Juwan Howard is headed back to Michigan, but where does that leave the NBA?
The former ‘Fab Five’ star is the latest NBA assistant to take a top college gig
Juwan Howard going back to coach his alma mater is phenomenal for the University of Michigan’s basketball program, the entire school and college basketball at large. But for the NBA, it’s also disappointing. Howard is the latest African American former player to give up on waiting for an opportunity to be a head coach in the league he once starred in.
“Juwan Howard and Jerry Stackhouse could be NBA head coaches as well as college head coaches,” Damon Stoudamire, the 1996 NBA Rookie of the Year and current head coach at University of the Pacific, told The Undefeated. “But for whatever reason, we, the players, don’t get credit for having a Ph.D. in basketball. This doesn’t mean success should come with our credentials by any means. But at the same time, lawyers get instant credit for who they learned under.
“In this case, Stackhouse was coached by Dean Smith, Larry Brown, Rick Carlisle and more. Juwan Howard was coached by Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra. To me, it’s the same thing as with the lawyers.”
Howard is more known for being a member of Michigan’s famed “Fab 5,” along with Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. But he was also an NBA All-Star who won two championships with the Miami Heat alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Howard averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 rebounds in 1,208 regular-season games in the NBA.
The 19-year NBA veteran interviewed for NBA head-coaching jobs, including this offseason for the Los Angeles Lakers, who now star James. The Lakers hired former Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic head coach Frank Vogel instead. The knock on Howard has been that he has never been a head coach. So instead of waiting on the NBA, the six-year Heat assistant went home to the Wolverines to finally become a head coach.
“I talked to Juwan Howard about seven days before he took the job at Michigan,” Arkansas-Little Rock head coach Darrell Walker told The Undefeated. Walker was a former NBA player and head coach as well as a WNBA head coach. “I called him and said, ‘Hey, young fella, you’re probably going to be a head coach in the NBA one day. When is it going to happen? I don’t know. But if Michigan calls, you better listen.
“ ‘And if they offer, you better take it before you turn your nose at it. The University of Michigan is an NBA[-caliber] job, in my opinion. You never know how the NBA is going to act or what is going to happen.’ ”
Howard joins a growing list of former NBA assistant coaches of African American descent who are now head coaches on the college level.
Stoudamire spent time as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies before becoming head coach at Pacific. Patrick Ewing was a longtime NBA assistant before returning to his alma mater, Georgetown University, to become head coach. Stackhouse was an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors — he also coached the G League 905 Raptors to a title in 2017 and was the 2017 G League Coach of the Year — and was an assistant coach with the Grizzlies last season before becoming the head coach at Vanderbilt this year. Others include former NBA assistant Lindsey Hunter (now coaching Mississippi Valley State), former Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Aaron McKie (Temple) and former G League Grand Rapids Drive assistant coach George Lynch (Clark Atlanta).
“They want to be a head coach because they know they are qualified,” Walker said. “Patrick was qualified. Of course, Juwan Howard is qualified. Of course, Jerry Stackhouse is qualified. It didn’t happen, but these guys have taken some prominent college jobs. If you think about it, Vanderbilt, Georgetown and Michigan are damn good jobs. You get to coach and mentor good players. …
“Jerry Stackhouse was one of the hot names out there, and then came along the Vanderbilt job and he couldn’t turn it down. Sometimes as an African American coach, when a job comes available in college and it’s not the NBA, you got to take a strong look at it. And that is what guys are doing.”
University of Portland head coach Terry Porter, a former NBA head coach and two-time NBA All-Star, agrees.
“Guys are getting good opportunities to be head coaches on the college level,” Porter told The Undefeated.
Ewing certainly is the most notable snub among black former NBA assistants who ultimately went the college route.
The Hall of Famer paid his dues as an assistant in the league as a former assistant coach with the Washington Wizards, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets. Ewing, however, never landed a job as an NBA head coach after having several interviews. And so, in 2017, Ewing went back to where he starred in college to finally become a head coach at Georgetown.
“Patrick did about 15 years as an NBA assistant coach and never got a real shot to be a head coach,” said Walker, who played with Ewing for the Knicks. “That is for front-office people to answer. Does he know the game of basketball as well as these other guys that have been hired? Absolutely. Maybe more. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. I’m happy he got the Georgetown job. When that job became open, I was told they might give him a call. I told him he should be ready to accept it because I thought he’d love coaching in college. At that time, I was coaching at Division II Clark Atlanta and was having a ball, and I told him he would have a ball and be good at it.”
The NBA currently has seven black head coaches, one Hispanic and one Asian American. There are only three black people who are former players coaching in the NBA right now: the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers, the Indiana Pacers’ Nate McMillan and recent Phoenix Suns hire Monty Williams. (Golden State Warriors assistant coach Jarron Collins and Toronto Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin are two black former NBA players who have interviewed for the still-vacant Memphis Grizzlies head coach opening.) Inevitably, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it will be up to the teams to make the hires. But National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) executive director Michele Roberts hopes NBA teams will learn the value of hiring more former players as head coaches.
“I have often been miffed that players who have made their colleges successful did not appear to be given serious consideration, so seeing guys coaching at their alma maters warms my heart,” Roberts told The Undefeated. “That said, there is certainly more progress necessary in allowing former players to be given opportunities to coach on the NBA level. They know the game as well as anybody, and the desire to transition into a coaching position is strong among a good number of our veteran players.”
The NBA and the NBPA both have programs for players interested in becoming coaches after their playing days. The NBPA has also joined forces with such historically black college conferences as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Southwestern Athletic Conference and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in hopes of getting their former players head-coaching jobs to gain experience.
“Frankly, part of the impetus in creating the program was to foster coaching opportunities for players who wished to coach but were seemingly systematically being ignored or passed over by NBA teams and big college programs,” Roberts said.
Coaching success in college may ultimately help Ewing, Howard and Stackhouse realize their dream of being NBA head coaches — or it could be the NBA’s loss in the end if these former stars ultimately decide that the elite college that wanted them is a better fit.