Howard follows in family's footsteps

DETROIT -- The twin sisters, who sit side-by-side wearing identical outfits, can't stay still.

They're up and down, springing from the bleachers like a pair of jack-in-the-boxes. They're constantly yelling, pumping their fists, never losing track of the game in front of them.

On the floor, Juwan Howard Jr. has learned to tune them out.

Which, as anyone who knows Markita Blyden and Nakita Hatcher will admit, isn't easy.

By now, though, Howard -- the son of 16-year NBA veteran and former Michigan star Juwan Howard -- has grown accustomed to it.

Oh, he sees his mother and aunt carrying on in the stands and, yes, there are times he has gone home and pleaded with his mother to tone it down a bit. But deep down, he knows it's just his family's way of being there for him.

"When I was younger, I used to let it get to me," says Howard Jr., a senior at Detroit's Pershing High School. "Now, I just keep playing."

And as Howard plays, his mother, Blyden, and his aunt, Hatcher, never lose sight of his every move.

The sisters aren't difficult to pick out. They wear matching bright yellow T-shirts reading "All for One, One for All." They both keep matching blue and gold boas draped around their necks, completing their game-day ensembles with a collection of blue-and-yellow rubber bracelets on their wrists.

Basketball is in their blood.

In 1990, the twin sisters guided Detroit's Murray Wright High School to the Class A state championship game. Blyden finished her senior season as the runner-up for Michigan's Miss Basketball honor, averaging 19.4 points, eight rebounds and five assists a game.

Twenty years later, her love for the game is carried out by her son.

Blyden, along with her sister, remain front and center in Pershing's fan base. They dance as nearby cheerleaders chant rhythmically, stomping on an aging wooden floor that vibrates when a dozen feet make contact with it at the same time. The sisters often draw the attention of referees, who glance in their direction, smile and hold up their whistles, offering them the chance to do the job better.

But for Howard Jr., who maintains contact with his father mainly through text messages and an average of three weekly phone calls, the antics of his mother and aunt come out of love. Not only for the game or for Pershing basketball, but for the teenager they have had a big hand in guiding on his journey toward manhood.

"People usually don't have females into it like that who really know the game," Howard Jr. says. "It's been an advantage to have a father who is in the NBA -- he can tell you and give you stuff other parents can't give you, but there's a lot of stuff I'll get from my mom, and it's just great to have that family support."

Howard's family ties are easy to pick out through basketball -- a game that now links him together with his two biggest fans. But watching Howard Jr. also gives the sisters a way to remain connected to basketball.

"We feel like we're in high school all over again," Hatcher says. "I feel his energy by sitting here and watching, and you can never put into words how that feels. But we've always been there for [Howard Jr.], but with his dad in the NBA, as long as he can look into the stands and see us, that's all that counts. It all plays a big part."

As much as Blyden and Hatcher live and breathe Pershing basketball, their main rooting interest remains Howard Jr., who has managed to carve out a niche despite having to play in his father's shadow. Around Detroit, Juwan Howard remains a folk hero, having played for Michigan's much-celebrated Fab Five in the early 1990s.

But by sharing a name with his father -- who now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers -- there has been added pressure.

When Pershing plays on the road, Blyden routinely hears the talk around her -- the derogatory comments comparing Howard Jr. with his father.

"You'll never be anything like your dad," some people say, according to Blyden.

"You're sorry just like your dad was," others mock, trying to knock Howard off his game.

Howard Jr. ignores such talk, using it as motivation to sharpen his skills. Since arriving at Pershing prior to his junior year, the nation's No. 81 small forward has spent long hours in the gym. He'll often arrive before practice to get extra shots in and stay late, working on moves to round out his game. Next school year, he will begin his college career at Western Michigan. He has developed into a well-rounded player, playing with the basketball intelligence he credits to his father while also perfecting a smooth perimeter shooting touch he says he inherited from his mother. Yet his game is his own.

"It's a blessing to have two parents that really know the game," Howard Jr. says. "But I've been able to make a name for myself. I don't worry about my mom or my dad. I just worry about me. I'm not trying to be them. I'm just trying to be me."

Blyden and Hatcher, who went on to play collegiately at Salem International University in West Virginia, have never put pressure on Howard Jr. to reach a certain level. Instead, they have watched as he has put in the time to earn his own reputation.

But even after he turns in a stellar performance, Howard Jr. will get home and hear it from his biggest fan.

"You score 39, you know what? That's nothing on what we scored," Blyden says. "He's seen the scrapbooks at home and he figures, 'I've got my mama and my auntie -- I've got to step my game up.'"

Howard Jr. smiles when he hears such talk, knowing it's just his mother's way of letting him know she's got his best interest at heart.

And on the days when he'll stop during a break in a game and see the two sisters doing what they do, a smile will slowly creep across his face, knowing it's their way of lending their support.

"That really just makes me play harder," he says. "I want to make my mom proud of me and my family proud."

And by the looks of it, he's doing just fine.

Jeff Arnold is a sportswriter in Michigan.