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After handling loss, Syracuse basketball point guard Frank Howard was wired to win

Syracuse’s senior point guard has fought the wars. Now he’s ready to lead once more in the trenches.

Getty Images & USA Today | a Ryan Schaefer illustration

Every morning he wakes up, Syracuse Orange point guard Frank Howard looks in the mirror with a sense of purpose and instructs himself on what he needs to do for the day, for both himself and his family.

Each day, he looks down at the permanent blank ink inscribed across his left forearm and is reminded. He reads the date, July 4, 2002. That was the date his brother Jonathan Howard was shot multiple times in the back, and subsequently killed in Suitland, Md. at age 22. Howard was just five years old.

***

Howard grew up in his grandmother’s house just outside of Washington D.C., in Suitland. Born to Jon and Gloria Howard, Frank elevated his status through basketball and made it beyond the borders of his hometown to which he describes as having a “crab in the barrel effect.” Local guys such as Kevin Durant, Nolan Smith and Michael Beasley influenced him early in his career. They made it far in basketball and came back to the DMV area to give back, hosting basketball camps and donating to build courts locally. That showed Howard what could be accomplished through hard work in basketball. Howard’s family was always tight-knit and bonded over sports from the time he was a child. Initially his family introduced Howard to football, but once Frank started to outgrow his peers and have some success on the hardwood, basketball became his path.

By the time he reached middle school his parents would drop him off at school and tell him every day that he was going to be great at something. Losing his brother at such a young age accelerated Howard’s maturation—he’s truly wise beyond his years—and motivated him to do well in both sport and life. The loss molded the way his parents raised him and shaped his personality.

“Seeing that side of my family and my brother, knowing I wanted to do something positive, not that he wasn’t doing anything positive but he got to a point in life where he was trying to figure it out,” Frank said. “It made me figure out what I wanted to do in life kind of early, kind of pick a path and stay on it.”

***

Howard worked diligently on his craft and by the eighth grade he started running with Team Takeover — the most prominent AAU program in the DMV area — and Division I offers started to follow suit. He earned his first Division I offer from the South Florida Bulls in ninth grade, while he was a freshman starter on varsity at Gonzaga High School. But off the court, Howard faced a much larger battle when his grandmother passed away in their family home.

“That was a lot. That was the year, my ninth grade year my grandmother died,” he said. “She died in our house, we came home to her. That’s something I always remember.”

To go from bad to worse, around the same time of his grandmother’s passing, his father was diagnosed with cancer. Howard has always had a great deal of reverence for his father, who supplies a seemingly endless well of inspiration when battling through tough times. Howard’s father set the example for Frank early in life.

“(He’s) definitely one of the physically or mentally strongest men I know,” Howard said of his dad. “You would never really think something like that has happened to him, you know, because he’s so happy. He keeps his energy up. That’s kind of how he’s been his whole life.”

Howard’s dad has since gotten through his cancer, but while handling the hardship, Frank learned an important lesson that would serve him well later in life.

“I think that taught me that life is hard, life is tough. Adversity is going to come. I think that’s what kind of really helped me through my first two years (at Syracuse), kind of understanding that.”

***

Howard would later transfer in his sophomore year of high school to play for Glenn Farello at Paul VI in Virginia, a former coaching spot of current Syracuse basketball assistant coach Adrian Autry. In his sophomore campaign, Howard helped lead the charge for a young team that beat Oak Hill Academy when they were No. 1 in the country and broke their 52-game winning streak. Later that year Paul VI beat Monte Verde — who became the No. 1 team in the country after Oak Hill lost — in the championship game of an early season tournament. Howard had 23 points in that game.

Photo submitted by Paul VI/Glenn Farello

“He was phenomenal,” Farrello said in a phone interview. “Even as young as he was, he kind of arrived on the big stage. He always showed up in the big games for us.”

While Howard was coming into his own as a basketball player and blowing up on the national scene, trials were lurking just around the bend once more. Around the time that Syracuse and other Power Five programs started to recruit him, he tore ACL in the summer of his rising junior year of high school. Even up to that point and throughout the process of the tear, his parents were still telling him that he was going to be great. But once again, Howard was left to handle loss, just in a different form. As he was starting to garner the attention of top Division I programs, Howard would miss his junior year of basketball, forced to rehabilitate his knee.

The loss was not a total one, however, as Howard would gain a new perspective from the bench in his missed season. Farello made Howard his assistant, and the player relished that role. That new lens from the sideline would later be applied to his eventual freshman season at Syracuse when he was coming off the bench. It also prepared him to be a leader and how to be vocal. Although sometimes reserved, Howard is known for his engaging and affable personality at Syracuse, along with his unique vernacular. But back when he was sidelined with injury, it didn’t stop Howard from making light of things and cracking jokes on the bench. Still, he was always engaged, locked in on the task at hand and unafraid to lean into his teammates if he didn’t think they were giving it their all.

“He would get frustrated with guys if we weren’t performing to the level, or we weren’t winning or guys weren’t caring enough about winning, it would get to him,” Farello said. “He’d be able to speak to it and if you’re a kid playing and you see a kid that hasn’t been able to touch a basketball for six months and suit up for a game, you’re (motivated). He’s that passionate.”

During that time Howard was working industriously on the arduous path to knee recovery. When healthy, he’d be in the gym the very next day working on his game after a poor performance. Nothing changed in regards to Howard’s work ethic when he tore his ACL. Farello mentioned that nobody outworked him to recover and that he could have came back and played at the tail end of his junior year if they decided not to rush him back and get him to full strength.

***

Up to that point in Howard’s playing career he was mostly playing off ball at the two-guard position, but Syracuse was one of the few schools recruiting him as a point guard. That — along with a co-sign from former Syracuse basketball player Jerami Grant’s family — played an integral role in his recruitment which ultimately led to Howard picking orange. Howard’s mom and Jerami Grant’s mom would always talk about Syracuse in between Team Takeover practices. The Grant family essentially endorsed Syracuse and thought it would be a good fit for Frank.

Despite the challenges of switching from off-guard to point guard, Howard knew he could be a good leader at the one and when he made his eventual return to the hardwood for his senior year of high school, Farello gave him more reps at the point.

Frank Howard drives past Jayson Tatum in high school | Photo submitted by Paul VI/Glenn Farello

By the end of his senior season, Howard was a consensus top-100 recruit and was nominated to play in the regional Jordan Brand game, among others. He wasn’t interested in playing in what essentially amounted to all-star games, though. He declined and instead elected to prepare for what would amount to a huge leap for his freshman season at Syracuse.

Before officially leaving Suitland and enrolling at Syracuse, Howard made sure to get July 4, 2002 tattooed across his forearm.

“I want to make sure I stay in touch with my roots and what made me. I don’t want to get out of town or go somewhere and lose the essence of what made me. Those events are what push me every day, keep me in the right mindset and keep me level headed. Even at night I say my prayers for my brother, I pray to my fallen friends and family members.”

Syracuse v North Carolina
The July 4, 2002 tattoo on Howard’s left forearm
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

***

During Howard’s freshman season at Syracuse, he earned his spot as the third guard in rotation. He was playing behind two fifth-year seniors in Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney – the former was the starting point guard who had played for the two winningest coaches in college basketball history (Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim), while the latter had already been to a Final Four with Syracuse in 2013.

Howard showed flashes of brilliance that year on the defensive end with his length in the 2-3 zone – his athleticism helped get steals and disrupt shooters. On the other end, he threw lasers for passes to his teammates. He had a knack for setting his teammates up in the right spot to score at the right time.

“Frank can pass this ball better than a lot of guys. He kind of reminds me of Penny Hardaway,” his trainer Musa Kamara said.

Middle Tennessee v Syracuse Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In March of 2016, Syracuse and Howard parlayed their NCAA Tournament invite all the way to college basketball’s grandest stage, March Madness’s final weekend. Before bowing out to North Carolina, Howard and Syracuse made it to the Final Four after beating Dayton, Middle Tennessee, Gonzaga and Virginia. Villanova won the National Championship that season, but to the chagrin of many, Syracuse stole the show.

“At the time it’s hard to understand it. It was crazy,” Howard said of getting to the Final Four. “At the same time we were really happy but we were looking at it like we were just one game away.”

Had Syracuse upset North Carolina it would have played Villanova in the National Championship game. Now when Howard looks back at that run, he sees it as his biggest basketball accomplishment.

NCAA Men’s Final Four Semifinal - Syracuse v North Carolina Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

***

Back when Howard was a junior in high school and recovering from his ACL injury, he crossed paths with Musa Kamara, a basketball trainer in the DMV area. Howard took to Musa and after his freshman season at Syracuse he decided to work with him full-time. In those summer training sessions, Kamara began to retool the mechanics on Howard’s jumper, fixing his form in the process. If Howard would step into the starting point guard spot for his sophomore year he was going to need a better jumper to keep defenses honest.

“This kid works. I mean I’ve worked with a lot of guys and his desire to put in the work is the best I’ve seen,” Kamara said. “He drives 45 minutes to come see me. At his level a lot of players, they wouldn’t do it. They’d say ‘you come see me.’ For him to be at Syracuse at his caliber of player, that was surprising to me.”

Every summer since his freshman year, Howard has worked with Kamara and even when Howard is home for a weekend during the school year they’ll look for gym access in the area to put in work.

This past summer, Kamara said Howard was knocking down (open) threes at a 90-percent clip and that his vertical is now up in the late 30s. His head coach at Syracuse took notice too as Jim Boeheim said Howard was playing some of his best basketball of his career this summer.

“I wanted to work with him this summer so he can instinctively explode and so he can show people that, ‘I will dunk on you and I will beat you down the floor,’ and he has it,” said Kamara. “I can almost bet he has a 37- or 38-inch vertical.”

***

After a promising freshman season, Howard was expected to make a huge leap as he assumed the role of starting point guard as a sophomore. Cooney and Gbinije both graduated, so the natural progression was for Howard to assume the point guard role and make the jump. He was ready to step up and take on a more prominent role.

That is until it didn’t happen. No, not quite.

Howard played well enough throughout the non-conference portion of Syracuse’s schedule, but once the Orange hit ACC play, something changed. Howard started to turn the ball over at an unfavorable rate and was missing shots. It didn’t take long for him to be relegated to the bench, only to be supplanted by graduate transfer John Gillon as the starting point guard.

The narrative quickly became that Howard couldn’t perform in big games. Syracuse was losing in the process and Howard became the scapegoat amongst the Syracuse fan base. The blame had to be pinned on someone and whether it was deserved or unfair, Howard bore the brunt of criticism and public vitriol that season.

But unbeknownst to everyone at that time, Howard was dealing with an undisclosed injury. Nobody knew that Howard tore muscles in his core and groin around the start of ACC play, and as a result his on the court performance suffered.

“It was tough, not being able to move how you’re used to moving and just dealing with the constant nagging injury, it messes with you mentally,” Howard said of his sophomore year injury. “It’s just something hard to do whenever you have to play through injuries. But guys do it. I know I had to do it. I just looked at it like a challenge; see how best I can get through this challenge. I knew it was happening for a reason.”

From the start of ACC play and throughout the rest of the season, the malicious commentary kept coming Howard’s way from fans as Syracuse failed to make the NCAA Tournament in 2017. Once the season ended, Howard had surgery to repair his core and groin muscles.

“No one really knew how hurt he was and he never talked about it. He never used it as an excuse. He just battled. A lot of kids just shut it down and play it too careful and he didn’t. I know the criticism was there and yet he never, I don’t know locally how much he talked or if anyone really knew. But at least in our world, (DMV area) no one even knew,” said Farello, who watches Howard’s Syracuse games.

“He’s a good kid, man. He’s a real good kid. He can be more on the quiet side but I think he’s a tough kid. I think he kind of holds it in but he’s a real softie when you get to know him too,” former Syracuse strength coach Eric Devendorf said. “He’s a good kid off the court, but I think on the court, he does a good job of being even-keeled and doesn’t really show he’s down too much or up too much. He has a nice balance to it.”

In this instance, it’s almost as if Howard’s nature worked against him, at least in terms of public perception. Any other player would have just gone to the media and made their injury known to clear their name. But Howard never felt the need to do that and if he did, he never acted on it.

“Guys do a lot of talking from the outside. I’ve kind of always had a mute ear. I didn’t get caught up in all that, at least I tried not to,” he said.

***

After his disappointing sophomore season, no one knew what to expect from Howard in 2017-18. Rumors circled about his intent to transfer from Syracuse, but he handled the criticism, the shaming and disdain, and returned for his junior year despite all of that. He refused to play the victim and he came back in a big way, emerging as the vocal and on-court leader of the Syracuse basketball team while leading the ACC in multiple categories.

“I feel like I’m the type of dude that’s never just (going to) kind of flunk around or have a down spirit. My dad and my mom raised me a little better than that to push through,” Howard noted. “So the struggles on the court, yeah it was tough but it helped me grow as a person so I appreciate it and got a lot better from it.”

“As you get older and you go through stuff, you learn. And that’s what it’s about. He’s had a lot of growth on and off the court,” Devendorf said.

Howard once again started the season as the team’s starting point guard last year and it was a role he’d never relinquish. His backup at the position (Geno Thorpe) left the team in December. Then, thrust into the role of Howard’s understudy, freshman Howard Washington tore his ACL in late January. Suddenly, Frank Howard was the only available scholarship point guard on the Syracuse roster, but he was already playing some of his best basketball of the season in the ACC.

Howard finished second in the country in minutes played, behind only his backcourt teammate Tyus Battle. He led the ACC in steals at two per game, finished fifth in the conference in assists with 5.2 per game for a notably bad shooting team, and he finished 13th in the conference in scoring as he poured in 15.2 points per contest. Frank finished second in the ACC’s most improved player award voting. The conversation around Howard started to shift, and fans started to appreciate his on court efforts.

Syracuse v Arizona State Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

“I knew how much work I put in. I knew it was going to show at some point. I knew I’d be able to showcase some of my skills because me and Coach (Boeheim) talked about the rotation and stuff so I knew I would be on the floor. I just knew I had to perform. I knew what the pressure was I just had to attack, not shy away from it.”

In large part thanks to the troika of Howard, Battle and Oshae Brissett, an undermanned and overworked Syracuse squad returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2018 as the last at-large team invited to the Big Dance. Syracuse was given an 11-seed and forced to play in the First Four, but Howard and Syracuse once again turned heads and overachieved in March, beating Arizona State, TCU and title-contender Michigan State in succession while making an unexpected trip to the Sweet 16. Syracuse won three games in a five-day span with a severely limited bench. All the while, Howard played though the NCAA Tournament with strep throat, a small bump in the road when considering everything else he’s fought through.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round- Michigan State Spartans vs Syracuse Orange Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

***

Follow Howard long enough and you’ll begin to realize that he has his own patois. Last season, he had a homecoming of sorts when playing at Georgetown. He came up with a big steal late in the game and took the ball coast to coast for a bucket which sent the game into overtime. It was a big outing for him which resulted in a Syracuse win so he walked off the court proclaiming, “I do that in D.C., I do that down here.” Moments later, in the locker room he followed that up with, “They think it’s sweet, it’s the real deal, man.”

Vintage Howard.

“It’s our side of town (Suitland) talking,” Kamara said. “In this side of town you get a lot of ‘oh you think it’s sweet over here? It’s not. Ain’t nothing sweet over here.’”

“And then he says ‘ay yungn’ and that means a whole lot,” Kamara elaborated. “It’s like he’ll look at you and be like ‘ay yungn’ and then he’ll pause. That means whatever you’re doing, switch up, stop. I’m not about to go for it, it ain’t sweet over here. That’s a warning because again, he doesn’t play much.”

Later, as Syracuse was making waves in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Howard was making some waves of his own and created a newfound identity. Ask any opponent, going up against the 2-3 zone can leave you in a state of catatonia, the zone is the fog of war that leaves opponents second-guessing their decisions. You can game plan for it but when you see the length up top — Howard and Battle are 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 as guards, respectively — it can be intimidating. Howard and his backcourt mate are always ready for battle. In the 2018 tournament, ‘In the trenches’ was born, as was ‘coming out every time,’ but more so the former.

“It’s a little slang I got from being home, being in the trenches really means you’re in the bad neighborhood,” Howard explained. “In the army you know in the trenches back in the, what was it, World War I? They were in the trenches in the hardest times. I have friends in the ACC they always tell me how hard it is to play against us and stuff. I was hype after one game and just said it and I just kept rolling with it. It became my identity.”

In the trenches, or truncated simply to ‘trenches,’ spread like wildfire throughout the Syracuse fan base. Everyone starting shouting it and blasting it out on social media. That’s carried over throughout the summer but faded slightly into the preseason. When Howard makes a big play this year or has a big game, you can bet Syracuse fans will be putting trench back into their regular vocabulary.

“I feel like that’s just how people from my hometown talk. I guess a different type of slang, especially for New Yorkers. We got a different way of saying things,” Howard joked. “Especially being a point guard you gotta be vocal so I need my voice to be heard a lot, whether I want it to or not.”

Trench work | Howard greets his dad (below) after Syracuse’s upset of Michigan State to reach the 2018 Sweet 16

***

That brings Howard to his swan song at Syracuse. He’ll once again be Syracuse’s point guard as a senior this season, and he’ll have a replenished team around him this year, which will be more tailored to Howard’s strengths. He can facilitate more and be a playmaker this season, as opposed to being forced to score so much for his team. Boeheim noted that he still wants Howard to score the ball, maybe average one or two points more per game. But Boeheim mostly wants Howard to be more efficient on offense, and to cut down on turnovers. With more ball handlers in the fold, the onus won’t be just on Howard to handle the pressure in his final year.

“Going into this last year is kind of full throttle, giving it all I got is what me and Coach talked about. He always tells me how good of a year I had and he always tells me I could do so much more and that’s what I plan on doing,” Howard said.

After his senior season, Howard wants to play basketball professionally, but that’s not his focus right now. The Syracuse basketball players have a group chat that they use communicate with each other. The texts of winning it all started in that group chat this summer when Battle announced his decision to forego the NBA draft and return to Syracuse. The guys have been pretty vocal of their goal for this season.

“Championship is what we talk about,” Howard said with conviction. “We want to put that in perspective. Guys got a little taste of it getting to the Sweet 16. We know we’re capable of doing that, going deep in the tournament. We understand the process; I think that’s the difference. Guys understand that it’s not going to happen quick and if you look past, you’re going to miss out or lose. We want to take it day by day.”

You don’t win a championship in November, but you can lose one. It starts with a standard of excellence, from the summer workouts to the preseason, up until the first official tip and throughout the course of the season. It might not be about reaching the summit as much as it is the journey, but the goal is set in stone. Now is when it counts. This is what you work so hard for.

“I have a lot of high hopes. I want us to be the best out of anybody. I want to hold us to a standard now, especially because we have guys coming back. I just want to attack the hype as well. I want us to be a confident team and play for one another as well,” He finished.

That’s Frank Howard. His environment molded him. From being raised in Suitland, to losing his brother, his grandmother, handling the hardships of his father’s cancer, tearing his ACL and losing his junior year of high school basketball, to being demoted as a sophomore in college. All of these experiences have wired him into a winner. In his two NCAA Tournament appearances he’s made it at least to the Sweet 16. He’s the only one on the current team to have played in a Final Four. All of that has Howard hoping to have Final Four bookends on each end of his college basketball career.

The above and final quote is as fitting as it is symbolic, capturing the essence of Frank Howard. He’s leading the charge, always attacking life head on. He’s elevating the people around him, making them better while simultaneously holding them accountable.

He’s in the trenches. Coming out every time.

For Syracuse basketball stories and updates, follow James on twitter @JamesSzuba

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