- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2001

Juwan Howard played the martyr card before he skipped town.

Howard, of course, came to be a symbol of all that was wrong with the franchise, if not with the NBA's collective-bargaining agreement, and so they booed him in Tony Cheng's neighborhood.

It was tough, hard, unfair.

"I don't wish that on anyone," Howard said.

But he would not have to wish his situation on anyone. He would have to beat people off with a stick to keep them from trying to trade places with him.

Most people would be happy to be booed in exchange for $105 million. Most people, if $105 million were on the table, would set up at midcourt a couple of hours before the game and encourage all the fans to exercise their lung power to the fullest.

This is tough? This is hard? This is unfair?

When you instruct your children that life sometimes is not fair, Howard is not the person who comes to mind.

It was not fair that Maurice Stokes was permanently paralyzed after hitting his head on the floor during a game. It was not fair that Pete Maravich played on a succession of bad teams during his career and then, at age 40, supposedly in good health, died of a heart attack while playing in a 3-on-3 pickup basketball game.

All kinds of things in life are not fair, and being booed because the team is anemic, because your bloated contract limits the team's ability to right itself, is the least of it.

This is not to suggest that Howard is an ill-tempered guy or a pampered guy. He is just another professional athlete who is self-absorbed enough to dumb down the concept of adversity.

Howard signed the contract, as anyone would have, and seemingly neglected to calculate the burden that accompanied it. He's not the first professional athlete to be caught in the money-induced vortex of expectations, and he won't be the last.

There are no free rides in life, although it is easy to understand how professional athletes might think so. Being a professional athlete is the closest thing there is to a free ride. Pro athletes are paid incredible sums of money to play a game that any number of ordinary citizens play as a healthy release from their workaday concerns.

Howard was not an indifferent underachiever. He was a professional in that sense. He played hard while he was with the Wizards. He was just miscast in Washington, and he contributed to the miscasting. He pushed for the contract.

He could have accepted the team's original offer of $89 million in the summer of '96. That's not chump change, however you add it up. But Howard had an issue with the team's front office, stemming from his rookie contract negotiated by John Nash. He felt as though he had been shortchanged and 1996 was his pay back. He was determined to wring every penny he could out of his free agency, and between his layover in Miami and return to Washington, that exactly is what he did.

You wonder if that extra $16 million ended up being worth it to him. The extra cash changed everything. It changed the public's perceptions of him. It changed the expectations. It came to define who he was as a player, and it did not matter how many 18-point, 8-rebound games he put together.

He was not a franchise player, and yet that is how he was judged because of his $105 million contract. His time in Washington probably would have been a whole lot more pleasant if he had not dared to cross the $100 million mark. That was an unofficial barrier.

Howard will be perceived differently in Dallas, partly because Mark Cuban is a wild and crazy geek who often overshadows his team.

Howard won't be a focal point on the floor, either, cast as he is behind Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. He is expected to be a contributor instead of a heavy lifter. That fits his competency level and personality.

Howard has gone to a good place, a playoff-bound team, where he won't have to explain himself or justify his contract, and better yet, he won't be the target of disagreeable fans.

About those critics: Howard should excuse them for not feeling his $105 million pain.

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