How did he get here? "My mom," is the quick answer that escapes from Howard's lips. "My mom did this for me," continues Howard with a sense of gratitude in his voice that runs far deeper than the plush carpet he grinds his size-fifteen basketball shoes into.
Gina Foster, mother of four and Jamar's mom, now lives in Milwaukee. Jamar, the baby of the family, was her last hope. "No one in my family had ever graduated from high school," explains Howard. "My mom wanted me to have a chance to make my dream happen. She knew that I couldn't do that without getting out." She saw her son play only twice this past season. Howard fulfilled his mom's dream when he was awarded his diploma from Bishop Miege High School in May.
Howard's family moved from Gary to Columbia, Missouri, when he was in first grade. With his father in jail, the family lived in the poorest section of town, eking out an existence. Basketball changed that for Howard. Basketball and a fairy tale.
Frequent trips to Kansas City to play Amateur Athletic Union basketball eventually brought Howard in contact with his fairy godmother, Kathy Cook. Kathy and Jim Cook met Howard through their son Chad, an AAU teammate of Howard's. "We didn't offer to let Jamar live with us," remembers Kathy. "Jamar's mom asked us to take him in." That was three years ago. When you ask Kathy how many kids they have, she immediately answers, "Three." She now counts Jamar as one of her own and treats him accordingly.
"They ground me and everything," says an embarrassed Howard. He is governed by the same rules and guidelines that the Cooks have laid down for their daughter and son. "They tell me when to be home; they tell me when I need to study," says Howard. The Cooks are also partly why Howard sacks groceries and stocks shelves at the neighborhood Hy-Vee store. "The Cooks told me that if I wanted some extra spending money that I needed to get a job," says Howard. He started working at the store last summer and quit during basketball season, but he is right back there working again now that school is out.
"Jamar isn't perfect," says his high school coach, Rick Zych. Despite graduating two weeks previously, Howard was still making occasional trips to Miege in late May to work off the detentions he had built up over the final semester. "But he is as good a kid as I've ever coached," adds Zych. After being announced as the MVP at the St. Thomas Aquinas tournament this season, Howard took two steps and stopped on his way to accept the trophy. He turned and motioned for his teammates to walk with him to receive the award. "I couldn't have won it without them," says Howard, shrugging. "I didn't think it was right to walk up there alone when they were the ones who helped me win it." That story epitomizes Howard in Zych's eyes. "It's all about the team with him," says Zych. "Whatever we needed -- scoring, rebounding, assists -- he did whatever we asked."
How do his inner-city friends view Howard's comfortable lifestyle, living with a white family and attending a private school, à la JaRon Rush? "The only thing they say to me is that they don't think we play good enough competition," smiles Howard. "It's not a problem at all."
In August Howard will head to Wichita State University on a basketball scholarship. He will move from under the parental eye of the Cooks and venture into the freedom and challenges that all college students face. Asked whether that newfound liberty will tempt him to revert to his roots and emulate his brother's mistakes, Howard sits up in his chair and speaks above a whisper for the first time. "I've risen above that," he states with resolve. "I've trained myself too well to allow that to happen. What people don't realize is that it's easy to say no."
Fairy tales are supposed to have happy endings. The Fresh Prince of Prairie Village is not about to spoil his.