MIAMI -- When Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard found that practice yesterday for tonight's game against the Miami Heat was canceled, he was surprised. When it was suggested that maybe it was a good thing, considering the number of media ready to mob him, Howard offered a frown.
"I'm not about to hide," he said.
And even though he won't be hiding, Howard realizes that nothing in his basketball life will have prepared him for the rude welcome he faces tonight at Miami Arena. A rude welcome from fans still upset that the 6-foot-9 forward is not playing for the Heat.
"College hasn't prepared me for this type of situation I'm going to experience in Miami," Howard said. "What do I expect? I'll talk to you about it when it's all over."
Miami fans thought the Heat's days as a second-tier NBA team were over during the summer, when Howard signed a $100 million free-agent contract with Miami. In fact, Howard was all smiles when he signed the deal, and spoke of how much he looked forward to playing for Pat Riley and helping Miami become a serious contender.
But once the league voided the deal -- ruling that Miami was a bit too creative in its free-agent signings -- Howard was left in limbo. The Heat was ready to fight the league, even prepared to take the issue to court. But it was a battle -- and a risk -- that Howard wanted no part of.
After Howard returned to Washington to sign a $105 million, seven-year deal, the Heat gave up. At first, there was some bitterness directed at Howard. Today, the team's bitterness is focused on the NBA and commissioner David Stern.
"That was the league doing it to the Miami Heat, not Juwan Howard," Miami guard Tim Hardaway said yesterday. "Juwan wasn't the bad guy in all of this. He did the correct thing, and anyone else would have done the same thing."
Still, the perception of Howard here is still that of a greedy athlete, devoted not to a team, but to the highest bidder.
"As a fan, all of them think I'm a guy who ran after the money," Howard said. "But those are people who don't understand the business, and I can't get caught up trying to explain things to them.
"This summer, when all that went down, it wasn't my fault. I looked out for the security, and I looked out for my future. If anyone would have gone through the situation I went through, they would have done the same thing."
It was a bitter defeat for the Heat, which, by dumping much of its roster last season, had a big stack of cash available when some of the biggest names in the game were free agents.
Riley set his sights on Howard, who he believed would complement the game of center Alonzo Mourning.
A lineup that included Mourning and Howard probably would have changed the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. It was that combination, and the possibility of playing for Riley, that attracted Howard.
"I still have the same respect for him," Howard said last week. "I still feel he's one of the best coaches in the league. And it's still a dream of mine to play for him."
Riley, at least with his public comments yesterday, appears to have the same respect for Howard, whom he once described as potentially "one of the finest power forwards" in the NBA.
"We made a great, great effort to sign a great, young player," Riley said. "We couldn't get it done. It's over with."
And the Heat has recovered, although Riley said the league's ruling hurt the team's long-term plans.
Riley could be considered an early candidate for Coach of the Year in leading the team to a 25-10 record, a game behind the first-place New York Knicks in the Atlantic Division. Two Miami players (Mourning and Hardaway) are likely All-Stars.
And Howard? His season got off to a slow start after shin splints sidelined him for much of training camp, which led to early rumblings about whether the $105 million was well-spent.
Once healthy, Howard began playing up to the same level as a season ago, and he takes averages of 18.4 points and 8.2 rebounds into tonight's game.
Still, Chris Webber is the Bullets' probable All-Star this season, not Howard. And Howard does not -- and cannot -- dominate a game in the manner of, say, Shaquille O'Neal or Michael Jordan.
But, because of the contract, that's what some fans expect. Howard said he can't do anything about expectations of people who want him to play like Superman every night.
"I think it's unfair, but those people don't understand the game," Howard said. "Fans have high expectations. They want to see you do impossible things. They want to see you do some far-fetched things. But I just have to go out and do what Juwan Howard does best."
Howard said he would "try to stay incognito" during this brief stay in Miami, but would not let the hostile surroundings limit what he could do.
"I'm going to go to Zo's [Mourning's] house and watch the football game, and we'll definitely go out to a public restaurant," Howard said. "I'm not going to stand behind four walls; that's when you're miserable. I'm not going to hide from anybody."
He definitely won't be able to hide tonight, where he probably will be greeted the same way Webber was when he returned to Golden State in 1994.
"He's definitely going to get a taste of the other side of the NBA, a side that I've been knowing for a long time," Webber said. "Before, the booing made me nervous, but now I feed off it. Hopefully, he'll do the same thing."
Said Howard: "Truly, real men stand tall and continue to play through situations like these. Chris has stayed mentally tough through some of the boos he has gone through. Hopefully, I'll follow that lead.
"I want to go in with just the mind-set to win the game. I don't want to get caught up in all the hype."
Opponent: Miami Heat
Site: Miami Arena
Time: 7: 30
TV/Radio: HTS/WWRC (980 AM)
Outlook: The Bullets play the Heat twice this week; the teams meet in Baltimore on Friday night. The Heat has stayed near the top of the Atlantic Division (25-10) the entire season and could send two players, G Tim Hardaway (19.4 ppg, 7.7 apg) and C Alonzo Mourning (19.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg), to the All-Star Game. Miami has held opponents to a league-low 41.8 percent shooting. The Bullets have won four straight, matching their best streak this season. Shooting G Calbert Cheaney has hit 19 of his 23 shots in the past two games to give the Bullets a fourth scoring option in their starting five. The Bullets are 9-7 on the road.
Pub Date: 1/13/97