Juwan Howard Reminisces About the Good Ol’ Bullets Days | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Juwan Howard Reminisces About the Good Ol’ Bullets Days

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Updated: June 10, 2016

TAI’s Adam Rubin (@LedellsPlace) spoke with Juwan Howard as part of a series of exclusive interviews with former Washington Bullets players and coaches for a retrospective on the 1996-97 team. You can read the two-part retrospective here (Part IPart II). Below is a lightly-edited transcript of Howard’s interview.

howard_you da man

[Juwan Howard and Chris Webber perform in the classic “You Da Man” video.]

JUWAN HOWARD CALLED from the American Airlines Arena after finishing a workout in Miami last fall. “Tell me about your project.” I told him what I told the Heat PR guy who arranged the call: I am writing a feature on the 1996-97 Washington Bullets team that he, Chris Webber and Rod Strickland led to the playoffs against Chicago, the franchise’s only trip to the playoffs during a 17-year span from 1988 to 2005.

“How old are you?” Howard asked, wondering why someone was inquiring about a season from so long ago. Thirty-seven. “Oh yeah, so we are about the same age.” I explained that I was at the Capital Centre all those nights in the 90s and, for an entire generation of Washington fans, that Bullets team—featuring Webber, Howard, Strickland, Gheorghe Muresan, Tracy Murray, Calbert Cheaney, Harvey Grant and Chris Whitney—was the franchise’s greatest of the past 35 years.


Read the two-part series on the 1996-97 Washington Bullets here: PART IPART II


What follows are lightly edited excerpts from our conversation.

[In the summer of 1996, after being named an All-Star in his sophomore season, Howard signed with the Miami Heat as a free agent. The contract was later voided by then-commissioner David Stern and Howard returned to the Bullets.]

How did you feel coming back to Washington after your Miami Heat contract was voided?

I was very happy about signing back with Washington, because I felt that our youth and our talent level was good enough to be an elite team. I thought we had a bright future ahead if we kept that roster together, so signing back was a pivotal moment. I also enjoyed living in the Washington, D.C., area and I felt like we had a very good fan base there that would give us their support that we needed—and add to that they already had us excited about the buzz of the new [stadium], so I thought it was a perfect match. I was pumped and very excited about the new team and new opportunity for the Wizards.

Two days after you signed with Miami, Washington traded Rasheed Wallace for Rod Strickland. Were you still paying attention to the team? What were your thoughts on the trade?

I always respect the organizations decision, whatever they think will help impact the roster, and get the guys that give us the best chance to win, so when they made the Rasheed trade for Rod Strickland I had mixed emotions about it. I enjoyed playing with [Rasheed] because Webber was out with an injury (in Rasheed’s rookie season), so it was mainly me, Rasheed and Gheorghe Muresan on the front line. We developed a level of chemistry and I felt his talent level was very elite and unique in the way he complemented me, because Rasheed was more of an outside shooter who could knock down a 3.

sheed

At that time, we wasn’t really having the stretch 4s or stretch 5s, but he could have played the 4 or the 5. He was still very, very young. I think they traded him right after his rookie season. But then when we traded him for Rod Strickland. Rod was a special, unique point guard that came from the West Coast and played with some of the best NBA ball players that came through Portland. He had a ton of experience and was a stat sheet filler. The guy can score, he can rebound, he’s very smart, crafty, he’s a point guard with a high basketball IQ, so I thought it was a great trade to make in the sense that you lose a great quality player but you gain another. That’s why I had mixed emotions about it but it ended up working where we made the playoffs the next season, I believe. That’s when we had Bernie Bickerstaff as our coach. They let go coach Lynam right before the all-star break.

Was there a sense of frustration within the team when Jim Lynam was let go before the All-Star break?

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No. I can’t recall exactly what the temperature was like with the organization and also what the fan base and media, as far as what they were saying about our team underachieving or not, but for a team to make a change like that mid-season, you can basically see they thought a new voice and a fresh voice would be something that would be needed for our team and our roster. Webber being healthy, I remember there were rumbles saying that people thought him and I and Gheorghe Muresan—it would be a little too much and how can it work but we found ways to make it work.

[Rod Strickland said that he struggled to adjust to playing alongside Chris Webber and Juwan Howard because they were so good at initiating the offense and Rod was not used to playing off the ball.] Did you notice a learning curve for Strickland?

I never recalled any frustration from Rod’s part. Because Rod was the ultimate teammate, he never was a guy who felt had any type of problem or saw any type of discomfort with the way me and Webber played. Yeah, he is right, we both—Webber and I—we are so used to handling the basketball. That dates back to our days when we were in college. If we get the ball off the rebound we were always encouraged to—if you don’t see a big in front of you—push the ball up and make a play. And coaching staff trusted us when we were at the University of Michigan.


 “You are not used to seeing bigs like ourselves, 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10, handle the basketball and that was like a treat to us. We were like a kid in a candy store.”

—Juwan Howard on the joy of playing alongside Webber


So when we got to the NBA, now you talk about a different style of play where it is more open floor, one-on-one, and you are not used to seeing bigs like ourselves, 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10, handle the basketball and that was like a treat to us. We were like a kid in a candy store. Now we have a coach like Lynam who encouraged us to push the ball up the floor—yeah, we just made sure that when we did have the ball in our hands we didn’t make too many mistakes and made the right play. But I can see how a point guard like Rod wants to have the ball in his hands, because he makes excellent decisions and he always has proven that throughout his career. But I never had a problem with the ball being in Rod’s hands because I knew and I trusted that he would make the right play for us all.

Rod wasn’t necessarily frustrated, he just needed to figure out how best to adapt his game. Rod said it was great once he got a little more comfortable.

Yeah, a point guard of his caliber, hey, I would want the ball in my hands too.

[Rod Strickland said Howard and Webber set the tone for the team and they were “confident dudes” from their ‘Fab Five’ days.]

howard_fabfive

How confident were you entering your first playoff series against the NBA Champion Chicago Bulls? 

For me, I had two years’ experience. Webber had three years’ experience because he left a year early. So, when we had an opportunity to play the Bulls in the playoffs, I never felt nervous. I was never intimidated by the fact that we were playing against the world champions and they have a lineup like Scottie, Michael, Horace—not Horace—Dennis Rodman, and a few others.

They had Kukoc coming off the bench and Luc Longley.

Exactly, so normally when you get a guy fresh out of college you’d be a little intimidated and here you are playing against supposedly one of the best players ever to play the game of basketball and you are playing against the world champion Chicago Bulls team with a ton of NBA playoff experience. This is Webber’s second time playing in the playoffs and my first time playing in the playoffs but I never felt any butterflies, I felt like it was any normal game. I knew that it was more high intensity. I knew the level of play would be a lot different than it is in the regular season, but then going back to play in Chicago where I grew up I never felt nervous. I felt this was a chance to go out and try to knock off the world champions.

howard_rodman_3

So, I think our mindset and our approach to the game was at an all-time high where we felt confident we can beat them. I think we were probably the only people that thought we can beat them. The rest of the world felt that Chicago was going to run right through us. Sure enough, they swept us 3-0 in the series but I think that was a time when we made our name and people felt that ‘Hey, this team has a future.’ Michael Jordan said it himself, that this young team has a chance to be special if they just all stay together.

I was going to ask about going back to Chicago for your first playoff experience but it sounds like you were comfortable, you weren’t in awe.

No. I was not in awe at all. Whatsoever. I remember that like it was yesterday.

Washington lost the first two games of the series in Chicago, but the games were close. Do you remember what the atmosphere was like for Game 3 when you came back to Washington?

I’m getting chills right now as we speak when you ask me that question. I recall when we got back home, I had never heard the Capital Centre that loud in my life. I had no idea that the fan-base would be so excited and behind us, supporting us the way they did, and it felt so special because here we had a city rallied behind us and believed in us and supported us. I was pumped for that game. I had some butterflies because the building was packed, the fans were rowdy, the towels were waving around, and that game went down to the wire. It went back and forth. And Scottie Pippen got a backdoor cut to the basket, scored a layup, well, he tried to dunk the ball and got fouled, the ball bounced up high and bounced right in.

The play everyone remembers is Scottie Pippen’s game-winning dunk. Do you remember your emotions when that happened?

Yeah, I remember that play. I thought that we were going to have an opportunity to seal the game with a victory and for a freak play like that to happen it was deflating. There you see we are about to get a stop. They were having a hard time getting the ball in the situation and I think we doubled MJ and it so happened he got—the ball got loose—and Pippen back-door cut, the pass goes to Pippen, and the low man rotation was a little late stopping Pippen from scoring the basket. I think at that time it was Horace Grant was in the game—I mean not Horace—Harvey Grant was in the game and Harvey tried to contest the shot and Scottie went up trying to make a strong basket finish, tried to dunk it, but Scottie got fouled, he fell on his back and the ball bounced up and went in. That’s how I remember that play.

Tracy Murray actually says it was his fault. You were covering Pippen when the ball went in the air. Pippen caught the ball while you were watching Jordan and Murray felt he was a little late in rotating over.

Aw, so Murray was late. I thought it was [Harvey] Grant.

Murray was late to get to Pippen initially, then Pippen drove baseline and Grant was a little late coming to protect the rim as well. It was a loose ball situation so everyone was scrambling.

Freak play, yeah.

A few years ago, Chris Webber told a story about you walking off the team bus before one of the playoff games and seeing Michael Jordan sitting on his car with a lit cigar. Do you remember that?

No, I don’t remember that happening, MJ smoking a cigar when we were getting off the bus. I don’t think MJ ever approached a game like that. I’d be surprised. That’s a question you got to ask MJ.

Webber could be mixing up his memory.

[laughs] Right.

Jordan anointed the Bullets the team of the future. How far did you think that team could go? Could you actually bring championships to D.C.?  What were your thoughts in terms of your future here?

At that age, I was maybe 24, 25 years old, and some would call me naïve but I truly felt in my heart that we had a chance to someday win a title, or titles, with that team. I really loved our roster. I thought we had a bunch of talent on that roster. Also, we had guys that were willing to sacrifice their roles for the team. I thought we had a team that got along very well with one another. We had a little bit of experience, youth, so I thought we were good in that area. I also thought our coach was the right coach, a very good coach with a ton of experience, did a great job of relating to us, putting us in the best position to win night in and night out.

I just wish that the organization would have been a little bit more patient with that team. And I think, also, as a player on the roster, I think we could have done a better job of being a little bit more professional—and that’s me included—on what we did on and off the floor to prepare us to help us win ballgames. I think that team had a chance to be special and I look back on it. I miss playing on that team. I thought that was one of the best highlight moments of my career and I will always cherish those moments.

Is that something the “veteran Juwan Howard” would go back and tell the younger version of you—a different way to approach the game? Is that something you learn after being in the league for so many years?

That’s something that you definitely learn. What I know now having played 19 years in the NBA, I wish I would have known when I was younger when I played 2, 3 years, 4 years, 5 years experience in the NBA. You get older and it’s true, and I’ve heard it from veterans, as you gain more years in the league you get wiser and I think that sums it up in a nutshell.

[Chris Webber was traded to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe on May 14, 1998.]

Do you remember, were you surprised or shocked when it happened? Do you remember when you heard the news you were being broken up?

I don’t recall where I was, but I was very disappointed that we traded Webber to Sacramento because that was a big blow to our team. You know, a 20-10 guy is gone, you know, every night consistently, young, athletic talent, special talent. We would no longer have on our roster. It’s hard to replace something like that.

What was Webber’s response to the trade?

Looking back on it he was not too excited about going to Sacramento. He wanted to stay in Washington. He loved playing for the Washington Wizards and enjoyed living in the city and the fans there loved him. So, it was hard for him.

howard_webber96

[Source – Getty Images – Rocky Widner.]

As you look back on your time in Washington how does that rate in your career? What are the first things you think about when you look back at your time in D.C.?

First thing I think about is playing with Chris Webber. A guy who I played with, two years college basketball with, and now having an opportunity to play at the NBA level with a guy that I’ve known since high school. That will always be a highlight of my career. That will always be a highlight moment when I think about playing for the Washington Wizards.

You said at the time you might have been naïve when you thought you could win a title in Washington. Do you have a different perspective now after being a coach and player in the league for so long?

What I told you that’s exactly how I feel to this day. That’s exactly how I feel about that team. We had a chance to do something special. That team would have been maybe mentioned as one of the elite teams and an NBA champion. We had a chance to have a banner hung up in that arena.

Bernie Bickerstaff said he sometimes talks to Mike Fratello [former Cleveland Cavs coach] and Michael Jordan about the 1996-97 season. Do you ever reminisce?

I always talk to Chris Whitney,because he works for the Charlotte Hornets and every now and then we’ll mention that Washington team. All those years we played together and how we enjoyed playing with one another.

[Howard’s tenure in Washington ended on February 22, 2001 when he was traded by new president of basketball operations Michael Jordan to the Dallas Mavericks for Christian Laettner, Courtney Alexander. Hubert Davis, Etan Thomas and Loy Vaught.]

How did it feel to have Michael Jordan come to D.C. and trade you?

I knew it was a business, so it wasn’t any dissension. I knew Michael was trying to do what was best to help his team and what was best for the team moving forward.

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Adam Rubin
Reporter / Writer at TAI
Adam grew up in the D.C. area and has been a Washington Bullets fan for over 25 years. He will not refer to the franchise as anything other than the Bullets unless required to do so by Truth About It editorial standards. Adam spent many nights at the Capital Centre in the ‘90s where he witnessed such things as Michael Jordan’s “LaBradford Smith game,” the inexcusable under-usage of Gheorghe Muresan’s unstoppable post moves, and the basketball stylings of Ledell Eackles.