Howard's impact is felt on, off court Uncertain future: Juwan Howard has made an impression on those whose lives he has touched, and on a Bullets team needing a spark. But he will become a free agent after this season.

February 11, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO -- Ask Sandy Walkowe about Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard, and she'll tell you about how one of the nation's most popular college basketball stars walked into her life in December 1992 by befriending her AIDS-stricken son, Randy, who wasn't expected to live to see Christmas.

"He was like my son's big brother. They were best of buddies," said Walkowe, of Tipton, Mich., whose son's spirits were boosted so much by his new friend that he would celebrate Christmas twice more. When Randy was buried in January 1994, was wearing a Michigan jersey with the number 25, Howard's number.

Ask Kyle Hall about Juwan Howard, and he'll tell you the reason he volunteers at a hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., is that the Michigan star did that for him.

"I had a brain tumor, I was going through radiation treatment, my hair was falling out, it was terrible," Hall, 16, recalled. "And he was there for me, a real down-to-earth guy who was just like part of my family. Even today, when he comes back to town, I'll go to the Detroit games and he'll get me in the locker room. He's a great guy."

And ask Chicago Vocational High School coach Dick Cook about Juwan Howard, and he'll tell you about a young man who was always striving to be better.

Always.

"He was dedicated, he was goal-oriented, and he had a lot of pride," Cook said. "Any time things weren't going well for our team, all I had to do was to go to Juwan and tell him 'That guy's outplaying you.' And things would change. Juwan never wanted to be outplayed."

There are players in the NBA who can out-jump Howard. Players who are faster, and can shoot better. But in just a year and a half in the league, it's been a rare occasion where someone has flat-out outplayed him.

Which is why Howard is here this weekend, selected as one of the top 24 players in the game as a member of the Eastern Conference All-Star team.

"I never thought I would be here in my second year in the league," said Howard, averaging 20.2 points a game. "But I'll say this: I'm going to stop being so modest. I worked all summer to prepare myself to be one of the best players in the league. And I've done it."

And Howard will get paid for it. Handsomely. Howard said he will exercise the two-year out clause in his contract at the end of the season, thus becoming an unrestricted free agent. For a team to say it will go after Howard at the end of the season would be tampering. But New York, Detroit and Miami reportedly are interested.

"I've enjoyed playing for the Washington Bullets," Howard said. "But I understand this is a business and you have to take care of yourself first. The Bullets are going to have to step up to the table. Whatever happens, happens."

Back to Michigan?

If it happens that Howard winds up in a Pistons uniform, it will be to the delight of people who were deeply touched during his three years at Michigan. When Howard made hospital visits as part of the From The Heart program in Ann Arbor, it went well beyond a token appearance. Howard would often walk away with a good friend.

Which was the case with Randy Walkowe, who was 11 years old and weighed 35 pounds when he met Howard. Because Randy had AIDS, acquired from a blood transfusion, he was shunned by other kids. His popularity and his spirits soared when suddenly one of the Fab Five was his good buddy. Randy even got to see Michigan in the Final Four in New Orleans.

"Here was this superstar player, and Randy could call him on the phone whenever he wanted, and Juwan would always come to the hospital to see him," Sandy Walkowe said. "He gave Randy something to live for.

"I really think Juwan was a reason why he hung on for as long as he did," she added. "When Randy died, Juwan came up to me and said, 'Sandy, don't worry, my grandma is going to take care of Randy now.' "

Ask Howard about his good-natured ways and he credits his grandmother, Jannie Mae Howard, who raised him in Chicago. She passed away in 1991, the day Howard became the first member of the Fab Five by signing a letter of intent with Michigan.

"My grandmother was an inspiration with me with the way she cared for others," Howard said. "I love kids, and with Randy he was just a great kid and a good friend of mine. I didn't know I had that much of an impact on his staying alive that long."

He also made a special impact on Hall.

"I looked at what he gave to me," Hall said. "And I wanted to give that back."

Hall's mother, Karen McDonald, is amazed how Howard -- even with his NBA status -- stays in contact with her son.

"He's really community- based, he's socially conscious," McDonald said. "He's a class act."

No unfinished business

He has always taken care of business. Off the court, Howard, despite declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft after his junior year, was taking correspondence classes and was able to graduate with his class on time.

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