This is the third and final installment in our series on Dr. John Howard, who played basketball for the University of Cincinnati and Harlem Globetrotters in the 1960s. In the first two entries, we covered his path to becoming a Bearcat, his pro career and walking away from the game. In this piece, we explain his work in literature and education and Howard’s return to the sport in 2012.
John Howard literally walked away from basketball in 1969, placing a ball in the center of the gym of the middle school where he taught and saying goodbye.
He would not pick up a ball again for roughly four decades, fully leaving behind the sport he dedicated so much time and energy to in the early portion of his life.
Instead, Howard committed himself to literature and education. He earned his Ph.D., wrote the first-ever fiction novel without “to be” verbs, penned other books, became the first-ever black Superintendent of the Year in New Jersey, served as a high school principle in Michigan and Connecticut, founded a publishing company and taught English at multiple age levels.
Why did he forfeit a professional basketball career to pursue a life in the classroom?
“If I didn’t, I’d have been just like some of my other buddies who couldn’t put it down,” Howard explained. “I grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I saw guys just like me with talent, and all they ended up doing was nothing. Basketball, football, that’s all they talked about. I couldn’t see it. That wasn’t a life I wanted.”
Howard looked at the structure in basketball and athletics as a whole and accepted some hard truths.
“Even though people are making money in the sport, the people behind the scenes and people owning teams, they’re the ones making the money,” he said. “What they’re giving these basketball players, people think it’s a lot of money. If they can afford to give LeBron James $168 million, for one person, what do you think the team is making?
“They can afford to give one or two people these exorbitant salaries, giving the impression that it’s going to spread across the community. It doesn’t work that way.”
Howard was adamant about having something other than basketball he could rely on for income and fulfillment. Ironically, Howard failed English two separate times in college, although it later became the path that found him.
“I flunked English twice, and I ended up getting a master’s degree in English, he explained, “because I don’t believe in leaving things done.”
But everyone can have, and needs, their own version, he said.
“They got caught up in the sport and didn’t have anything else to fall back on, and you have to have something else to fall back on,” Howard said.
Not everyone agreed with his decision. Some people exited Howard’s life after basketball exited his. It offended some that he would leave the game, but he didn’t care.
“I was criticized for doing this now,” he remembered. “I mean really, I had people stop talking to me, because they wanted me to continue playing basketball. I said, nah, I’m not playing anymore, and that was it, and I didn’t. It was a different thing for me.”
It would be more than 40 years until Howard made his return to basketball, but in 2012, he enacted on a seed that was first planted in his head in the 1970s when he worked for the Michigan Department of Education.
The department put Howard in charge of its sex equity program, which he admittedly knew nothing about at the time. But he learned, on the job and through the women who surrounded and interacted with him through his work.
“I wasn’t into sex equity,” he said. “I didn’t know all the issues that women and young girls were having trying to get a vocational education. Those women basically schooled me on what was going on.”
When he became the principal of a high school in Saginaw, Michigan, Howard worked to get the two best female players in his school, who went on to play major college basketball, on the boy’s team. The state department wouldn’t consider it, but it paved the way for what he would bring to life years later: the first-ever professional co-ed basketball league.
“I always believed that we could have men and women and boys and girls get together and do basketball and other sports, and it could be a whole new league for us,” he said. “I was leaving teaching. I wanted to find something else to do. I came up with the idea of pro co-ed. I saw a need for this. It’s something I’d been pushing for a number of years.”
For one season, Howard ran Center Jump Professional Basketball, Inc., hosting eight teams in a league that was played in the Hudson Valley region of New York.
He added some variables to his league, like a requirement of no more than three players of the same gender filling out the five on the floor, except in specific circumstances. One of the biggest quirks, though, was the four-point shot, available only to women. If a female player made a shot from behind the three-point line, her team was awarded four points.
“The women, given the same situation, they could play just as well as the men,” Howard explained. “The only thing different is they couldn’t dunk. That’s why I put in the four-point shot, only for the women, so they could offset the men’s dunk shot. So, there was a deliberate reason for doing that. It’s not just there for cosmetic purposes. When that guy dunks on that girl, she could come down and hit that four-point shot. The people in the stands would go crazy.”
After the one season and some management turmoil, Howard ran out of capital, and the league has been on hiatus since. He said for registration purposes, he still keeps the brand active, recently running co-ed camps in Michigan that were a success, furthering his belief in the idea of co-ed basketball. Howard is open to restarting the league if he could find the proper sponsor.
“All I need is a sponsor. If I get a sponsor, I can get it off the ground again,” he said. “The people who were with me, we still talk. We would still like to do something. It’s a hell of a moneymaker, and it’s a hell of a concept when you really see this thing in action.”
He continued to open himself back up to basketball in the 2010s as he helped co-found the Greater Columbus Basketball Legends Association (GCBLA) in 2013. Howard serves on the organization’s board and was recently inducted into its Hall of Fame.
The competitive spirit of basketball remained has remained with Howard for the entirety of his life despite the long time away. He has driven himself to be the best at whatever he has set out to do. He has won Teacher of the Year, Principal of the Year and Superintendent of the Year awards, and forged new paths in doing so. What pushed him to be at the top was the same thing that pushed him on the court.
“I never gave up on that. I just rechanneled it to education,” he explained. “The competitive spirit has never waned. It’s still there, even right now.
“I wanted to be better than them. I wanted to write better books than them. I wanted to write more books than them. I wanted to be able to stand in front of my students and say, ‘Here’s my new book.’
“Absolutely, I wanted to be on top. I wanted to be number one. Hell, I don’t want to be number two. I can only count to one, I can’t count two. Competition is always there. I just manifest it in different ways, that’s all.”