SAN ANTONIO -- Ask Sandy Walkowe about Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard, and she'll tell you about how one of the nation's most popular college basketball stars walked into her life in December 1992 by befriending her AIDS-stricken son, Randy, who wasn't expected to live to see Christmas.
"He was like my son's big brother. They were best of buddies," said Walkowe, of Tipton, Mich., whose son's spirits were boosted so much by his new friend that he would celebrate Christmas twice more. When Randy was buried in January 1994, was wearing a Michigan jersey with the number 25, Howard's number.
Ask Kyle Hall about Juwan Howard, and he'll tell you the reason he volunteers at a hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., is that the Michigan star did that for him.
"I had a brain tumor, I was going through radiation treatment, my hair was falling out, it was terrible," Hall, 16, recalled. "And he was there for me, a real down-to-earth guy who was just like part of my family. Even today, when he comes back to town, I'll go to the Detroit games and he'll get me in the locker room. He's a great guy."
And ask Chicago Vocational High School coach Dick Cook about Juwan Howard, and he'll tell you about a young man who was always striving to be better.
"He was dedicated, he was goal-oriented, and he had a lot of pride," Cook said. "Any time things weren't going well for our team, all I had to do was to go to Juwan and tell him 'That guy's outplaying you.' And things would change. Juwan never wanted to be outplayed."
There are players in the NBA who can out-jump Howard. Players who are faster, and can shoot better. But in just a year and a half in the league, it's been a rare occasion where someone has flat-out outplayed him.
Which is why Howard is here this weekend, selected as one of the top 24 players in the game as a member of the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
"I never thought I would be here in my second year in the league," said Howard, averaging 20.2 points a game. "But I'll say this: I'm going to stop being so modest. I worked all summer to prepare myself to be one of the best players in the league. And I've done it."
And Howard will get paid for it. Handsomely. Howard said he will exercise the two-year out clause in his contract at the end of the season, thus becoming an unrestricted free agent. For a team to say it will go after Howard at the end of the season would be tampering. But New York, Detroit and Miami reportedly are interested.
"I've enjoyed playing for the Washington Bullets," Howard said. "But I understand this is a business and you have to take care of yourself first. The Bullets are going to have to step up to the table. Whatever happens, happens."
Back to Michigan?
If it happens that Howard winds up in a Pistons uniform, it will be to the delight of people who were deeply touched during his three years at Michigan. When Howard made hospital visits as part of the From The Heart program in Ann Arbor, it went well beyond a token appearance. Howard would often walk away with a good friend.
Which was the case with Randy Walkowe, who was 11 years old and weighed 35 pounds when he met Howard. Because Randy had AIDS, acquired from a blood transfusion, he was shunned by other kids. His popularity and his spirits soared when suddenly one of the Fab Five was his good buddy. Randy even got to see Michigan in the Final Four in New Orleans.
"Here was this superstar player, and Randy could call him on the phone whenever he wanted, and Juwan would always come to the hospital to see him," Sandy Walkowe said. "He gave Randy something to live for.
"I really think Juwan was a reason why he hung on for as long as he did," she added. "When Randy died, Juwan came up to me and said, 'Sandy, don't worry, my grandma is going to take care of Randy now.' "
Ask Howard about his good-natured ways and he credits his grandmother, Jannie Mae Howard, who raised him in Chicago. She passed away in 1991, the day Howard became the first member of the Fab Five by signing a letter of intent with Michigan.
"My grandmother was an inspiration with me with the way she cared for others," Howard said. "I love kids, and with Randy he was just a great kid and a good friend of mine. I didn't know I had that much of an impact on his staying alive that long."
He also made a special impact on Hall.
"I looked at what he gave to me," Hall said. "And I wanted to give that back."
Hall's mother, Karen McDonald, is amazed how Howard -- even with his NBA status -- stays in contact with her son.
"He's really community- based, he's socially conscious," McDonald said. "He's a class act."
No unfinished business
He has always taken care of business. Off the court, Howard, despite declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft after his junior year, was taking correspondence classes and was able to graduate with his class on time.
"I made a promise to my grandmother to graduate, and I did," Howard said. "But I'm not finished yet. Maybe after a year or two, I want to go back and get my master's. Maybe even a law degree. I'm looking forward to life after basketball."
Taking care of business on the court means that Howard is constantly looking to refine his game -- a habit that goes back to his high school days.
"He never missed a practice, and when that was over he was always staying after to work on his fundamentals: the short shots, the jump hooks," said Cook, his high school coach. "You get to coach a kid like that maybe once in your life. I've come across kids who have been as talented, but never anyone as dedicated."
That dedication had Howard working with that much more vigor when, while negotiating his first contract with the Bullets, he kept hearing about what he could not do on the court.
But his All-Star status shows what he can do.
"Juwan Howard is the best player they've got," Phoenix Suns forward Charles Barkley said, shortly after exchanging shoves and elbows with Howard during a heated matchup last week. "I'm glad he got selected to the All-Star Game and got the credit that he deserved."
Said New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing, after Wednesday's game against the Bullets at Madison Square Garden: "Juwan's an outstanding player, he's improving with every game. You can tell he spends a lot of time working on his game."
The praise from his peers is nice, but the doubts about his game that came up during negotiations is still a sore point.
"It was very depressing," Howard said of the negotiations with Bullets general manager John Nash. "But what happens with negotiations is a business, and I understand that.
"Nash has to patch things up. He knows what it takes to make this franchise a better team, and he knows what it takes to sign Juwan Howard. It's just a matter of the Washington Bullets stepping up to the table and preparing to compensate Juwan Howard for being the underpaid player he was his first two years."
Last time the Bullets heard that, it came from Chris Webber, who wound up with a six-year contract worth an average of $9.5 million a year. You can bet that his agent, David Falk, will point out in negotiations that Howard became an All-Star before Webber.
If Howard had it his way, he would like to play his career alongside Webber.
"The two of us together, we can be one of those one-two punches like with Scottie [Pippen] and Michael [Jordan], Hakeem [Olajuwon] and Clyde [Drexler]," Howard said. "We've talked about it and we feel we can dominate this league just like we did in college."
But whether that happens remains a mystery until the end of the season.
"We'll have to see what happens," Howard said. "I'd like to play with Chris. But I have to make the best decision on what's best for Juwan."
What: 46th NBA All-Star Game
When: Today, 6 p.m.
Where: Alamodome, San Antonio
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Western Conference starters: G Jason Kidd, Dallas; G Clyde Drexler, Houston; F Charles Barkley, Phoenix; F Shawn Kemp, Seattle, C Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston.