April 27, 2016
Tiger Den Basketball
Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream, Mitch Albom (1993)
Juwan Howard was ranked the #4 high school senior in the 1991 recruiting class.
Jannie Mae Howard, the daughter of sharecroppers in Belzoni, Mississippi, had four babies by her nineteenth birthday, so she knew about motherhood, particularly young motherhood. When her teenage daughter Helena came home one night complaining about nausea, Jannie Mae sighed.
L-R: Brian Dutcher, Donnie Kirksey, Juwan Howard
The two of them grew close, and when recruiting heated up, word went out that Donnie Kirksey was the contact for Juwan Howard. He took many of the calls. He intercepted most of the letters. When recruiters came to CVS to see practice, Donnie let them know, "You talk to me about Juwan."
One school, Kirksey claims, offered him $25,000 to get Juwan to commit and $10,000 for every month he stayed enrolled.
"He's not for sale," Donnie told them. And that was true: it was more like the barter system. Donnie hoped that steering Juwan to a major college coaching staff would help him achieve his own dream: getting on a major college coaching staff. Was he qualified? No. But stranger things had happened. ...
"Kirksey is really influential," Dutcher had warned Fisher. "We need to have him on our side."
So they recruited Kirksey as well. They phoned him. They encouraged his dreams of getting into the business. In the summer between Juwan's junior and senior years, Fisher actually hired Donnie Kirksey to work at his summer basketball camp in Ann Arbor, and paid him well. ...
The plan worked to perfection. Donnie was paid handsomely ... And Juwan had a great time in Ann Arbor, doing the camp, walking along the tree-lined campus, checking out the music stores and cafes, admiring the girls. This was a far cry from the noisy streets of South Chicago. ...
When Juwan took his "official" recruiting visit to Michigan in the fall of his senior year - his second actual stay - he was already quite fond of the maize and blue. On that same weekend, Fisher brought in Jimmy King, the star guard from Texas. He had the two of them stay together, go to the football game together, party on campus together. This was a smart move by Fisher. ...
And much to Fisher's pleasure, Juwan and Jimmy got along well, Juwan making jokes, Jimmy laughing and shrugging in his shy Texas way. They'd even talked about rooming together if both became Wolverines. ...
"Juwan, you know how much we want you here at Michigan," Fisher had told him at the end of his weekend. "You could have an immediate impact."
"Thanks, coach," Juwan said. "I'm pretty sure I'm coming. I'm supposed to take some other visits, but you guys are my first choice." ...
This was the day. November 14, 1991. Time for Juwan to make his announcement. His grandma woke him, as she always did. He'd never used an alarm clock. ...
"When I make the NBA one day," he told himself, looking in the mirror, "I'm gonna take care of Grandma. Buy a big house in the suburbs."
He came downstairs, gulped breakfast, kissed her goodbye.
"I love you, Grandma."
"Hmmm-mmm. Go on now."
He and Jannie Mae had signed the letter of intent this morning, so everything was legit. He felt good, he felt relieved. At school, he met with reporters and told them his decision.
"I think Michigan is a great school, and I'll be able to contribute to their program." ...
When he returned to 135th Street, the street lamps were on. He parked his car and saw several people outside his apartment, which was strange. He recognized one woman. Friend of the family's. She seemed upset. He rolled down the window.
"Oh, Juwan, I'm so sorry for you."
"What do you mean?"
"You don't know?"
She looked shocked. "I, um, I shouldn't be the one to tell you."
"Tell me what?"
"You should find out in ther-"
"Tell me what?"
The woman began to cry. "I'm sorry, Juwan. Your grandmother ... she ..."
Juwan shivered. A hurt began to rise from a part of his belly he never knew he had. It lifted him from the car and up the steps.
"Naw," he said, looking in. "NAW!" ...
Jamie Mae Howard had collapsed in the kitchen that afternoon while talking to her daughter about Juwan's future. A heart attack, they said, massive. She was dead by the time she reached the hospital.