For Juwan Howard, March 14, 2005 began like most other Monday nights in his NBA career.
A forward for the Houston Rockets at the time, Howard laced up his shoes in the locker room and went through warmups. Following the national anthem, his name rang through the speakers of Oracle Arena during starting lineup introductions. He logged 19 minutes of action against the Warriors, making his usual contributions on each end of the floor.
That is, until he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When Houston guard Mike James attempted to draw a charge, he collapsed backward, falling onto the lower leg of an unexpecting Howard. His knee buckled immediately. Before he could even land on the hardwood, Howard clutched his leg in pain. Hours later, he left the arena on crutches.
The initial diagnosis was a hyperextension. The anticipated six-week recovery period left Howard’s regular season status in limbo, though the initial belief was he’d be back in time for the Rockets’ postseason run.
That 2005 return date never came.
During the recovery process, Howard came down with the flu. The illness ultimately caused a viral infection to his heart, and by the first week of April, team doctors declared it season-ending.
Nearly 15 years later, Howard found himself recalling his sprain-turned-infection at the Crisler Center podium on his 47th birthday. Now in his first season as the Michigan men’s basketball team coach, he likened his own experience to what junior forward Isaiah Livers has suffered through over the last month and change.
“I remember how frustrating and how depressing it was to miss the playoffs and not be out there to help our team,” Howard said. “I’ve experienced (a long-term injury) before. So I think it was good that Isaiah’s been around a coach who has been through those situations.”
In a 42-point blowout of Presbyterian College on Dec. 21, Livers sustained a groin injury on his way down from a dunk attempt. After a one-month absence in which the Wolverines dropped four of their five conference games, he returned for the team’s Jan. 25 contest against Illinois only to reinjure himself on a near mirror image of the play that resulted in his first injury.
Doubled over in pain, Livers slapped the floor. He’s missed each of Michigan’s three games since, the most recent being a loss to Ohio State on Tuesday.
And now, only a day before a high-stakes game against No. 16 Michigan State, Livers is feeling like himself once again. He doesn’t have the green light from trainer Alex Wong just yet, and it’s unclear how much he’s practiced, but when asked if suiting up against the Spartans on Saturday is a possibility, the first word out his mouth was “definitely.”
With the light at the end of the tunnel now visible once again, Livers is set to participate in practice on Friday afternoon.
“Coach Howard and the staff did a great job,” Livers said. “Right after the initial injury, coach Howard said, ‘We’re going to keep Isaiah in the loop like he’s still playing,’ because you know when you’re not playing, you’re depressed, you’re down. I just tried to talk to him as much as possible to stay up because coach Howard’s been through this before. He’s done a really good job helping me.”
Between both injuries, Livers has missed nine total games. He’s spent them in street clothes on the bench, acting as a fourth assistant coach in a way.
As Michigan suffered through its longest losing streak in five years, Livers had the opportunity to see Howard through a new lens.
“I remember mentioning to coach Howard, I said, ‘Dang, how do you do this coaching stuff?’ ” Livers said. “ … He said, ‘Yeah, but you gotta love it.’ I just respect it. This dude (is) unbelievable. … Especially at a negative moment, he’s just so confident, and it brings light to our team.”
Howard, too, came away with a new perspective. In Livers, he saw a veteran starter whose prolonged absence stemmed from a split-second mishap that morphed into a midseason injury.
Fifteen years after the fact, it was a look in the mirror — one that helped him guide Livers through his own version of it.