Waxing Seniority: Jason Washburn

With the regular season now wrapped and the Pac-12’s seniors having played their final home games, we’re taking a tour across the conference and bidding this group of seniors farewell.

The Ghost of Jack Gardner has been following the Utah Utes program since his days as a coach and now far beyond. His blog is a wealth of Ute knowledge, nostalgia, and hoops.

The college basketball career of Jason Washburn is a play of Three Acts. We first knew him as the four-star center from Battle Creek, who Jim Boylen recruited while an assistant with Michigan State.  He stood out as the energetic redshirt on the Utah sideline, often standing on his feet waiving a towel. That was the 2008-09 MWC Championship team led by Luke Nevill, Lawrence Borha and a promising newcomer named Carlon Brown.

Things were looking very bright for the future of Utah basketball.  The 2009-10 season was greatly anticipated by the fans.  Washburn made his playing debut in the Huntsman Center in a loss to Idaho. He played alongside Carlon Brown and the 7’3″ returned missionary, David Foster. Another newcomer, Marshall Henderson, also made his debut for the Utes that night with 18 points.  But Washburn stole the show.  He came off the bench and scored 20 points and pulled down 7 rebounds in 26 minutes.  As I said, the future looked bright.

End of Act I.

Washburn never got close to 20 points again for the next two years.  In fact, he only scored in double digits ten times over that period.  He was known to Utah fans and opponents as: 1) Soft; and 2) Enthusiastic.  It was so funny to see him lead the team in energy and cheering while on the bench, but then see him get pushed around by smaller players on the court.  He had no defensive presence, didn’t fight for rebounds and couldn’t finish in traffic.  I admit he was known for some time by yours truly as “Jason Heartburn.”

Yet he never lacked for enthuasism.

Those were Utah’s last two seasons in the Mountain West Conference, and the last two seasons of Jim Boylen’s tenure.  A mass player exodus ensued that spring.  Henderson, Clyburn, O’Brien and Glover all transferred.  We had no idea what our innaugural Pac-12 team would look like.  When the dust settled, we had a new coach, and entirely new roster, a returning juco named Jiggy, the oft-injured Chris Hines . . . and Jason Washburn.

Almost by default, Jason Washburn was the leader of the 2011-12 Runnin’ Utes.  His minutes increased and so did his production.  He was still soft but slowly improved offensively.  But fans didn’t expect much out of him at this point, especially since 2011-12 was a throwaway season.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened — I think it was during the Arizona game in Tucson when something finally clicked. I think Washburn was tired of losing and tired of getting pushed around.  No doubt about it: with just a few weeks left in the season, something suddenly changed.

End of Act II.

Washburn finished the season on a complete tear, which has carried through this year. He’s been a consistent scorer and has had several double-double games.  And his defense has stepped-up big time.  Each time Utah has found itself in a position to win, Washburn is always in the middle of things. There have even been a couple times I believe he would have been the Pac-12 Player of the Week if only Utah could have converted close losses to wins.

Utah fans love him.  But his biggest badge of honor is that opposing fans hate him.  And that just makes us love him even more.

Not to mention his love for the fans and for the school. He recently sat down with the Deseret News and discussed his decision to stay at Utah two years ago when many teammates were leaving:

“There was plenty of times where I was just ready to break down and throw my hands up in the air and say ‘I can’t do this any more’ just because we had so many guys leave . . . Even though I hold no grudges against anyone that left. They all did it because it was best for them and you can’t hate someone for that.”

“I put my head down and fought through the turmoil. Why couldn’t you? If I can take anything from my career I can be proud of myself for knowing that not only did I stick with my teammates and my coach and my new coach, I stuck with this program and this fan base. I know I can walk away proud of that.”

On a few occassions, I’ve taken posession of the body of some loitering Utah fan after a game to congratulate Washburn personally. The guy is genuine and loves interacting with the fans.  He’s the kind of guy you love to cheer for.  For that reason, he has become one of my all-time favorite Runnin’ Utes.

My only regret is he won’t be around next year for a fourth Act — when, I believe, Utah will finally turn the corner.

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