Juwan Howard and his path to becoming the man in charge

Monday, November 4, 2019 - 7:23pm

Juwan Howard begins his first season as Michigan's basketball coach.

Juwan Howard begins his first season as Michigan's basketball coach. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

It was a practice just like any other for the Miami Heat.

The starters were out on the floor running through their offensive schemes against the scout team. Among the latter, per usual, was then-assistant coach Juwan Howard.

Howard, having played 19 years in the NBA, standing at 6-foot-9 and doing everything he can to keep in shape, almost always ran with the scout team in practice.

In a typical pick-and-roll play, Howard handled the ball at the top of the key. It was all set to run smoothly — the player came over to set the pick for Howard who then dribbled around him to execute the play. Fighting hard through the screen, guard Dion Waiters barrelled through the defender hitting Howard square on the chin, and cleanly knocking out one of his teeth.

So how did Howard react?

He held his tooth in his hand, waited for the right moment to head to his office, placed it down on his desk and resumed practice. 

After subsequently seeking medical attention, Howard returned to the Heat facilities later that day to coach that night’s game. There was even a rotation of the assistant coaches who had to talk to the media at halftime, and Howard’s number was called.

“And I still talked, tooth missing and everything,” Howard told The Daily. “Why not? A) we’re gonna make no excuses and B) you gotta embrace the suck. And that time I embraced the suck.”

For Howard, the act of palming a recently-separated tooth and continuing on business-as-usual was summed up in the question “Why not?” It was an afterthought — a testament to his professionalism and commitment.

For his players, though, the act revealed a man who was undeniably committed to the game, his team and his family.

“When his tooth came out, he didn’t even come out of the game,” then-Heat guard Josh Richardson told The Daily. “And I remember just being like, ‘That’s crazy!’ And we’re all looking at his tooth like, ‘Uhhhhh, you gonna get that?’ He just like had it in his hand.”

Tooth in hand, Howard continued down the road of a transformative time in his career with the Heat.

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Alec Cohen/Daily

If there was one thing the players knew Howard for as a coach it was energy. Energy, energy, energy. He would routinely single-handedly liven up flat practices or get on guys for not showing an attitude up to his standards.

And typically, he did that the only way he knew how: by being vocal and playing basketball.

Talk to former players on those Heat rosters and they will regale you with tales of ‘17’ — the nickname given to Howard by LeBron James for his 17 years (really 19) in the NBA. They recount stories from practice where Howard, unlike nearly all other assistant coaches, would run with the scout team and do everything he could to dunk on players often 10-plus years younger than him or block their shots.

And the team loved it. Vociferously screaming, “Get that shit out of here!” after registering a block or dunking right on a guy’s head, Howard would revel in the team’s cheers.

Walking in the building every morning, Howard made sure everyone knew where the level of energy was going to be that day — as high as it could possibly be. Getting excited about things as banal as a cup of coffee, Howard would bellow, “Got my coffee today!” strolling down the halls of the facilities.

Howard’s honesty also enamored his players.

As an assistant with the Heat, Howard’s official responsibilities included developing the big men on the roster and optimizing defense. In these efforts, Miami’s centers Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo are testaments to that.

Ask either one and they will be quick to point to Howard’s honesty as a trait that sets him apart. He will tell you like it is every time regardless of whether it’s something you want to hear or not.

“He was honest,” Adebayo said. “He never lied to me. He never ran away from the fact that I needed to hear something, he would say it, he never shied away from that. And I feel like that’s what really brought me closer to Juwan was that he was so honest with me.”

Added Whiteside: “He was like the guy that’s like, if there are guys playing around or something, he’ll let ’em know. He’d say, ‘You’re not taking this serious,’ or he’d let you know. I mean he was just honest. He’d keep it to you straight every time.”

For almost all of Howard’s Miami coaching stint, he was just an assistant. Assigned to player development and defense, he was never able to use his leadership skills as the man in charge. That is, until the 2016 Summer League rolled around.

Each year, each NBA team selects one of the assistant coaches to lead its Summer League roster in early competition. In 2016, it was Howard’s time.

It was Howard’s first time ever serving in a head coach position. In many ways, it was the perfect opportunity for the young coach — an ability to get his feet wet with the position without being completely thrown to the wolves.

While he wasn’t reinventing the wheel or tasked with redesigning Heat concepts, Howard was able to learn some of the minutiae of the position — how to talk in timeouts, who to call on when games are getting close, how to scream on the sidelines.

“He defined guys’ roles early, and I think that was good for a coach to be able to do that,” said Richardson, one of the key players on that Summer League team. “He would give good speeches, get his message across, and he’s a good speaker in front of guys, and I know that’s probably tough in your first coaching job having to give an opening speech at training camp, or having to be the guy talking to the team every timeout and stuff like that, but I think he did a great job navigating that for the first time.”

The Heat would place fourth that year, going 3-2 through the tournament. 

But Howard left with something far more valuable than the trophy — confidence in his ability to become the head coach of a basketball team someday.

“It taught me a lot in that I enjoyed the experience, I learned from it,” Howard said. “I left there that summer thinking, ‘You know, I can be a head coach in this league.’ It gave me a vote of confidence.”

Before that, Howard had had no problem being vocal. No experience talking to a team with the title of “head coach,” sure, but he’s always been a leader in the locker room.

And no one recognized that more than Howard’s old coach on the Portland Trail Blazers, Nate McMillan.

Howard often credits McMillan with being the first person he spoke to about his desire to coach, but McMillan saw it coming long before those words ever left Howard’s lips. Once Howard joined the Trail Blazers, McMillan immediately saw an opportunity to use Howard not only as a liaison between the players and the coaches but as an excellent resource with a high basketball IQ.

“When I had the opportunity to work with him in Portland, I really wanted to pick his brain,” McMillan said. “I wanted him to be a part of that organization because I knew he could assist me with the players in getting my message, whatever my message was, across to them both as a player and as a coach.”

Any first glance at Howard’s credentials may not tell the whole story. Some may be inclined to write off his first year at the helm as an adjustment period — some time off from Michigan’s recent success due to 17’s lack of experience. Perhaps a faulty assumption. Howard’s been doing this for a long time.

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Alec Cohen/Daily

Minutes after the Michigan men’s basketball team dismantled Saginaw Valley State in an exhibition win, the ex-big man sat down at the podium, nearly ready to address the field after his first game coaching in Crisler Center.

He asked for a few minutes to prepare before glancing down at a freshly printed stat sheet. He poured over the numbers, evaluating his team’s first official performance then addressed the media.

A small gesture, but a testament to the man’s process. Making the transition from the NBA back to college is no small task, and Howard is going to need to pick up every detail along the way.

Many will speculate about how Howard is adapting to the more frequent use of the zone on defense or the pace of play in the weeks and possibly even years to come. But Howard will have to make leadership adjustments, too.

College students are at different points in their lives than professional athletes. While the days of Juwan swatting balls in practice may be over as he takes on a different role with his players, Howard promises to continue his signature brand of honesty, fun and professionalism to the job at hand.

“I’m an even-keeled guy,” Howard said. “I’m also a guy that’s gonna hold you accountable when you’re not doing your job. I’m not a big yeller or screamer, but I know how to make sure my voice resonates and carries so when I speak, the group listens.

“I want my players to know this: we’re gonna compete hard. There will be some moments when we hit some rough patches in the season, but at the end of the day, I want us to be able to say, once we look back at the end of the season, ‘We did have fun.’”

More than that, his approach for on-the-court development may differ as well. 

Working with big men in the NBA, the focus was not so much about technique at the big man position but rather about the mental game — how to be patient and goade the defense into making mistakes. How to be a professional.

“Being patient. I feel like that was the No. 1 thing he helped me with,” Adebayo said. “Just taking my time in the post. It wasn’t really on moves, but if you’re patient and let the defense make mistakes, and I started seeing that as the years went on and last year the last 30 games I started catching onto it and started realizing it.

“The off the court stuff also. How to dress, how to carry yourself and be mannered. He didn’t only try to make you a better basketball player, he tried to make you a better person.”

Another identity Howard has associated with his new team since his announcement as head coach has been family. He is a family man through and through as evidenced not only with the way talks about and deals with his team but through small acts such as bringing his kids to the facilities when he was in Miami.

Including his three sons, all basketball players, in his work undoubtedly grew their appreciation for the game. In fact, Howard’s eldest, Juwan Howard Jr. was even on a Heat practice squad in 2016. The younger Howard blended right in, befriending the players, even playing video games with Whiteside.

During this time, Howard didn’t treat his son any different — mixing honesty and family, telling his son what he needed to work on, the lessons of his playing and coaching days coming into full effect.

It is these qualities that will perhaps aid Howard in the biggest adjustment to the college basketball coaching lifestyle: recruiting.

Howard is now tasked with selling himself and Michigan as a premier temple of college basketball development. Ask those who knew him as a coach, and it’s not hard to see what that pitch might sound like.

“I think the No. 1 thing that will stick out for him is that he’s a people person, and he’s about kids,” Adebayo said. “Like he doesn’t want anything from us. Like he’ll give you the shirt off his back, that’s the type of person he is.”

This is a man who embodies commitment. A man who cried when he was introduced as the head coach of the men’s basketball team. This is a man who would give you the shirt off his back, they say. And maybe, if you hang around long enough, the tooth from his mouth.