MILWAUKEE — The image of Markus Howard on the wall of the Marquette basketball meeting room seems perfect. It shows Howard, the Golden Eagles’ leading scorer and one of the most dynamic players in the Big East Conference, in the middle of a team huddle. All eyes are on him, his stature and his leadership unquestioned.
If Marquette (23-8) is to pull out of its four-game losing streak and advance through this week’s conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, Howard, who on Wednesday was named the Big East’s player of the year, will need to make his usual assortment of fallback jumpers, 3-pointers and twisting drives to the basket. That is the basketball burden Howard, a 5-foot-11 junior guard, carries onto the court. But it is not why the image on the wall makes him uncomfortable.
“A lot of what I want to be remembered for here at Marquette is not for what I’ve done on the court, but what I’ve done off,” Howard said. “I think my impact is made bigger when I do something for somebody else.”
Like talking about why he sees a therapist.
Marquette, like many universities, offers mental health services to students who request them. Howard, unlike many college athletes, is eager to discuss his experience.
For about a year, he has been seeing a licensed clinical social worker trained in psychotherapy, someone he and his family refer to as a sports psychologist. That suggests someone versed in the mental side of athletic performance.
But Howard said he sought help for balancing the daily demands of college life, managing class work and outside interests with basketball. His weekly therapy sessions are continuing, he said. With more and more athletes publicly discussing their mental health struggles, from the Olympians Michael Phelps and Gracie Gold to the N.B.A. star Kevin Love, Howard said he felt he owed it to anyone reluctant to ask for help to lend his voice as well.
“A lot of people in my position wouldn’t want to say anything,” Howard said. “It’s a duty of mine, to be in the position I’m in, to be able to raise awareness of these kinds of issues going on in our sport. I would be doing a disservice to the people around me and the people in the same situation as me if I didn’t speak up.”
That is not the only instance in which Howard’s leadership extends beyond basketball and his team. Together with the lacrosse player Nick Singleton, Howard founded a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter on campus after they returned a spring trip to build basketball courts in Costa Rica with a group of Marquette athletes. Howard is also one of two student-athletes on the 16-member N.C.A.A. Division I men’s basketball oversight committee.
“Given all the success that he has, he still has, to me, a servant’s heart,” Coach Steve Wojciechowski said.
Three years ago, Howard arrived on Marquette’s campus in Milwaukee as a 17-year-old prodigy from Chandler, Ariz., by way of the high school powerhouse Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev. He had just won an under-17 world championship with U.S.A. Basketball.
As a college freshman, he led the nation in 3-point shooting, setting a Marquette record (.547) and making the Big East’s all-freshman team. A year later he averaged 20.4 points and set Marquette’s single-game scoring record: 52 points, in an overtime victory at Providence. After the game, Friars Coach Ed Cooley described Howard as Superman.
But near the end of that season, with increasing attention on his play and Marquette’s, Howard said he felt overwhelmed. His parents, Chuck and Noemi, sensed something was wrong when they visited him for a game; so did Wojciechowski and the Golden Eagles’ staff. Howard seemed quieter, more withdrawn.
Chuck Howard, formerly the athletics performance director at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, figured Marquette had mental health services available for athletes. The family discussed Howard’s engaging with them with the basketball staff.
“That was something we felt like would be helpful for Markus, having an outlet to talk to somebody about what he’s feeling, thinking, and all the things that are coming at him,” Wojciechowski said. “We encouraged it. We encourage anything that is going to help our guys become better people, because better people make better players.”
“Mainly, it’s getting how things away from the court impact me on the court,” he said. “We can see what might be causing a problem, then try to fix it to where it doesn’t even come into contact when I do start playing, so I can have a free mind when I play.
“As a student-athlete, you think your life revolves around the game. That’s not the case. I want to talk about all aspects of life so I can grow in all aspects of life, not just in my sport. I feel like if I’m the best version of myself, I can give the best version of myself to other people. So I want to be able to do that on the court and off.”
At times, Chuck Howard said, Markus had to be prodded to go to sessions. “Now it’s been a consistent thing for him,” Chuck Howard said. “It’s really been helpful. And he felt led to speak about it. It’s not something we pushed him to do or asked him to do. He just felt led because he saw the benefit of what it did for him.”
Until the last few games, Howard has been an even better version of the player he was last year.
Howard broke his single-game scoring record — and set a Big East mark — with 53 points in a 106-104 overtime victory at Creighton on Jan. 9, a game in which he made 10 3-pointers in 14 attempts. In games through Monday, Howard led the Big East and ranked sixth nationally in Division I in scoring, at 25 points per game. He was making 3.61 3-pointers a game, also sixth best, and his 90.2 free-throw percentage ranked ninth in the country.
Howard honed his shooting in intense summer sessions directed by his older brother Desmond, a former college player. Their unconventional drills feature pull-up jumpers from a step inside half court, and arcing shots over folded bleachers flipped on their side. Teammates say they are used to Howard’s creativity.
“Playing with him is kind of crazy, in a good way,” forward Sam Hauser said. “Sometimes he gets that look in his eye where you just have to give him the ball and watch him work, work his magic. It’s cool to see where he’s grown and where he can still grow.”
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