Photo by Emily Rose Imagery

By Marji Wisniewski

Before our interview, all I knew about Jenine Howard was that she was the wife of UM basketball’s head coach, Juwan Howard. To find out more, I started with checking out her social media profile; I was instantly intrigued. Jenine doesn’t define herself as Juwan Howard’s wife (even though they make an awesome team). She has many diverse passions and plays many roles in her life. As she begins to write her next chapter here in Ann Arbor, she’s looking forward to discovering herself even more. 

Mother| Life Partner | Creative | Truth Seeker | Fashion Enthusiast | Cancer Crusader | Cliff Jumper | Island-Made | Brooklyn-Raised | Singer | Writer | Business Owner | Philanthropist

I’m sitting here surrounded by boxes and to-do lists — a familiar feeling for me, as we’ve moved many times. My husband, Juwan Howard, was in the NBA for 19 years. He played for eight different teams, some more than once. In 2019, Juwan became head coach for the University of Michigan men’s basketball team. We are only now getting settled into our Ann Arbor home. Last year I stayed in Miami with our two sons, Jace (19) and Jett (17), while Jace finished his senior year. 

Right now, I’m focused on unpacking and making this house feel like home. Being that it’s mid-September, I’m already googling apple orchards in the area. I can’t wait to pick apples, see the fall colors, and breathe in the crisp fall air. I want to fully immerse myself in all the things that Michigan has to offer. I’m looking forward to experiencing fall and winter in a new climate. 

I do miss my family in Florida, but I’m excited for what lies ahead here. I wake up each day reflecting and giving thanks. I reflect on the excitement I feel to see Juwan back at Michigan (he was part of the Michigan Fab Five in 1991). I’m excited to be part of this tradition. I love that I get to see Jace play for his dad’s team, to see his games, and see him get to know and embrace his teammates. I’m going to be the biggest cheerleader, not just for my husband and my son, but for the entire team.

TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK

The Howard family mantra is “Teamwork makes the dream work.” Juwan had a painting commissioned by RETNA, an artist out of California who uses a secret language to express his art. You cannot tell with the naked eye what the painting says, but it reflects our family’s values. 

When Michigan hired Juwan, he repeatedly said that “it’s all about family.” That’s even more true this year, as Jace is playing for his dad as part of the recruiting class of 2020. 

Since childhood, Jace’s dream has been to play for the University of Michigan. Early on he was recruited here for football, but over time, basketball became his passion. Being recruited by Michigan to play is an amazing opportunity for him. He’s navigating his way on Michigan’s campus as an athlete and plans to study international business. He speaks Mandarin and wants to travel the world. He has always been pretty focused in life. I’m excited to see what he gives himself and what he does with his time here.

Our son, Jett, could potentially be playing for his dad one day as well. He’s a beautiful contrast to his brother Jace — he’s more like his Mama, dancing to his own tune. He is not a follower. He loves Michigan, but he’s keeping his options open and has not committed to any situation. In his junior year of high school, he wants to play the game and make his own legacy. Jett knows himself well, and he wasn’t excited about moving to a new city for his junior year. He opted to go to a prep school and stay in Florida. He will play on a national basketball team competing against other teams across the country. 

RESTLESS BUT HOPEFUL

As a mom, I love my sons’ independent spirits and passion for adventure. But I also love having them home with me. When they’re out, I can’t sleep until I know they’re safe at their destination. Regardless of the privileged lifestyle that Jace and Jett have grown up with, they are still young Black men. There’s a different conversation that needs to be had about if or when they get pulled over when they’re driving. A few years back, Jace and I were pulled over in Miami by five police cars with sirens blaring. One officer approached Jace’s side of the car with his hand on his gun. They told us that we had run a stop sign. It was petrifying. These are real things that happen. Not saying they do not happen to other people, but as an African American family, it’s something we must continuously discuss and prepare for.

The climate of the world right now saddens me. The racial divisiveness saddens me. Raising Black sons comes with a unique set of fears that I’m not sure is as prevalent in other American families. I feel like we are going backwards instead of forward. At the same time, part of me feels like this needed to happen. We needed to shake things up so that we could have the awareness to address certain things and implement changes. We need to raise our collective consciousness for all the issues we’ve been sweeping under the rug.

I believe in reaching out and having tough conversations with others of differing opinions. I encourage us to listen to people from different parties and different socio-economic backgrounds. I think we all care about our kids and want the best for our families. We have so much more in common than what seemingly separates and divides us.

I also encourage people to take this November election seriously and vote. Not just vote in the general election, but also in our communities for our judges and local representatives. This is where we’ll start seeing some effective change.

ROOTS AND WINGS

I am the second of four girls. My father was an airline pilot who, much like Juwan, moved us around a lot. I think that may be why I’m able to adapt fairly quickly, even to the point of craving change. Wherever we were or whatever life threw our way, my parents taught us to stick together, and I’ve always felt grounded in love.

Juwan and I have a blended family of seven, and we’re very proud that our kids are extremely close. We always stress to them that when we’re gone, their sibling relationships will become the most meaningful. It’s important to nurture those bonds for the generations to follow.

My parents were both born in Aruba by chance. Their parents had migrated there from Grenada in the 1940s; the job opportunities at the oil refinery attracted families from all over the Caribbean. When the refinery closed, my father’s family moved back to Grenada and my mother’s family moved to Brooklyn, New York. Years later, they met while in Grenada and married. They stayed in the Caribbean and my father took a job as a pilot with a commuter airline.  

When I was five, our family moved to Brooklyn. The part of Brooklyn where we were raised was a melting pot of the Caribbean. I was able to absorb many aspects of Caribbean culture there; I am deeply passionate and proud of my Caribbean roots.

I graduated high school from a performing arts school in Manhattan as a theater major. But it was actually singing that had always come naturally to me. My mom was a singer in the 1960s Motown era; her group was called The Lollipops. She toured all over Europe and performed in shows with The Jackson Five. She also performed at the Apollo Theater. My most cherished memories are of my mom singing around our house on Sunday mornings. I grew up around the greatest voice.

Right out of high school, I was offered a recording contract with Epic Records, a subsidiary of Sony Records. I felt like I had made it. I chose a college near the recording studio and recorded an entire album with my music group Onome, Nigerian for “My Own.” Unfortunately, our album was shelved and then the label dropped us. The group split up, but it allowed me to pursue music on my own. I was recording a solo album when Juwan and I fell in love.  

I don’t know how my life would have turned out had the album been a success. I believe that little snag gave me the opportunity to be creative in many other ways. I opened and operated my own medical spa for seven years, and I still own a CBD company. The opportunity to create music is still there, as it’s my nature to be creative.

THE NBA

Juwan and I met in his second year in the NBA. We moved around a lot; it was tough, especially with the kids. When we first got married, he said that he’d only play for ten years. Ten years later, he still wanted to win a championship. That turned into him saying, “They’re going to have to kick me out, I want to win a ring.”

I love the game. But I never loved the lifestyle; there was a bit of a dark side to the NBA. I did, however, make some good friends along the way who were in the same position as us. It was a sisterhood of players’ wives to cling to; they understood what I was going through, as they were going through the same things. It was a language only we spoke. We formed tight bonds and our kids grew up together.

When we got to Miami, Juwan had been with the NBA for 17 years. I thought he’d lost his mind, as he was still playing the game nearly twice as long as he said he would, but there were chances to win a championship there in Miami. I felt if he could win, then he would retire. He had worked hard and had an amazing career. He had been the rookie, the franchise player, and then the guy that comes off that bench last. He ran the gamut of every opportunity. What else could he possibly want? 

So, when we won the first ring, I assumed that was it. But then he worked towards a second ring. During that time, I noticed that he was not playing as much on the court, but being valued more as a mentor to the younger players. That’s when I saw his passion start to shift. 

19 years after the start of his career, he became a player’s coach and then an assistant coach for the Miami Heat. I admit that when he took the assistant coaching job, it hurt me. I won’t sugarcoat that fact. By then, I wanted nothing to do with the NBA anymore. 70-80% of marriages to NBA members fail after the players retire. My thought was that we should salvage what we had left and get the hell out of there. I wanted to ride off into the sunset as a family to some little corner of the earth. 

But I saw a different spark in him, a different energy. He really enjoys teaching the game. So I supported him, begrudgingly at first. Soon, however, we took on this new challenge together. 

He went into coaching, and other NBA teams started calling him. I began to realize we would most likely be moving again, which felt like a lot. When The University of Michigan called, there was spark in his eyes. He had never entertained coaching on a college level, but I knew he would take the Michigan job if the opportunity were right; I could tell by the look on his face. He came home that night and said, “I think this is my calling, to mentor young men. I was mentored and this is what I’m supposed to do – to give back.” I knew I had to support him. This felt bigger than us, if it was a calling than that’s God and we need to follow that. That’s how we made the decision that brought us here. He loves it and he wants nothing else but to be here!  

THE JUICE FOUNDATION

One of my passions that I left behind in Miami, but hope to reignite here, is the Juice Foundation. The inspiration for the foundation came about ten years ago when Juwan’s friend, Lamont “Juice” Carter, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It was a stage four diagnosis that had metastasized. He was 38 years old and Juwan’s absolute best friend in the world. Traditional medicine left very few options, and the hospital wanted to send him home to die. We wanted him to have a fighting chance. We started researching alternative treatments and sent him to a clinic in Mexico where he received cutting edge treatment. Although doctors initially gave him only five months to live, he lived almost two years after his initial diagnosis.

Through the process of caring for Juice, our eyes were opened to the fact that alternative medicine was for the rich, limited to only those who could afford it, and we felt that that wasn’t fair. Juwan and I wanted to find a way to offer alternate medicine to anyone who needed it. We wanted a way to inform sick patients about better nutritional choices. For example, when Juice was getting treatment in the hospital, they would give him Jell-O, a food that had no nutritional value. We wanted to change people’s awareness of nutrients and their power to help fight disease in general, not just cancer. 

We partnered with the Miami Heat, the University of Miami Sylvester Center, local farmers, holistic suppliers, and health stores. With fashion being one of my favorite creative outlets for expressing myself, I knew I wanted to tie it into this project. We hosted our Fashion for a Cause Show annually. The shows had pediatric oncology superstars working the runway with Miami Heat players. Alongside the fashion shows, we educated families about the way nutrition can support modern medicine. The children and families that attended had a great time, and I’m still in touch with many of them today. I still hold that experience close to my heart. The Juice Foundation is not currently active, as it was a Miami-based foundation, although I do have ideas on how I might give it new life here in Michigan. 

DEFINING SUCCESS 

Success, to me, is a measure of how happy you are. Happiness comes from contentment, from being satisfied with what you have. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be ambitious, but just be grateful for what you have now. Be thankful for your health. 2020 has taught us all that health is wealth. I’m grateful for my sound mind, my health, a roof over my head, and being able to watch my children grow. I have an amazing group of friends and family. That is success to me. I don’t want for much else in life. 

Juwan and I are grateful to be in Michigan with this incredible opportunity. Juwan is the only Black head coach in the Big 10. This is bigger than us, and we feel a great sense of responsibility to our people and to our culture. We want to make the Alumni proud, Ann Arbor proud, everyone proud. 

This next phase in my life has me looking forward to new opportunities for self-growth. I want to work on making this house a home, so that no matter where our kids are in the world, they have a place to come home to. I want to be actively living in my creative spaces, where I feel more fulfilled. I want to focus on more happiness, more joy, and more gratitude.

Say hello if you see me around town. I might be at an art gallery, recording studio, theater, shopping for winter clothes, or just grabbing some cider and donuts. I’d love to say hello back, and perhaps a “Go Blue!”

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