Post-Howard Bullets try to pick up pieces

July 15, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

A mere 20 months ago, the Washington Bullets were celebrating one of the biggest days in franchise history. On that day in November 1994, the Bullets traded for Chris Webber and signed Juwan Howard, giving hope to a struggling franchise.

Now, the Bullets find themselves in disarray with the departure of free agent Howard, who today is expected to be introduced as the newest member of the Miami Heat. The deal is reportedly worth $98 million over seven years with incentives that surely will put Howard over $100 million.

The Bullets' initial offer to Howard was $78 million over seven years. The team was unwilling to match the Heat's offer.

"Of course, it's disappointing to lose a player like Juwan. He's given us a great couple of years," Bullets general manager Wes Unseld said. "We wish him luck, and I know he'll do well. We have to do what's best for this team."

And apparently that's not to spend $100 million on one player, even a player such as Howard, considered to be the Bullets' cornerstone. Howard had an All-Star season in 1995-96, averaging 22.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists.

It was all a matter of timing for Howard, who become an unrestricted free agent the same time the Heat and coach/president Pat Riley went shopping with extremely deep pockets. And Riley has a reputation for getting what he wants.

"Riley hates to lose," said a member of the Bullets organization. ,, "Our biggest worry was Riley getting Juwan one-on-one and making his pitch."

In addition to the money, Riley was able to offer Howard a chance to play alongside an All-Star center in Alonzo Mourning. And after playing two seasons with a team that has a long history of being frugal, Howard was offered a chance to play in an organization where everything is done first-class -- from a team plane to state-of-the-art workout equipment to the best accommodations on the road.

Probably most importantly, Miami offered Howard the opportunity to play under one of the finest coaches in the game and for a team that is almost assured of being in the postseason next year.

"I want to play for a place where I'm happy, a place where I'm wanted and a place with a good future," Howard said after the final game of last season. "And I want to be somewhere where they have a chance to win."

There's some question of whether the Bullets can be a winner next season. In addition to Howard's departure, there's a chance Jim McIlvaine and Robert Pack could be lost to free agency.

Ron Grinker, McIlvaine's agent, said that his client will command at least $3 million per season and that the Bullets were not close with their initial offer. Anthony Hillard, who represents Pack, said he heard from four teams yesterday who were serious about his client -- and the Bullets were not among them.

Pub Date: 7/15/96

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