The Journey from South Carolina: Why Matt Howard chose Penn over big time programs and Merrill Lynch over professional basketball
Matt Howard scans the floor in 2015-16 game against Dartmouth.
(Luke Risher/The Empire)
Matt Howard should have recognized Jerome Allen the first time he walked into his high school gym. The two-time Ivy League Player of the Year in the mid-1990s. The former NBA player. The head coach at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.
But Howard did notice Allen in the Penn vest, jeans, and pair of Jordans. Whoever he was, Howard thought to himself: this guy has style.
It was fall of Howard’s senior season and Allen was here at AC Flora High School to recruit the guard from Columbia, South Carolina.
About a week before, Penn’s assistant coach Scott Pera had reached out to Howard. Pera wanted him to consider Penn. Howard didn’t think much of it. He was coming off his junior season where he had averaged 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists, despite spraining his ankle, breaking his wrist, and catching mono. The entire summer he had competed with Team United on the EYBL circuit, playing around the country and garnering interest from big time schools like Stanford and Virginia Tech. Finally healthy, Allen and the Penn coaching staff were seriously interested in the straight A student.
After the workout, Allen came up to Howard.
“I’m Jerome Allen,” the Penn head coach said. And then he walked out of the gym. The more reserved Howard was awestruck.
Allen would be at the AC Flora gym many times in the next few weeks. Howard felt like it was everyday. Each time Allen walked in, he was fresh and clean. And each time he would make the two hour flight to see Howard, he was short to the point.
“What’s up Matt? You all good? Alright, I’ll see you,” he would say after practice. And then Allen would just leave, again. Howard thought he was cool.
“[Allen] speaks their language,” Matt’s father, Craig Howard, says. “The way he dressed. He dresses like them. I think that it just clicked…Matt would say, ‘he has swag.’”
The AC Flora star was instantly attracted to Allen, but still knew little about the university.
“Being in Columbia, you’re not going to hear about Penn, unless -- I don’t even know how, because all they care about is football and SEC football,” Howard says.
Howard too loved South Carolina football. South Carolina, the school, and the campus were embedded in his childhood.
“My favorite memory, 2012, I think October 6th, Georgia vs. South Carolina. South Carolina smacked Georgia 35-7...That was probably the most electric the atmosphere ever was in there...I mean that’s about as jumping as that city can get,” he laughs.
Until Jerome Allen showed up, Ivy League schools weren’t in the picture for Howard. Allen’s smooth talking swagger-filled persona convinced Howard to come up to Penn for a visit. It made him confident enough to do what many from the outside would see as absurd: turning down basketball powerhouses and leaving the South for an Ivy League school. And it would lay the framework for him to turn down another enticing option five years later: the chance to play professional basketball.
Howard grew up playing basketball with his sisters. It all started in the backyard, on the concrete slab, and on the basketball hoop Howard found under the Christmas tree when he was five years old. The only son and the middle child, Howard has an older sister, Alex, and a younger sister, Emily. The backyard games began between Howard and Alex. They would stay out until dark, where games could get intense quick.
“My older sister was probably beating up on me until I was at least eight or nine,” Howard remembers. “I mean, I have a few scars from her.”
Matt Howard (right) holding a basketball at his grandparents house.
(Photo courtesy of Matt Howard)
When he wasn’t in the backyard, he was playing in a local boys’ and girls’ league. At five years old, it was the first league Howard was a part of. He joined forces with Alex, competing in the league with 7-8 year old boys and 9-10 year old girls. And the girls weren’t bad. Other than his sister, who would cross him up on the daily in the backyard, there was Morgan Stroman, who would go on to be the 33rd best player in the 2009 ESPN recruiting class. It was in this league that Howard remembers his first basketball memories, where he was “just getting cooked.”
Years later, Alex went on to attend the University of North Carolina and Emily took her place.
“[Emily] used to play the best defense on me,” Howard remembers. They would stay on the concrete slab for hours, even playing a 1-on-1 game to 100, counting each score as a 1-pointer, on a random Saturday in his high school days.
But it was in middle school where Howard first found success in basketball. In seventh grade, he was a mere 5-foot-7. A year later, he was 6-foot, a middle school champion, and had dunked for the first time. While most kids at his skill level were playing travel AAU basketball, Howard wasn’t. His father didn’t see the point of 13 year olds playing basketball year around. Howard instead spent his summers in New York City, where his dad was originally from, enjoying time with his grandmother and family. As a result, going into high school, within the larger Columbia basketball scene, “Matt was an unknown commodity,” as his father remembers.
In the summer going into his junior year of high school, Howard sat in the passenger seat as his dad drove him to church. Howard’s phone rang and he looked down to see a number he didn’t recognize. It was Scott Pera, an assistant coach at Arizona State. He wanted Howard to know he was on their radar. It was one of Howard’s first calls from a Division 1 basketball coach. Division 1 basketball hadn’t even been on Howard’s mind. But on the phone, the always humble Howard kept his cool. He spoke with Pera and hung up.
His father didn’t hold anything back.
“Let’s go boy! It’s go time now!” he exclaimed.
During the weekend before Pera called, Howard had played some of the best basketball of his life. Back-to-back 30-plus point games for his travel team, the Carolina Ravens, sent college coaches sprawling. They even called his father, who would answer unsure of who was on the other line, only to hear desperate college coaches.
“What is your son doing down there? Who is Matt Howard? Why didn’t anybody tell me about Matt Howard?” they would ask him.
People have always been asking those questions. Howard entered AC Flora as an athletic, raw, and quiet freshman. Most talented basketball players from the area didn’t go to AC Flora, but his older sister had success in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, and it was understood that he would attend the same high school and jump on the same academic tract.
On the court, Howard had impressed enough in summer workouts that the coaches knew he would play varsity basketball as a freshman. Instead of regular PE, they placed him in a weightlifting program with the school’s new strength and conditioning coach, Micah Kurtz. However, his mother, Felicia Howard, was hesitant to the idea of her son lifting. Even more, Howard wasn’t totally invested in it either. His attitude would change over time.
“I remember those first two weeks when he started to get comfortable and started to realize how much this could help his game, he bought in,” Kurtz says. “I really noticed a lot of gains in his first 8-10 weeks and after that, he was hooked. I don’t think of him missing any workouts or me having to get on him for not doing a good job. He was one of the hardest workers on our team.”
After coming off the bench in the first game of his high school varsity career, he scored nearly 20 points. The next game, he jumped right into the starting lineup, notching multiple 20-point games in the process. For the next two years, Howard would be known for his high flying dunks and explosive scoring outings. His body was developing too. While he would drop the IB courses, his full load of Advanced Placement (AP) classes conflicted with scheduling for the weightlifting class. Instead, he made time out of his own day and came before school at 6 a.m. to work out with Kurtz.
As a result, Howard played well. His team, however, struggled and the Division 1 interest was sparse. That is, until phone calls like the one he received in the car started to roll in during the summer of his sophomore year. The calls, the interest, and the excitement built up. Pera’s was only the beginning.
In the next 10 days, Howard found himself with 15 offers. He was being pursued by small local schools like Citadel, Furman, and Presbyterian and bigger schools like Wake Forest, Clemson, and VCU. Howard’s parents helped him censor the schools; they wanted to make sure academics remained a priority. His A’s in AP courses had earned him the right to play almost anywhere.
The University of South Carolina quickly found Howard as well. They wanted “the kid from around the corner.” The son of South Carolina alums. So they brought him on campus for a visit and pitched him hard.
In their meeting, the South Carolina coach, Darrin Horn, pulled up a map to show Howard just how close his house was to the South Carolina campus. A 10 minute drive. His school, just 8 minutes away. A star from that close had to go to South Carolina. It was only right. They offered a full-ride scholarship.
“They told him the only thing that he could be here, no where else,” his dad says, “was a hometown hero.”
But Howard couldn’t accept the offer just yet. He wasn’t even a junior. There were still two seasons left to play. After the weekend he had had, with the back-to-back 30-point games, no one knew just how far he could reach. And so Howard played out the next year. He played well his junior season, averaging 20 points per game, but injuries hampered him. In the meantime, South Carolina fired its head coach in favor of former Kansas State coach Frank Martin. With the new coach brought uncertainty around an offer that once seemed clear.
The offers still piled up from other schools, but Howard was waiting for the right match. It took until Jerome Allen’s Jordan brand sneakers to walk the AC Flora hardwoods, early in his senior year, for that to happen. As a matter of fact, Allen was a little late. But in late August, Pera, one of Howard’s first phone calls from Arizona State, was hired at Penn.
The day after his hiring, upon seeing Howard had not committed anywhere, Pera went to AC Flora.
A few days after Pera, Allen emerged in the AC Flora gym as well. In the next week and a half, the Howards were on Penn’s campus. They loved it. The Wharton School of Business, the team, the coaches, the campus set up. It all fit.
“I go up there and Miles [Jackson]-Cartwright is like, the coolest kid ever,” Howard remembers of the then Penn sophomore. “This dude’s acting like he’s known me my whole life... After my visit to Penn, it just felt right. I visited Harvard. This was when I was a huge [South] Carolina [football] fan. And [South Carolina] beat Kentucky on my visit to Penn. I went up to Harvard two weeks later, [South Carolina] lost, and I didn’t have as good of a time. I just knew Penn was where I needed to be.”
And so the leading scorer in AC Flora history, ahead of former NBA players Tyrone Corbin and Xavier McDaniel, chose the Ivy League school he barely knew just a few months ago. In late October of his senior season, the day Howard decided to announce his decision, South Carolina’s coach, Frank Martin, came to express interest. This time, there was no second thoughts. He picked up the phone and called Allen after practice.
“Yo coach, I’m coming to Penn,” he told him over the phone.
“That’s what I’m talkiinggg about,” Allen responded.
His senior year, Howard would lead AC Flora to a 22-7 record, their first conference title in 25 years, and a regional championship. It was a big deal. Howard still even has the newspaper cutouts in his house. Most basketball players in the area didn’t openly choose to attend AC Flora. It was Howard who started that trend. He had established himself as the sixth best player in the state of South Carolina, according to ESPN, and brought a winning tradition to the high school. The year after he left, they would win the state championship with many of the guys who had initially come to AC Flora to play beside Howard. That’s why Kurtz has crowned him “The Godfather of AC Flora Basketball.”
And now “The Godfather of AC Flora Basketball” was on his way to Penn.
Howard wasn’t the biggest fan of 5 a.m. workouts. Luckily, they weren’t everyday -- they were only punishments -- but similar hard experiences happened on the daily.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say after those workouts, where I could barely walk up a full flight of steps to my dorm room, that I didn’t want to quit,” Howard says.
Whether it was showing up to practice an hour early or the supreme talent level at Penn, the university wasn’t totally what Howard had expected. After the team had finished 9-22, Howard assumed he would come right in and play.
On the first day of summer pick up games, it was Howard’s task to cover Simeon Esprit, a player who had combined for 5 total points in his first two seasons before an injury had derailed his sophomore year. So here Howard was, in a city he didn’t know, in a gym he didn’t know, struggling to cover a player who appeared minimally in games and was coming off injury. Esprit went for 16 straight points on Howard.
“It was crazy. I was getting cooked. It was the first time I guarded a 6-foot-6 dude who could move like that,” Howard says.
The freshman quickly grew accustomed to the new pace of the game. He got in better shape and toughed out the 5 a.m. practices. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel. If all of the other players were doing the same workouts and surviving, he could do the same. However, he was still getting used to living in Philadelphia.
“Cultural shock was one of the biggest things with me in terms of going into a city,” Howard remembers. “Being from [Columbia], where it seems like the biggest thing to do is to go to Charlotte, it was just different. I feel like the diversity of the people threw me off also. Columbia isn’t that diverse and Penn is very diverse. It was just adjusting to meeting and talking to different types of people. Walking everywhere. Being in a big city.”
While he struggled with the culture shock, he slowly worked his way into the rotation during his freshman season. To begin his career, Howard would emerge off the bench for a couple minutes here and there. He appeared in 15 of his first 17 games, but only reached double-digit minutes twice. That built up to two back-to-back games, where he would score 7 points against Cornell and then 8 the following day against Columbia in a combined 30 minutes of play. It was Penn’s first and only winning streak of the season.
At the beginning of the year, Howard wouldn’t shoot a three. Allen “ripped” him apart over his unwillingness to attempt the shot. Halfway through his freshman season, he wasn’t just scoring in college basketball games, but he was finally taking threes. The next practice, he fed off that momentum and while running to the corner for a three, he felt something pop in his foot. He caught the ball and made the three but walked off the court after. It was a stress fracture. Howard wouldn’t play another game during his freshman season.
That evening, Howard crutched to his fourth floor dorm room. There he found his roommate and teammate, Preston Troutt, who had missed practice that day after injuring himself earlier in the season. He was on crutches too.
Instead of a greeting Howard, Troutt just started cracking up. Howard did the same.
They were both on the fourth floor of their dorm, far from their homes in Texas and South Carolina, and on crutches. How would they do their daily tasks? It made them laugh. But Howard’s laughter would cease in the ensuing weeks as reality set in.
“It’s the middle of winter,” he says, “I’m on crutches in the ice cold, crutching to class. Just miserable.”
On the court, his game was finally starting to come together. Once he suffered the foot injury, that was gone. He was without basketball and his family, alone in foreign space. He had no routine. That winter was one of the toughest periods of his life.
The following summer, Howard became determined to return to Penn as a new beast. He worked with Kurtz on “ankle mobility and stability,” while easing his hip tightness, which may have led to some of the injuries.
“It was a gradual process,” Penn assistant coach Ira Bowman remembers from his time working with Howard. “But it was something that he went through and managed and carried the right way. I think by the time he got back, he was stronger and little bit better conditioned.”
His sophomore year, Howard saw a big jump in his production and playing time. He appeared in every game, averaging 8.4 points in 26 minutes per game. But before the second to last game of the season, he learned Allen would be fired as Penn’s head coach. They hadn’t won more than 10 games in the past three years, a disappointing product. The reason that Howard went to Penn would be gone.
From left, Preston Troutt, coach Jerome Allen and Matt Howard attend an Eagles versus Cowboys game.
(Photo courtesy of Matt Howard)
However, at this point, Howard was embedded at Penn. The administration would hire a former assistant from a decade ago who had success coaching at Cornell before jumping to Boston College. He was looking to get back on the sidelines after struggling at Boston College. He was Steve Donahue.
The transition for the Quakers wasn’t easy. Donahue preached the fundamentals, running them through drills that they did as kids. For a while, practices were sloppy with players making basic mistakes. Donahue also wanted to institute an analytical minded, selfless three-point shooting system. He pushed even harder than Allen did for Howard to develop his three-point game. Howard did just that. In their first double-digit win season in four years, Howard played an integral role as a junior, averaging 12.3 points in 30 minutes per game.
“Without Donahue, his game would have pretty much been a slasher,” his dad adds. “I think that Donahue forced him to work on weaknesses that weren’t as viable of a threat as his slashing ability.”
Despite injuring his ankle and missing the preseason, next year would be even better. As the only senior rotational player on a young team, Howard put up similar numbers, while shooting a career high 37% from three. Penn would win 13 games, their highest total in five years and would sneak into the Ivy League tournament after starting conference play 0-6. A 6-2 finish, where Howard would score double-digits in all but one game, propelled them into the tournament.
“I think Matt realized that his days were numbered here,” former teammate Darnell Foreman says, who played with Howard for three years at Penn. “He took advantage of that. After that 0-6 start, he started to go on a rampage.”
Their matchup in the conference tournament was a Princeton team that went 14-0 in Ivy League play and was considered one of the best teams in Ivy League history. Still, Penn led for nearly the entire game. It was Howard who propelled them with 17 points, carrying the Quakers into a potentially unbelievable upset.
With 12 seconds left in the game and Penn leading by two points, Howard was fouled after grabbing a defensive rebound. As a result, Howard would shoot a one-and-one with the opportunity to ice the game and send Penn to the Ivy League championship. The free throw fell short. Princeton ran down the court and tied the game on a tip-in shot with six seconds remaining. The two teams headed to overtime, where the Quakers would fall. It was the end of Howard’s career at Penn.
His parents tried to comfort him after the loss, but Howard didn’t want to talk to anyone. The game had been within grasp and slipped away. That stung.
That night, Howard walked to his apartment by himself. He threw pillows around and dropped a few tears.
“After that I was straight. [The game] wasn’t at the center of my mind. I mean it’s basketball,” he says.
He had to decide what he would do next: play professionally or head into the workforce. From the outside, the choice seemed obvious. It’s most basketball players’ dream to make money playing the game. Howard had that opportunity. Agents called him. They knew he could play at the top international levels. His parents didn’t think it would be a bad idea to give it a try. They were attached to his basketball as well.
“Basketball has been a part of our life with this guy [for a while],” Craig says. “My wife didn’t miss but one [Penn] game...She felt like she could have a couple overseas trips to watch him play.”
From left, Alex, Craig, Felicia, Matt and Emily in a family photo.
(Photo courtesy of Matt Howard)
Still, Howard’s body was beat up following the season. The four years of college basketball had taken a toll on him. The constant years of work and losing wasn’t much fun either. And then there was going overseas. The NBA wasn’t an option and he didn’t want to leave the states and adapt to a new culture again. He had also gone to Penn and the top business school in America for a reason. It wasn’t just to play basketball.
It was an ongoing conversation. He attempted to gain a medical redshirt year from his freshman season, but he was denied by the NCAA and by graduation, he knew. He was done with basketball. Some were surprised, like his parents, but others weren’t, like Foreman. For Howard, it was time to jump into reality. Time to get a job.
Every morning Matt Howard -- Matt Howard the financial advisor -- wakes up at 6 a.m. Work starts at 8, but he likes to get a lift in before he begins. After work, he goes back home and returns for another workout, often running. Sometimes he’ll have games in the adult league he plays in. Sometimes he’ll just watch NBA games, get dinner, do some work, and go to sleep early. He enjoys the daily routine.
“That’s an exciting life,” he jokes. In actuality, he is thoroughly liking his latest destination.
In the summer of 2017, when Howard returned home from Penn’s graduation knowing basketball was over, he began to search for jobs and reached out to a Wharton alum on LinkedIn. He was certain he wanted to be in Dallas, Texas, a big city, just like Philadelphia, and in the South, just like Columbia. “It was Dallas or bust,” his dad says.
That led him to Merrill Lynch, a banking company, where he’s expecting to stay for a while. Maybe he’ll start his own business at some point in the later future too.
“He loves it there. I can’t see him moving too many places from there. I can’t see him coming back this way,” his dad says, who still lives in Columbia.
Foreman adds that Howard’s “thriving.”
Howard is no longer playing in front of thousands of fans. He’s no longer being recruited by a plethora of Division 1 schools. He’s not making money playing basketball. But he’s content. He did everything his way. No one from the outside saw him going to Penn and no one from the outside saw him passing up professional basketball. But Howard wasn’t interested in the “outside.” He prides himself on doing things his own way. The Matt Howard way.
“[I’m] just trying to seperate myself,” he says.
Even though he is a working financial advisor, Howard still plays basketball in two different recreation leagues. Foreman jokes that he has lost a step. Howard disagrees. In one league, which actually features former Ole Miss star, Marshall Henderson, they don’t keep stats but he counted 46 points a few weeks ago. In the other, he’s third in the league with 31.6 points per game.
“It’s a recreational thing for now, but like I said, if I get in enough shape and keep killing these dudes,” Howard says, laughing, “you never know.”
-Penn loses to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament