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June 27, 2013

Washburn gave more than enough

The legacy that Jason Washburn leaves behind at the University of Utah is as enigmatic as the events and the decisions that led to those events, that colored his turbulent five year career.

The dark cloud that will always follow Utah Athletics is that a student-athlete as passionate, loyal and willing to work and sacrifice as much as Washburn did will have his accomplishments indelibly tied to one of the darkest periods in Utah Basketball history. Because of that association with the instability and and uncertainty surrounding that era in Utah Basketball, Washburn's accomplishments may unfairly be over-looked or tarnished - through no fault of his own.

Washburn joined an elite list of Runnin' Utes as one of 35 1,000+ scorers in Utah history, finishing with 1,073 points for his career and coming in at No. 32 on the prestigious list. To make the list at all is an honor that less than three dozen have managed, though it's doubtful that few, if any on the list endured what Washburn did in order to get there.

Through the tumult and turmoil of his career, Washburn was never rewarded for his loyalty with wins, post-season glory or accolades. Deserving as he was, the emotional center didn't get any of the things that his hard work and sacrifice should have warranted.

What he did get was something which can never be taken away or questioned - his rightful spot Utah Basketball history.

"I feel like this, getting to a thousand points was kind of like my reward for getting through everything that I did. To have my name on that list with all of those great Utes is something that is a huge honor," Washburn said of the accomplishment. "Hitting the thousand kind of made it all worth it for me. Everything I've been through, the years of practice every day was paid off with getting my name down in history with some of the all-time greats that played here on this floor. I can't really put into words what it means to reach this kind of milestone."

If it's possible,Washburn's accomplishment may have meant even more for his family, who saw their son move half way across the country only to struggle with obstacle upon obstacle over the course of his career. Recalling the moment,Washburn's father, Bob, could was momentarily overcome with emotion and barely able to speak when recalling his son's crowning achievement.

"I'll never forget that moment when Jason hit 1,000 points. To see him hit that, and the reaction of the fans and his teammates was just, it was something I will never, ever forget. The way that he loved this team and all the work that he'd put in was so great, that to see it finally pay off in this way was ...," said an emotional, choked up and proud father. "To me, it was the culmination of everything we watched him go through and to see him achieve something like this, was beyond what we could imagine for him. It was one of my proudest moments, because he stuck with it, and was finally rewarded. It showed that he never quit and that he persevered."

Additionally, Washburn leaves as Utah's the No. 4 all-time shot blocker with 155, just two shy of No. 3 Mitch Smith's 157 career blocks. Finally, with a .565 all-time field goal percentage, Washburn ranks fifth in the annals of Utah Basketball history.

Though Ute fans are likely to look back at his career and sacrifices with greater appreciation as time goes on, the Washburn era coincides with the most turbulent, controversial times in all of Utah Basketball - something that Washburn understands all too well.

"It's so hard to think that my career here was in the middle of all of this, some of the worst times for Utah Basketball. You come in, willing to work, with the right mind-set and attitude and think that it's all going to work out the way you planned," Washburn philosophized. "I can honestly say that I did everything that I could, I worked as hard as I could and I loved this school and this city and this program. I feel like I honestly don't know what else I could have done to change it. I gave everything I had, and I can honestly say that. It's kind of hard to think that no matter what I gave to this program, I couldn't change it. I couldn't fix it."

Indeed, Washburn wasn't able to fix all that was wrong with Utah Basketball, but it was never his problem to fix. That fact is something the big man was never able to accept, having shouldered total responsibility for the program and it's lack of success singularly.

"All I wanted to do here at Utah was win. I just wanted to win, for these fans, this program, my coaches, my teammates, this city and this University. Everyone who has loved and supported this program in any way deserved that, and I wanted to give it to them," a raw Washburn explained, barely able to get the words out. "I stayed here and I thought I could help deliver that, and get Utah Basketball back to what it could be, where it was supposed to be, which was at the top. Utah Basketball is supposed to be a winning program."

On the topic, Washburn continued his explanation.

"When my class came in, we had the players and we had these huge expectations. They were expectations that we never lived up to, and so I felt like, as the only one left from that group, that it was up to me to make sure that we lived up to that. I felt like I had to deliver on those expectations, because I was the only one left," he explained. "We had what we needed, and people expected us to win, and we never did. We failed in that way, and we let people down. For some reason, we just were never able to win. It's my only regret about playing basketball at Utah, but I can honestly say that I gave everything, and I left everything on the table."

While many athletes become emotional as their careers draw to an end, Washburn's final weeks and days became increasingly difficult to observe, realizing the extent to which he internalized the program's struggles and made them his own. The pressure Washburn put on himself to personally carry the Utes was suffocating but could only come from a heightened love and passion for the program, the University and Salt Lake community.

With no previous ties to Utah whatsoever, Washburn openly discussed his love for his adopted home, for which he sacrificed and gave so much of himself on its behalf.

"I just loved it here right away. When I came here on my visit and I stepped on this floor, I was overwhelmed by all the history and the greatness and the names of players who played on this floor. The history of this building, and this basketball court is amazing, and right off the bat I appreciated all of that. Immediately, I knew I wanted to be part of this great and historic program, and continue the tradition," Washburn recalled with great fondness. "The other thing was the way that the fans just embraced me and supported me and loved me. I was blown away by the way fans accept and support you.You immediately become part of this huge family at Utah. I think that's why I grew to love this school and this program the way that I do. I will always love this University."

A demonstration of his love for the program as well as his selflessness, Washburn recalls a handful of highlights from his career as a Ute, many of which came during his red-shirt season where he was forced to spectate from the bench.

"I think maybe the biggest highlight was during my red-shirt season when we beat BYU. That was the only time I beat them in my career, and I wasn't even on the court, but it didn't matter, that was one of the best times of my whole career. Lawrence Borha hit a late shot that same year to beat New Mexico," Washburn rattled off the key moments that stood out most him. "I'll always remember Chris Hines hitting that last second three to beat New Mexico, and the next game we beat TCU sticks out. We had a lot of really good moments and highlights. Even though it was hard, it made the good moments that much better and that much more memorable when they happened."

Throughout his trying career, Washburn would draw upon all of his passion for Utah Basketball and the University of Utah, choosing time and time again to return, no matter how difficult or unsavory the circumstances.

In each of his decisions to stay at Utah, the level of loyalty and determination Washburn displayed was remarkable in every instance. However, his repeated decisions to return are ironic and made all the more impressive and unbelievable given the fact that he almost didn't return after a short trip home during his freshman season.

"It was very hard [having Jason at Utah] for all of us. He was a teenager, away from home for the first time, and he was a long way from home and from his family. His first year as he adjusted to the schedule and the school work and the distance from home was very hard on him, and it was hard on us," Bob Washburn revealed. "There was one time that he was home, and he told me he didn't want to go back [to Salt Lake City]. It was so hard, as a parent to watch your child go through that, and say that to you. I had to say tell him that he'd made a commitment and signed a contract. I had to remind him that he had to keep his word."

Washburn Senior continued his recollection.

"So I drove him to the Detroit airport and dropped him off, and then I cried all the way home. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do as a parent," he expanded. "But I had another son who joined the military, and he had to go off to boot-camp. So I figured if he could go away and go off to boot camp, Jason could go back to Utah."

That he returned to Utah in that pivotal moment as a freshman, and then did so time and again is the thing Washburn hopes Ute fans will remember about him.

"I don't know what people will remember about me, but I hope that they remember that when everyone else left, I stayed. I don't fault or judge anyone that left, don't get me wrong. It was hard here at times, and everyone had to do what they had to do for themselves," said an insistent Washburn. "But for me, the right thing, every time, was to stay. I am someone who has to keep my commitments, and I gave my word. I pledged to this University and to this program and to this community that I would come here, give everything I had and do my best to help this program win."

On the topic, an impassioned Washburn would continue his explanation.

"I can honestly say that I did my best, I'm just sorry that it didn't result in wins. It wasn't the easy path, but it was the right path for me. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I stayed and I tried to represent Utah Basketball to the best of my abilities. It didn't turn out the way I wanted it to, but that's life. Life doesn't turn out the way you want it to, and it's how you respond to it that defines you," he furthered. "I didn't want any of this to define me, and I refused to let it. I stayed in this place and I gave it my all, and I did it with a smile and I hope that people will remember me for that. I hope that I was able to leave my mark on this place. That's hard to do, because how we measure success is with wins, and I didn't give Utah that. So I looked for other ways to make a difference and to stand out and to matter here. I hope that I did that."

Washburn has done exactly that, leaving a void in the Utah Basketball program and in the Salt Lake community that may never again be filled by future players, no matter how talented or how winning.

While winning matters, and Utah fans savor and yearn for a return to glory, what Washburn gave beyond his heart, effort and perhaps even a bit of his soul, was his time and his kindness to the community at large.

The 7-footer was known as much for his off-court charity and community outreach activities as his on-court feats. Always willing to visit schools and youth groups, Washburn was a natural and genuine ambassador for Utah Athletics who had an uncanny ability to touch the lives of those he was visiting.

As much as the obligation he felt to deliver wins and success to the Utah community, Washburn felt equally responsible to do good, help people and to use his position and standing to make a difference.

"[Helping people] is a passion of mine, and it's something I've always felt I needed to do. That's not a negative, like some thing I have to do, or make myself do. I love meeting people, talking to people and especially kids. It's easy for me, and to know that I made any kind of a difference, or even just brightened a kid's day makes anything I ever did, or any time I gave, worth it," Washburn admitted. "To be in the position I am so blessed to be in means that I have a greater responsibility, and that's something I take seriously. If you have a chance to do something like play basketball or have another gift or a talent that might inspire someone or help someone, and you don't use it, nothing you ever do on the court is going to matter. To me, it's something that goes hand in hand. You can't have the success and not do the other things, or everything is off balance. It doesn't work that way."

Following that calling, Washburn says that regardless of what he does or where he is, he will continue to find ways to touch lives, help people and especially to inspire youth. Even as he continues to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA, Washburn also aspires to some day teach and coach the next generation.

"I want to play basketball professionally, of course. The dream was always to get to the NBA. But I know it's a hard thing to do, and I also know that even if you make it, you can't do it forever. So my other, kind of second dream was always to teach, and coach basketball," Washburn revealed. "Getting to work with kids is something I love, and I will always try to do it. I just think that the next generation is so important, because they're the future. To take an interest in a child, or give him your time is the best thing you can do. I know how much sports can help kids stay out of trouble and build confidence. I don't know what could be more important, so that's what I'm going to do some day."

Though the big-hearted Washburn has plans for life beyond basketball, he still aspired to an NBA career, which is unlikely to come to fruition in Thursday's draft, A frustrating fact, given that a more stable Utah Basketball program may have enabled him to have the kind of collegiate career that could have carved an easier path to the NBA. Still, Washburn insists that he harbors no hard feelings, accomplished much and even gained immensely from his time as a Ute.

"I don't have any regrets about my time here. If I could go back, I don't know if I would do anything differently, or make any other choices. I'm glad I stayed. I got a degree from a great University, and that is the main thing. No matter what else, that's something I can take pride in, and use to pursue my other dream," Washburn reassured. "Everything that I went through just made me a stronger person. Even though it was never easy, I learned so much and it made me who I am today. I think I'm better for having gone through everything that I have. The only regret, the one regret that I have is the losing."

The overwrought theme of having disappointed, or let Ute fans down is one that would repeat itself throughout Washburn's final weeks and days as a Ute. Discussing his regret would often bring the big man to near tears and raw emotions immediately to the surface. Washburn was never more emotional than in the MGM Grand locker room immediately after having played his final collegiate game, wearing his Utah uniform for the very last time.

"To go out with these wins means so much. To give these fans, who are the best fans in the country, who came down here to support us these wins is all I could ask for. All I wanted to do here, at Utah, was win.Our fans, everyone involved in this program deserves to win, and I wasn't able to give them that through my career," said a tearful Washburn, who was so shaken that he literally could barely speak. "But I gave them these few games. Maybe they will carry the momentum into next year, or it will give our fans some faith that we can win, and this program is headed in the right direction. I couldn't win through my whole career, but we did here, at the right time and I hope it's enough. I just hope it's enough."

Though he may not know, or believe it, Washburn did more than enough in his time as a Ute. Perhaps the irony is that it is Ute fans who ought to question whether they did enough to support and appreciate Washburn while at Utah, for the program may never again get another player with his love and passion for both the game - and especially the University of Utah.



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