“It makes us all feel appreciated and it makes us want to work hard. And that’s what translates into success.”
There’s something about Juwan Howard that is surprisingly familiar. Our interview at the W South Beach for this story was the first time I’d met Howard, but somehow it felt like we were old friends. And in the hour or so that we spent together, it became blatantly obvious why those who have really known him for years are so very fond of him.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Illinois has been something of a doubled-edged sword for Howard; although faced with adversity and circumstantial challenges as a child, the hardships he endured have molded him into the man that the world has come to love. “People who know Chicago know that it’s a tough city and a rough neighborhood,” Howard explains. “And people brought a lot of negativity around me. But for me to stay focused and career-driven, and most importantly to have that dream of playing in the NBA, wasn’t easy. I think that looking back at those steps that I had to take to get to this point, it was a struggle but I wouldn’t change it one bit.”
Circa 1991, Howard was a freshman at the University of Michigan along with schoolmates-turned-teammates Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. Some call it a match made in the basketball heavens and others consider them to be the greatest class ever recruited, and while time may pass and new stars are on the rise, this particular group of gentleman will forever remain legends in the sport of basketball—The Beatles of their craft if you will— known as the Fab Five.
Although he and his Fab Five comrades reached incredible heights, no member of the esteemed ensemble had ever won an NBA championship title. “After playing in the NBA for 18 years there came a point when I was thinking,” Howard confesses, “am I ever going to win?”
Cue 2012, and Howard is stepping onto the Miami HEAT’s home court at the American Airlines Arena to play in the final minutes that would lead to one of the most anticipated moments in his life. While most of the attention surrounding the Miami HEAT has been directed towards the Big Three (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh), those of us who have supported the HEAT from the stands can affirm that the team’s championship success can be credited to each and every one of the 15 players on the roster.
“There’s no divide,” he assures me of the Big Three frenzy. “We joke and call ourselves the little 12, but really we’re a family.” Parallels can surely be made between the Fab Five and the Big Three, and Howard’s experience with media attention and scrutiny has given him a newfound role on the team as a mentor of sorts. “During my time at Michigan we got a lot of attention and we would receive a lot of negative press after games, and that brought us together as a family,” Howard says. “We became stronger. And that’s really where the similarities are with the Miami HEAT. Those guys are bright men.”
LeBron James in particular has faced a considerable amount of backlash surrounding his move from Cleveland to Miami, but at the end of the day, Howard says, business is business. “They are three guys who are great friends and made a business decision to play together. They didn’t do anything wrong and they didn’t hurt anyone. They received a lot of negative press,” he explains. “But I think it drew them closer. And I can be the guy that talks to them and shares my own experiences with them.”
It’s been said many times that Howard’s guidance has built the team’s morale, and his voice of reason has encouraged his teammates to surge ahead in times of trial. “I have leadership within because I’ve been through some struggles. I’m not perfect, I had to learn from the mistakes that I’ve made,” he admits.
Of his innumerable amount of fans, perhaps the biggest of them all is Head Coach Erik Spoelstra.
“Juwan Howard played multiple roles for us this season,” Spoelstra said in an exclusive comment to Haute Living. “He was our veteran player presence, an extension of my coaching staff and, most importantly, a leader on our championship team. He earned this championship throughout his long career and is one of my favorite players to coach, as well as one of the most respected players in this league. As I’ve said before, whenever he is done playing, he has a long future in this league as a coach, general manager or whatever he wants to be.”
And the feeling is mutual.
“What makes our family so unique is that we come from various backgrounds, and in some way we’ve managed to connect. And that’s so special,” Howard says. “A big reason for that is a guy who doesn’t get a lot of credit, and that’s Erik Spoelstra.”
“We have a coach that is dynamic and special in his own way,” he continues. “The leadership that he spreads throughout that locker room makes everyone feel happy, excited to come to work and to play the game of basketball. We have a trust level with him. Erik is an amazing person, and he knows what buttons to push to make us click and get on the right page. He knows when we need to rest mentally, not just physically, and I think that’s very unique and special. I know that he doesn’t like to receive the credit, but it needs to be said.”
Call it my native ties to the city or my rooted allegiance for the Miami HEAT, but there’s something particularly special about this franchise. It’s the kind of organization that makes those both in it and spectating inordinately proud to be a part of it. “We all work well together and get along very well,” Howard says. “It makes us all feel appreciated and it makes us want to work hard. And that’s what translates into success.”
Howard’s unwavering devotion to the institution of family, seen both on and off the court, has branded him as one of the ‘good guys’ in the NBA. Having just celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary with his exquisite wife, Jenine, the handsome couple is a testament to the ability of finding a balance between work and play. In 1996, the Juwan Howard Foundation was created with a mission to embrace at risk inner-city children. Shortly thereafter, Jenine founded a subsidiary charity, the Juice Foundation. By educating individuals on the benefits and preventative advantages of living a healthy life, the Juice Foundation’s initiatives have helped fund cancer research and provide resources for those seeking alternative healing methods. The organization’s next event is scheduled to take place in Miami mid-September.
“I always said that if I ever make it in life,” Howard says of his philanthropic strides, “I just want to give back to the community. I just wanted to do something that would make a difference. We do it from our heart.” Now that the dust has settled and the reality of his accomplishments has registered, we can only imagine the mix of emotions that has come with finally earning his championship ring. “It’s hard to describe,” he says with a beaming glow about him. “I’m like a kid in a candy store. You know, when a kid gets that sugar rush, I’m having that rush right now.”
And for HEAT fans pining for details on Howard’s next move, we can share that another year with him on our courts is likely. “I am 80% leaning towards coming back and playing for the Miami HEAT and repeating what we did last year,” he says, “especially now that we’ve had the acquisition of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. If that doesn’t happen though, I would love for my second phase of life to be with the Miami HEAT organization. I have been so fortunate to play for this team. This experience has allowed this city to become my home, and I’ve embraced it, and I think it has embraced me and my family as well.”
While Juwan Howard’s resume reads like an enviable list of NBA accomplishments, one realizes after a session of cabbage patching with him (yes, that happened), that the last thing you want to do is envy this hometown hero, loving husband, devoted father and gracious human being. Instead, you want to join him in his victory dance.