Marsha Howard has a sticky note in her locker that’s been there since her freshman year with the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team.
The message on the note was the product of an early meeting with the then-coaching staff: “Freshman year is not too early to be a leader.”
It’s a message that Howard took to heart that first year, even though she saw only limited playing time and then had her season ended prematurely by a knee injury in what would be her only season under the coach who recruited her, Bobbie Kelsey.
And it still rings true even as Howard has evolved into the leading player for the Badgers as she heads toward the second half of her final season.
“I feel like a leadership role has always been glued to my personality since I was young,” Howard said.
“Now that I am a senior, even though I have played some type of a leadership role throughout the other three years of my college career, now it’s more for me to constantly be an example, constantly being someone my teammates could come to about on-court things or off-court things, constantly being open minded and constantly trying to channel my own emotions.”
As the only senior who has been with the program throughout her career — redshirt senior Kelly Karlis transferred to UW from Ohio last year — Howard has stepped up as a role model for her younger teammates, coach Jonathan Tsipis said.
“I think there’s a natural leadership in her,” Tsipis said, noting that she has been particularly helpful with freshman Imani Lewis stepping into a major role playing alongside Howard in the post.
A big part of that leadership comes from production on the court. And after struggling with injury issues her first year and early in her second season, Howard has established herself as a consistent force around the basket despite being one of the shortest post players in the Big Ten Conference at just 5-foot-10½.
Howard leads the Badgers (9-4, 0-1 Big Ten) in scoring (13.2), rebounding (9.5) and minutes played (27.3) heading into today’s conference home opener against Purdue (10-4, 1-0).
Howard has managed to excel despite giving up several inches to her matchup just about every game. The key to overcoming that height deficit, she said, is to use her quickness and experience and find the open spot and improving her jump shot.
“My height is not in my favor,” she said. “It’s tough when they announce me and my point guard (Kendra Van Leeuwen) as the same height.”
She also brings her feisty nature to that battle, although that hasn’t always worked to her benefit.
“She’s got that engaging personality,” Tsipis said. “It’s just making sure she’s engaged with our team and not worrying about the officials or when things don’t go the way we want.
“She’s naturally someone who’s OK with being vocal and she’s somebody that’s not going to back down.”
Howard demonstrated that trait last year when she was criticized on Twitter by Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley for not standing for the National Anthem before a game in Iowa City. Throughout the season Howard and teammate Cayla McMorris had gone to the hallway or the locker room during the anthem, but that was too far away at Iowa so she chose to sit on the bench. This season she has continued to sit on the bench during the anthem.
The fuss created by Grassley brought her some unexpected attention, but she didn’t hesitate to explain her actions, which were inspired by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“I have not only been protesting the brutal acts of gun violence but also the improper attainment of justice and liberty for all, and the understated emphasis on racialization and inequality of people of color,” Howard said at the time. “Systemic racism is important to me because it affects me, my family, my culture, and the systematic oppression we have endured.”
While Grassley encouraged his constituents to “express outrage” at Howard because she wasn’t “patriotic enuf”, Howard said she received nothing but encouragement following the episode.
“The only negative thing I got was the tweet from the senator,” she said. “I already knew this, but it just opened my eyes that I have a tremendous support system. Coach Tsip is behind me with full support and gives me a fist bump before every game. My family, strangers that I’d never met, reached out to support me through everything.
“I’m still in full support of everyone who goes out and risks their lives for us and the good of our country, but what inspired this protest was having a platform that I can use to speak for myself and others who aren’t given the same opportunity.”