Howard, Washington wrap up season Will loss to Bulls be his last game as Bullet?

April 22, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

LANDOVER -- It was a season that came to an end with 58 seconds left for Juwan Howard, and as the Washington Bullets' All-Star forward walked toward the end of the bench, he said he was a bit touched by the standing ovation offered by the home fans.

"It showed that the people cared," Howard said. "A lot of people have come up to me and said, 'If the Bullets don't sign you, we'll have a petition; we'll give up our season tickets.' They don't want to see me leave."

But the reality is that Howard, an unrestricted free agent, may have played his final game with the Bullets in yesterday's 103-93 season-ending loss to the Chicago Bulls before a sellout crowd at the USAir Arena. And it's clear that just as the Bullets played hardball with Howard, who reluctantly signed a contract after an ugly holdout, he plans to do the same with the team.

"We'll have to see what happens starting July 1," said Howard, referring to the day negotiations can begin. "If I were the Bullets, I would want to get things going at 12: 01 a.m. I wouldn't wait until July 1."

Howard, in two seasons, has demonstrated that he was the backbone in the team's return to respectability as the Bullets improved by 18 games this season (second only to the 25-game improvement by the Bulls). He scored a game-high 27 yesterday, ending an impressive closing week during which he scored a career-high 42 on Friday against Toronto.

He ended the season averaging 22.0 points and 8.1 rebounds. He finished fourth in the league in minutes (40.6). And he put himself in a situation where he'll probably average over $10 million per year.

"I'm sitting in a good position," Howard said. "And I put myself in this situation. Once Gheorghe [Muresan] went down, I was in double-digit rebounds all the time. Once Chris Webber went down, I was scoring more. Once Robert Pack went down, my assists went up. I've made sacrifices for this team. I worked hard."

Just ask coach Jim Lynam, who at times shook his head in amazement after Howard would remain in the gym after practices, refining his game that resulted in an All-Star appearance.

"I can't say enough superlatives about Juwan's play," said Lynam, who may get some Coach of the Year votes for the job he did this season. "With all the injuries, the team needed a lift. And Juwan came through."

Asked whether Howard would be back, Lynam added without hesitation: "I sure hope so. Everyone in the organization from Mr. [owner Abe] Pollin on down knows that we need Juwan here, we want Juwan here."

Howard calls Washington his third home (behind Chicago and the Detroit area). He said it would be difficult to uproot and move again. He also said that the Bullets have a winning future ahead of them, something he says will be important in his decision.

But in addition to financial compensation, Howard believes the Bullets also need to make some personnel moves. And he would like to have some say-so in what basketball decisions are to be made.

"[The Bullets] have to step up to the table and find us a point guard," Howard said. "If they feel Robert Pack is our future, I'm happy with it. It's up to the front-office, Chris Webber and myself to decide."

David Falk, Howard's agent, said: "He's probably the most sought-after free agent in the history of basketball, possibly in the history of sports."

Said Howard: "I learned this is a business since early my rookie season. I just want to be compensated for what Juwan Howard is worth.

"What happens, happens," Howard said. "Abe Pollin is the guy who writes the checks. He's the guy who can make sure I'm out here."

NOTES: Bullets guard Ledell Eackles and Chicago center James Edwards were ejected for fighting in the fourth quarter. . . . Washington's 39-43 record was the best since the 1988-89 season. . . . Jim McIlvaine tied a team record with nine blocks. . . . Dennis Rodman won his fifth straight rebounding title, and is now one of just two players (Wilt Chamberlain is the other) to win rebounding titles with three different teams. . . . Tim Legler ended the season as the league's top three-point shooter (.522) and Muresan led in field-goal percentage (.584).

Pub Date: 4/22/96

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