After one semester at Missouri, Crystal Howard packed her bags and left.
Howard came to Missouri to play basketball and had hopes of someday playing professionally. But midway through the 2004-05 season though, she had to call it quits.
In the nine games that Howard played, she was productive for the Tigers. She started twice, averaged 19 minutes per game and was scoring 5.2 points per game. Even so, something wasn’t right for the shy freshman from Omaha, Neb. She missed her family.
So, in early January 2005, Howard announced that she was leaving Missouri. She transferred to Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is across the Missouri River from Omaha.
When Howard leftMissouri, she wanted to return to Division I, but had no idea where. She talked to a few of her former Missouri teammates and coaches, but didn’t suspect that she would ever come back. Howard didn’t follow the Tigers’ season very closely because she was focused on her own team.
At Iowa Western, Howard’s playing time increased, and so did her production. She averaged 20.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 4 steals per game, and helped her team reach the regional championship game. Still, Howard knew she couldn’t stay at the community college two more years and she knew that she was able to play Division-I basketball.
So she made a decision.
“I had to grow up,” Howard said.
While Howard was away, Missouri coach Cindy Stein was recruiting her to come back. After her sophomore season at Iowa Western, the environment and coaches that had drawn the decorated recruit to Missouri in the first place drew her back again. Friday night’s Mizzou Madness was Howard’s first official appearance back as a Tiger.
“Ever since she left and came back, it is like a completely different person,” senior captain Carlynn Savant said. “She is open, she is outgoing, she is making jokes with us, and she is a great aspect to our team. She adds quickness, versatility, all those aspects that we really need to be successful.”
Howard kept low-key at Mizzou Madness, the official debut of Missouri’s men and women’s basketball teams. When the whole women’s team was introduced before their 12-minute scrimmage, most of the players ran through the tunnel of cheerleaders with a swagger, holding their arms up to bask in the glory as they rushed the court. Howard just smiled and jogged through the cheerleaders. No skipping. No arm movements. Just jogging.
That is how Howard was all night. She is easy to spot on the floor, with a compact 5-foot-7 frame and shorts below her knees, but she does not attract the attention that some of her teammates do. Unless you are watching closely, you will miss her casually dribbling, moving the ball behind her back with ease, as if she was born handling a basketball.
Although it is still early, Howard looks to have an opportunity to step in right away. One of the themes of this year’s team is its depth. Howard, being able to play point guard, the two and three positions, is one of the team’s most versatile players, Stein said.
“I feel the most comfortable playing the two or the three,” Howard said. “That is what I grew up playing. That’s all I know. But I’ll play whatever she (Stein) needs me to play.”
At Omaha Central High School, Howard was All-State three times and named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska. The year playing at Iowa Western helped Howard improve her defense and confidence when shooting. Howard’s scoring is expected to be her biggest contribution to the team, Stein said.
Howard played the point at times during the scrimmage, and could be used there this season. Stein said the Tigers will likely use multiple players to fill the void left by former point guard LaToya Bond, who was Missouri’s leading scorer last season and now plays for the Charlotte Sting of the WNBA.
Although it is too early to know for sure, Stein said senior Tiffany Brooks, junior Kassie Drew, and Howard all have a good chance to play point guard. Of the three, Stein said Howard is the most similar to Bond because of her ability to score.
Stein isn’t ruling out the possibility that Howard could start this season, most likely at point guard.
“That is why we recruited her,” Stein said. “Because we thought she could get a lot of minutes, if not start.”
Howard is taking things a bit slower. She is comfortably living with teammate K-Kay Pickens in a residence hall and is more familiar with her surroundings on campus the second time around.
“It feels good,” Howard said. “Everybody welcomed me back. It just feels comfortable.”
Although she is comfortable being back in Columbia, Howard said she is still learning how to play with her new teammates. As soon as she becomes comfortable with her new team, Howard is confident that she can make a difference.
“I feel like coach Stein wouldn’t have brought me back if she didn’t feel like I could,” Howard said.