Though he was drafted in the NBA and ABA, Dr. John Howard spent his professional basketball career on a different path.
The University of Cincinnati-product was selected in the 1968 NBA and ABA Drafts, getting picked by the Denver Rockets in the ABA and Cincinnati Royals in the NBA.
Howard never had any intentions of playing in the ABA as he didn’t believe in its future, and while he felt better about the NBA, he wasn’t married to it. Back in those days, Europe wasn’t an option.
“The only thing out there at that time was the NBA and the ABA,” Howard said.
His plan was to return to school in the fall to complete his student teaching requirement, the last obstacle standing between Howard and his degree. He moved to California for the summer but later received a call from his mother about an opportunity.
“Apparently, one of the scouts for the Globetrotters had been watching me, and they told management about me,” Howard explained. “All I know is, my mother is the one who called me that the Globetrotters were calling her. I don’t know how they got my mother’s number, but they called because they couldn’t reach me, and I was out in California. I was out on the beaches having fun.”
This happens right after Howard started student teaching, so he went to his advisor to discuss. She told him she would let him go to join the Globetrotters, but he was to return and complete his work after the season ended.
“That was a promise that she made and that was a promise that I kept,” he said.
Howard went to the team’s camp and was one of the top performers. He won a spot on the squad, and with that, he was a Harlem Globetrotter for the 1968-69 season.
The Globetrotters played Howard at the shooting guard position, which was a deviation from the small forward role he held in college. When he was originally recruited to play at Ohio University, the coaches told him he would play point guard, but when that fell through and Howard wound up at Cincinnati, the Bearcats wanted to utilize his size and jumping ability in a forward position.
It wasn’t until he lined up at the two-guard spot that he realized how wrong Cincinnati was.
“The Globetrotters, under Leon Hillard, gave me that opportunity to play the guard spot, and that position really opened up a different perspective for me in looking at basketball,” Howard said. “I didn’t realize how beautiful that position would have been for me with my jumping ability, my jump shot, my passing and defense and playing up front versus the wing.”
It allowed Howard, or The Cincinnati Kid, as he was known among the Globetrotters, to take full advantage of his skill set, including his shooting. He was deadly from deep, and both he and his coach knew it.
“Hillard came to me after the first game and said, ‘Kid, I’mma make your job easy,’” Howard remembered. “’I saw you in camp, and I know what you can do. Any time you cross half court, that’s your shot.’ I said, ‘What do you mean that’s my shot?’ He said, ‘You let it go. You shoot it.’”
“You’re talking about the three-point shot? For me, that would have been a layup,” he continued with a laugh. “These guys are shooting NBA three-point shots? That was an easy shot for me.”
Howard recalled a night in a large arena where he was on absolute fire. He sunk 12 shots in a row, all from deep, in the first half, dazzling his teammates and whipping the crowd into a frenzy. The fans were calling his number, something that would typically only happen for the most famous players, a sign of something special brewing.
He went into the locker room at halftime feeling like a million bucks.
“We got back out after halftime, and I figure I’d be out on the court again, ready to do my thing, and I’m sitting on the bench.” Howard explained. “It’s the third quarter, and by the end of the third quarter, I’m still sitting on the bench. I didn’t say anything. Some of the guys on the team were saying, ‘Why don’t you get Cincinnati in? What’s going on, man?’ to the coach, Leon, and Leon didn’t say anything.
“So, fourth quarter started, and I think, well okay, fourth quarter, I know I’ll be in there, keep doing my thing. I’m still sitting on the bench. By the end of the game, I’m sitting on the bench the second half. I didn’t get back in the game. I was a little upset with the coach, but I didn’t say anything.
“I’m going to the locker room, and Leon got everybody together. He said, ‘Now, I know you guys are wondering why I didn’t put Cincinnati back in the game.’ I was the first one to speak. I said, ‘Yeah, I sure want to know what’s going on.’ He said, ‘Because we are a show, and you, Kid, you put on a shooting exhibition. Somewhere in those people’s minds, they will tell stories that you will never know about. They will tell stories that they saw a Globetrotter hit 12 shots in a row from great distances, and they were excellent athletes. What if you came out in the third quarter and missed a shot?’ I said, ‘Wow, I didn’t think of it that way,’ and that was it.”
The Kid’s Globetrotter days were put on hiatus for the summer of 1969 as he had to return to student teaching. The team told him to meet back in Allentown, Pennsylvania, at the end of the summer, and Howard agreed.
Howard showed up in Allentown as promised and played at outdoor game on a portable court in the parking lot of a new strip mall.
“That was the last game that I played,” he said.
All in all, Howard said he had a great experience with the Globetrotters. In fact, if teaching hadn’t grabbed him like it did, he would have probably rejoined with the team for a second season, he said.
He returned to Columbus, found a job as a custodian and went to work until he found a teaching position a little later. The Globetrotters sent him a letter telling him to meet in Chicago on Oct. 1, as they always did. Howard told management he was going to stay and teach, and with that, not only did his professional basketball career end, but it would be multiple decades until Howard would hold a rock again in any capacity.
It wasn’t a popular decision among those surrounding him. Howard said the disapproval was public.
“I was criticized for doing this now,” he explained. “I mean really, I had people stop talking to me, because they wanted me to continue playing basketball. I said no, I’m not playing anymore, and that was it, and I didn’t. It was a different thing for me.”
The ex-Globetrotter went to the gym of the high school he taught at and said goodbye to the game that gave him so much.
“When I was at Franklin Junior High School as a first-year teacher in ’69 after coming back from the ‘Trotters, I went to the gym, took one of the balls out of the rack, and I literally had a conversation with the basketball,” Howard said. “I had the ball in my hand, and I said, ‘Look, you got me this far, you got me a college degree, I played pro.’ Walked to center court, sat the ball at the center court, and I said, ‘I’ll see you later,’ and I walked away.”
This is the second entry in our series on Dr. John Howard. We encourage you to read the first, dissecting his amateur playing days. We will continue our coverage of Howard next week as we explain his success in education and academia and his return to basketball as the founder of a co-ed professional league.