Juan Anderson leaned against the seats at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, his Marquette University winter coat zipped up, in his final free moments before the last home practices and games of his four-year career with the Golden Eagles.
Fellow senior Matt Carlino was entertaining the media at one of the court, and coach Steve Wojciechowski and his staff were out on the hardwood, preparing for the start of practice. Duane Wilson was at the other end of the court, working on ball drills.
Anderson, along with Derrick Wilson, are the last holdovers from the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight teams of three and two years ago, respectively.
There was no final push to the Final Four, or a national title, however.
Instead, sudden departures from Vander Blue to Buzz Williams wobbled the program a year ago. This year is the first time Anderson played on a team that has lost more than it won, an outgoing cog in a clear rebuilding season under a first year coach.
And, now, Anderson is literally limping off into the sunset, an ankle injury hobbling him since Feb. 19.
He’s had a chance to think about it all.
How his freshman year began under suspension for accepting a ticket to a Milwaukee Brewers playoff game in 2011. How he asked – and was granted – for his release from the program in the spring of 2013, only to come back shortly thereafter.
How he stood behind Wojciechowski in April of 2014 in his new coach’s introductory press conference only to watch three of the teammates who stood next to him leave the program, one to turn professional, the other two to also seek out a different college experience.
It’s been a wild ride for the kid from Oakland who was Williams’ first commitment from the West Coast back in the fall of 2010.
"It flies," he said. "I’m always thinking about the what if’s and what this could have been."
He knows people still talk about why he left, and why he came back, even though he’s played two seasons since then. He also says he never could have imagined Williams’ leaving, being part of a season like this, and being injured.
"I believe everything happens for a reason," he said.
"There’s a lesson to be learned in everything and you find the positives in life. Because life is not going to be all peaches and cream all the time. So, I’ve always been one to be able to respond to adversity. I’ve run into adversity a lot in my life in many different ways, so this is just another obstacle that I’ll overcome."
The 21-year-old does see the silver lining, if you will, in this season, one spun largely by Wojciechowski and the role he was handed at the start of the season, along with Carlino and Wilson, as a captain.
"My mom (Patricia Toscano) always taught me ‘find a way to get the job done,’" Anderson said, looking around the BMO Harris Bradley Center. "Yeah, we haven’t been winning a lot of games but I do my best. I’m learning. People may have their say so about this or what we’re doing wrong or what we’re not doing, but I’m learning."
"Like I was just thrown into the fire (as a captain). And I appreciate that a lot. ‘Wojo’ trusted me to be the leader. He’s put me in position and he’s been so hard on me as a senior and a leader. Like, he doesn’t let things slide because I’m a leader or a senior and a captain. So I appreciate that a lot. He’s helped me grow a lot over the past few months."
That growth process hasn’t been smooth, either.
As a leader, he had to provide a steadying influence as the roster seemed to turn over constantly, beginning with the defection of Todd Mayo, the addition and quick subtraction of Gabe Levin in the summer, and then the transfers of John Dawson and Deonte Burton.
"Everybody has a chance to leave their mark on a program," Wojciechowski said. "And I think Juan has taken that responsibility seriously and overall has done a good job of setting the tone on a day to day basis with the type of energy that you need to bring."
Then, on the court, the coaches asked him to play out of position, to man the power forward and center positions out of necessity.
"He’s a guy who shows up each day and practice hard and has energy, and that’s a good example for the younger guys to see," Wojciechowski added. "Obviously we’re asking more of Juan, by far, than he’s ever been asked while he’s been at Marquette. He’s answered the bell on a number of occasions, and that’s been a good thing."
Luke Fischer had an interesting perspective on Anderson’s development as leader the last two years. He joined the Golden Eagles January 2014 of under Williams, and was able to practice, but could only sit and watch games until December.
"He’s changed a lot, in a good way, too," Fischer said. "Last year, he was that guy who could come off the bench and perform well and we all knew that he could play. But this year he has shown that he can be consistent with rebounding, with scoring, he’s not just a one dimensional guy. He can do everything for us. He kind of leads by example with that. He shows us what everyone else should do, too."
Fischer continued: "He definitely has grown in that (leadership) role, too. ‘Wojo’ has kind of thrown that leadership and stuff on to him, and told him hey, this is your team, you’ve got to take control of it and stuff like that. So at times, he’s very vocal at practice. It’s rubbed off on us. It’s helped him a lot, and I think it’s helped us a lot, too."
Wojciechowski admits it’s tough on an athlete to end his collegiate career at less than 100 percent, and that the effort Anderson has put forth hasn’t translated to more wins than losses.
But, Anderson will go out with his mark on the program, from the time he began, the teams he played on, and the fact that he bridged eras in coaching and was part of the first trio of captains under Wojciechowski.
"When I was first named captain I was thinking oh, it’s a label," he admitted. "But as time goes on, and Wojo – he really emphasizes that, he puts a lot of responsibility on Matt, Derrick and I, the younger guys look up to us. I’ve learned to embrace it.
"One day I’ll have a family. One day I may be a CEO of a business. Whatever it may be. I don’t know. But I definitely think it’s preparing me for something later in life. It’s been tough at points, but I’ve embraced it, I’ve taken the good with the bad and I’m just rolling with the punches."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.