Cardboard Bullets: Juwan Howard, the original $100 million man
To dunk, Juwan Howard had to make his body as straight as possible
and daintily place his off hand to his side.
More Cardboard Bullets are below, but first, please read the story of Juwan.
Last Sunday marked the 13th anniversary of Juwan Howard’s first ever NBA playoff game. Yes, that Juwan Howard, and the appearance was with those Washington Bullets, who were bounced from the 1997 playoffs in three games by the cigar-smoking Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls
Hard to believe Howard is still playing in the current NBA Playoffs. And despite 1,116 career regular season NBA games, he’s only appeared in 28 total playoff games and is set to appear in number 29 with the Portland Trailblazers tomorrow night.
Howard’s tenure in Washington was memorable, but forgettable. Taken fifth in the 1994 NBA Draft, his first year happened just before the NBA’s rookie contract scale was implemented in 1995, partially due to Howard, but mostly due to ’94 top pick Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson and his $100 million holdout demands.
Negotiations in the NBA then were more like the NFL is now, where rookies are essentially slotted between what the picks before and after them are making. But Bullets owner Abe Pollin, along with then-GM John Nash, wanted to play hardball. Also, Nash, on several occasions after picking Howard, made public that he would have rather had Jason Kidd. Not smooth for team-player relations, John-boy.
Howard’s agent, David Falk, initially asked for a 6-year, $24 million deal. The Bullets publicly stood firm with an offer of 10-years, $30.7 million, which would’ve paid Howard less in the first year of the contract than what the sixth pick, Philadelphia’s Sharone Wright, was making in the first year of his reported 6-year, $18 million contract.
The big sticking point was that the Bullets only had $1.309 available to sign Howard under the salary cap for 1994-95. So Falk offered to restructure the contracts of two other clients on the Bullets, guards Calbert Cheaney and Rex Chapman. Somewhat understandably, Pollin wasn’t willing to take that option, which would’ve meant extending the terms of both. The oft-injured Chapman only appeared in 120 games over the previous two seasons with Washington and in total, missed over 150 games spanning the first six seasons of his NBA career. Falk staunchly fought for Howard to be paid within his draft slot and turned the ordeal into a matter of the team disrespecting Howard, which certainly had an effect on the young player and was detrimental to discussion table.
Down the road, Falk would tell the New York Times that the Bullets “stripped Juwan of his dignity” during the process. Quite a piece of hyperbole when talking about a young millionaire, but you really wouldn’t expect much less from a character of Falk’s caliber.
Negotiations broke down, emotions ran high, tears were shed (by Howard at Pollin’s home), and feelings were hurt. With Howard being one of two 1994 first round picks who remained unsigned at one point, the Bullets upped their offer to 11-years, $36.6 million with an option that could’ve made the contract $41.6 million over 12 years. That was rejected. Eventually, the two sides reluctantly agreed to an 11-year, $36.6 million deal where Howard would have an opt-out clause after two seasons. The Wizards avoided restructuring around the salary cap, but strained relationships arose in the process. Fans should be very thankful that the rookie contract scale was created.
Once in uniform, and after a brief slow start out the gate, Howard quickly found fans in the Washington. He averaged 17 points and 8.4 boards and made the NBA All-Rookie second team. That love soon culminated when in just his second season, Howard was selected as an NBA All-Star reserve, his only career A.S. appearance. The nod was partially the result of Chris Webber only appearing in 15 games that season, thus opening up opportunity, but it was mostly due to Howard simply being a hard-nosed, blue-collar worker.
During the summer of 1996, boosted by the All-Star appearance and sophomore per game averages of 22.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists, Howard opted-out of his contract and was signed by Pat Riley and the Miami Heat to a $101 million contract, becoming the NBA’s first nine-figure player. Howard was slated to earn more than the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.
Bullets fans were devastated, surely thinking they were cursed to lose a budding star in such a manner. Of course, all of this occurred after Howard—prodded by his agent—once again felt low-balled by the team.
“Juwan was theirs to lose,” Falk once said, referring to the Bullets. And they lost him … so it seemed. In initial negotiations with the Bullets, Falk felt his client was worth $15-20 million a year. One of Washington’s first offers was for only $11.2 million per season.
With Howard all but parading down South Beach as a member of the Heat, the NBA found that his contract violated salary caps rules. Part of the league’s stance was that Miami had reached an “agreement in principle” with Alonzo Mourning before signing Howard, and that they also did not account for contract incentive bonuses for Tim Hardaway and P.J. Brown, although it seemed that both players were signed after Miami signed Howard.
Riley publicly disputed that he broke the rules, and even filed a temporary injunction in the Dade County Circuit Court to prevent Howard from signing with another team in the interim. But, Riley eventually dropped his fight because of the potential penalty of being suspended for a year and incurring a $5 million fine from the league should the contested matter have gone to arbitration and the Heat lost.
The end result was that the NBA declared Howard a free-agent, and he re-signed with the Wizards for a cool $105 million over seven years.
Riley was mostly upset by the league, once telling ESPN, ”I spent the weekend at my proctologist’s trying to remove the N.B.A.’s 17-foot pole out of my rear end.” But Riley was also upset at Falk and his FAME (Falk Associates Management Enterprises) conglomerate, who also represented Alonzo Mourning. From FAME’s perspective, they were just doing their job. Essentially Falk ended up leveraging Riley and the Heat to get more money for Howard, who was believed to prefer playing in Washington the whole time, alongside his buddy Chris Webber. Webber was sent to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe two years later, the worst trade in Washington franchise history.
Falk, and his partner Curtis Polk, were also able to stick it to Abe Pollin, gouging him for more money than for what Miami had initially signed Howard. But even though he paid dearly, Pollin benefited from the NBA’s ruling, i.e., his friend David Stern. The Bullets franchise took a lot of heat, no pun intended, for initially letting Howard walk. It was a public relations debacle Pollin could ill-afford as he prepared to change the team’s name and move to a downtown Washington arena. Stern essentially allowed Pollin a second chance to retain his star player, much to the chagrin of Riley, clearly. Although, history shows that Stern actually did Riley a favor.
The whole ordeal wasn’t the first time there were difficulties involving Falk and Pollin, nor the last. Falk, by the way, achieved much of his fame as Michael Jordan’s agent. In 2003, when Pollin fired Jordan from the Wizards, Falk vowed to never return to a game as long as Abe owned the team. It took the fifth home game after Pollin’s death for Falk to show up in the Verizon Center.
Of course, Pollin might not have been in such a position with Howard in the first place had he and Nash not played hardball during Howard’s rookie contract negotiations. Nash, who was very underwhelming in his time as GM, should also be blamed for putting the team in such a financially handcuffed position under the salary cap. What would he have done had his dream selection of Jason Kidd fell to fifth?
The rest of Howard’s story is pretty simple. He failed to live up to the expectations of a $100 million player (remind you of a certain agent formerly known as ‘Zero’?) due to a combination of missed games from injury and declining numbers. His PER dropped from 17.0 in year two to 16.1 in 1996-97, to 15.2 in 1997-98, jumped back up to 17.1 in 1998-99—but he only played 36 games—and plummeted to 12.3 in 1999-00. Perhaps most significantly, some fans began to despise Howard and his $100 million because the Bullets played a crappy brand of basketball, which wasn’t completely Juwan’s fault, but fans always need a direction to aim the resulting scorn from losing.
Howard did, however, do his part with increasingly disinterested play—or maybe he just wasn’t basketball star material in the first place. Oh, and the memory of a DUI (December 1996) and sexual assault charge (April 1998) also stuck in the minds of fans. Although, the sexual assault charge was later found to be false. Montgomery County Circuit Judge Durke G. Thompson awarded Howard $100,000 in punitive damages, even though he only sought a single dollar from the accusing woman.
Also, for signing Howard to that $105 million contract, after signing free-agents Tracy Murray and Lorenzo Williams—renouncing the rights to Howard in order to do so—the Bullets had to forfeit their first round pick in the 1997 draft, which would have been pick No. 17. Riley thought the pick should be given to the Heat, but the NBA decided to have one less pick in the draft that year.
Ironically, it was Michael Jordan, in perhaps his best move as team president, who was able to rid the Wizards of Howard and the two years, $36 million remaining on his contract after the 2000-01 season in a February ’01 trade deadline deal with the Dallas Mavericks.
Wizards fans continued to boo Howard every time he returned to town afterward, up until the past handful of seasons when most had forgotten about the past, or just ceased to care.
And that’s the story of Juwan Howard. Perhaps not a curse, as I don’t buy into all that bull-hockey, but the franchise sure hasn’t had luck with $100 million players. Such blemish-filled stories is why long-time fans of the team are so excited for a change in ownership, one that will no longer screw up negotiations with emotion over sensibility, as the former regime seemed to do so often. On the other hand, you can also see how the NBA has progressed in a positive direction with revised Collective Bargaining Agreements over the years.
My favorite quote from Howard pertaining to the Washington NBA franchise that I came across in my research for this piece—which always becomes an extravagant affair no matter how brief I intend to be—comes from a 1996 Sports Illustrated profile of Howard titled, “Cleaning Up: Juwan Howard, a do-everything forward the Bullets resignedly drafted, is wiping out his NBA opponents”:
On a team known for its persistent bad luck, [Howard] has made it clear that the past doesn’t matter to him. “This is the ’90s now,” he says with a smile.
Fans of the franchise continue to smile, but mostly to keep from crying.
Now, Cardboard Bullets:
Juwan was pretty chiseled coming out of Michigan.
Here, Howard is probably worried about free-agency or something.
Magic Johnson once held a Juwan Howard card on the back of a Juwan Howard card.
Likely one of the most awkward basketball card poses ever.
This is Juwan at one of the psychedelic parties he and Chris Webber used to throw. Not sure why he wore his uniform though.
- “The Big Man Can Deal,” New York Times – Nov. 17, 1999 – by Lynn Hirschberg.
- “Cleaning Up: Juwan Howard, a do-everything forward the Bullets resignedly drafted, is wiping out his NBA opponents,” Sports Illustrated – Feb. 26, 1996 – by Johnette Howard.
- “Howard worth price Bullets aren’t,” Baltimore Sun – Nov. 3, 1994 – by Ken Rosenthal.
- “Bullets, Howard split on speaking terms, too,” Baltimore Sun – Oct. 20, 1994 – by Jerry Bembry.