still having his winter coat drive? "Yes, next month," he said. "I asked Abe Pollin to be a partner with me in a program I want to call 'Family to Family', where we go door to door in disadvantaged neighborhoods and deliver Christmas gifts. [Pollin agreed.] My friends say, 'Why are you doing anything for people in Washington considering the way they treat you?' I guess I could say, 'To hell with it, I'm going to wait for the end of the season and just go back to Chicago.' But I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to sulk for days and days. And I'm not going to let this destroy me either."