Once upon a time, a group of gifted basketball players decided to join forces to dominate their sport. They were as talented as they were hyped, and they ushered in an era of style and scoring, a blueprint for superteams to come. But a funny thing happened: Winning wasn't as easy on the court as it was on paper. No one told their opponents that the team's championship was a birthright. To get a title, you have to fight for it. And any team, no matter how talented, can lose that fight.
If the Miami Heat win tonight, Juwan Howard will have a championship. At 39 years old, after 18 seasons and 10 stops and eight teams, he's the league's grand old man, a locker-room guy and a leader and a figurehead who doesn't and maybe can't play more than a few minutes a night. He's the one who approaches 21-year-old Lance Stephenson and lectures him about taunting an elder. He's got all of one rebound in these playoffs and comes on late in blowouts to polite applause and jokes about his age.
But Howard is the last remaining member of Michigan's Fab Five and their last shot at any of them winning a championship. If the Heat win, Howard probably hangs it up, and the circle closes. It would be a literary, if not a happy ending, for the group who didn't quite change the game of basketball, but got it to meet them halfway.
The Fab Five took the court as starters for the first time on a Sunday afternoon in February 1992 and scored every single one of Michigan's points. That was the high-water mark. The results, from there, could never live up to the promise. There were two NCAA championship game appearances that technically, retroactively, never happened, followed by a mixed bag of NBA careers that sent the five their separate ways. They kept one disappointment in common: Not a one ever touched a certain silver-with-gold-overlay trophy with a regulation-size ball perched on the precipice. For the Fab Five, that ball always rolled out.
Chris Webber, the best of them, made a pair of conference finals—the controversial 2002 series with the Lakers, the one that Tim Donaghy would later say was fixed, and a twilight run with the Pistons in 2007, where a suddenly rejuvenated Webber ran into LeBron James on his way to his own first career finals. Jalen Rose had the best chance of the five, being moved to forward and partnering with Reggie Miller for the rare double-barreled sniper rifle. Their late '90s Pacers made three straight Eastern Conference finals appearances, with the last culminating in Rose's only Finals appearance. Jimmy King and Ray Jackson couldn't quite make the transition to the pros. King played parts of two seasons before heading to Europe, and Jackson never cracked a roster. He had always kind of just been along for the ride.
Juwan Howard was always the different one. Quieter, more intellectual, old even as a teenager. While his UM teammates reinvented basketball fashion, Howard continued to rock the hi-top fade that had been on its way out for a few years. While completing an All-Rookie season for the Bullets, Howard continued to take classes and was able to graduate on time, a promise he made to his dying grandmother, who passed away the day he signed with Michigan. Steve Fisher called him "my Rock of Gibraltar," and Howard was nothing if not steady.
"I never wanted to be called an inconsistent player," Howard said on the eve of his final college game. "I never wanted to be one of those up-and-down guys who you never know when they'll show up."
That's a defensive player's mindset in a nutshell. It has to be. Howard never wanted to be the first scoring option, not even on his many terrible NBA teams. He could score when he wanted to—back to the basket, from medium range, whatever. He could have owned both ends, and often did those first few years in Washington, but only by default. Only when Chris Webber or Mitch Richmond were hurt, which was often.
"I don't mind getting overshadowed by Chris and Jalen," Howard told USA Today in 1993, and expressed the same sentiment with different names throughout his career. That quote finished with "What's important to me is winning," which sounds empty considering his teams very rarely won.
There was a moment, in the summer of 1996, when it all could have gone differently. Howard was 23, coming off a do-everything season for an injury-ravaged Bullets team—22.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists—and he was a free agent, a David Falk client, like Michael Jordan. He signed a seven-year, $100 million contract to join the Miami Heat, teaming up with Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway to make an original Big Three, a team that could have been unstoppable post-Jordan. He would have been the quiet member of the trio, doing the dirty work for the two superstars. Like Chris Bosh, or like Michigan's Juwan Howard.
That deal was tossed out due to a salary cap violation. Howard re-signed with the Bullets. An infuriated Pat Riley made sure not to make the same mistake 14 years later, with his next superteam.
What unfolded from there was the career of a journeyman. Washington traded him to Dallas in 2001, in an eight-player deal in which one of the return pieces was Christian Laettner, who had denied the Fab Five their first NCAA title. After Dallas, he made stops in Denver, Orlando, and Houston, and Dallas and Denver again, and Charlotte and Portland. And as the legs began to go and fatigue set in quicker and the scoring touch waned, an aging Howard continued made his priorities clear. He hasn't averaged double figures since 2006, but the boards have still been there.
This season, in intensely limited action, Howard put up the best rebound-per-minute figure of his entire career. Most of those came in garbage time, but it's telling that Howard didn't let the situation dictate easing off on the pedal. He's come to the office every single day for two decades, and put in a respectable day's work. Maybe he's not the Rock of Gibraltar, but the waves lapping at its base. Steady and inevitable, Juwan Howard toils away on his little section of the court, often unremarked upon, but never unappreciated.
This is about as far from the Fab Five flash as you can get, and yet, this is the one that persevered. He stuck around basketball because he enjoys it and because he was good enough. And now he gets something to show for it, something that seemed inevitable at that string of goodbye press conferences at the Crisler Arena so many years ago.
We've come full circle culturally: Once, Howard's teammates defined black style (at least to white sportswriters) as baggy shorts and black socks. Now, his teammates are trying to redefine it as colorful polos and thick-framed glasses. But it's the superteam concept that's finally graduating. Like Miami's Big Three, the Fab Five were a collection of stars, thrown together not by the vagaries of recruiting or drafting, but because they wanted to play together, to achieve something more than the sum of the parts. It never quite clicked in Ann Arbor. It's 48 minutes away from working in Miami. And if Juwan Howard doesn't see a minute of the court in this series, it doesn't matter. He's put in 20 years.