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Anime and T-shirts: The legacy of IU men's basketball player Juwan Morgan



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Then-junior forward Juwan Morgan dunks the ball against Penn State on Jan. 9, 2018, in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Bobby Goddin Buy Photos

In one of his final acts as an IU men’s basketball player, Juwan Morgan spoke about “Dragon Ball Z.”

It happened in the IU locker room after one of the team’s forgettable National Invitation Tournament games that closed the 2018-19 season, and with it Morgan’s college career. 

His header picture on Twitter depicts a character from the show, a blue and cartoonish muscular figure named Android 13. He’s one of Morgan’s favorite characters from the Japanese anime series, and someone he frequently references in tweet hashtags.

Android 13 has two forms. He normally looks like a realistic truck driver, complete with a flat brim hat and gloves. After transforming, though, he morphs into the angry, yellow-eyed, red-haired figure hovering above Morgan’s tweets.

“If you watch the anime,” Morgan said with his 6-foot-8 frame comfortably set into a black locker room chair. “He’s kind of like a chill guy. But when he transforms into the blue guy, he’s a lot different beast.”

Morgan has watched anime since he was 9, and the similarities between him and Android 13 go beyond the fact Morgan started wearing the number 13 when he arrived as a freshman in 2015.

In the “Dragon Ball Z” world, it’s Android 13’s mission to destroy the protagonist, Goku. But Android 13 takes a casual approach to this assignment, seeming almost bizarrely laid back before morphing into a more robust version of himself, similar to Morgan at IU.

“I never really showed emotion, got in anybody’s face,” Morgan said of his early college years. “Even in high school, I kind of just jogged everywhere. I don’t think I sprinted one time all through high school.”

Playing in the Big Ten forced Morgan to come out of his comfort zone — to play with more assertiveness. But fans could be forgiven for wondering if Morgan’s switch remained fully on throughout his college career.

He still doesn’t show much emotion on the court, beyond the occasional flex of his muscles. On-court success as a team was lacking, as the Hoosiers failed to make the NCAA Tournament beyond Morgan's freshman season.

So when IU lost 12 of 13 games during his senior year to effectively end its NCAA Tournament chances, it ensured Morgan’s college legacy would lack a proper ending.

During that dismal stretch, he once again wasn’t particularly animated on the court or when speaking to teammates in public.

The traits of Android 13 were the traits of Juwan Morgan.

Senior forward Juwan Morgan dunks the ball against University of Louisville on Dec. 8 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Morgan scored 15 out of the 68 points scored by IU. Anna Tiplick Buy Photos
***

For a player whose college career was littered with notable moments, Morgan’s favorite memory as a Hoosier reflects his hatred for the spotlight. 

In January 2016, during his freshman season, IU squeaked out a one-point home win against Wisconsin on its way to a Big Ten regular season title.

Morgan’s stat line from that game was unremarkable.

He played 17 minutes off the bench, scored no points, gathered only two rebounds and fouled out. His task that night was to contain two of Wisconsin’s top three scorers from that season – forwards Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ.

Morgan’s success in this mission earned him post-game praise from coaches and teammates.

“I was like, ‘How is that my best game?’” Morgan said when reflecting on his college career prior to his Senior Day in March. “They were telling me the way I guarded Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes that day really helped us come through with a win. That’s kind of when I realized that it’s not all about scoring, rebounding, things like that. It’s just about doing your job.”

Then-Head Coach Tom Crean put it concisely after the 2016 game.

“That was the plan.”

Over Morgan’s four seasons at IU, the plan and role he fit into changed drastically, from a bench player to an occasional starter to the default top scoring option.

Morgan’s sophomore season saw the end of Crean’s tenure at IU, and his junior and senior years marked the turbulent start to current Head Coach Archie Miller’s reign.

But this change in coaching staff and on-court roles gave Morgan versatility. He can operate in the post, backing down defenders, but he’s almost equally good as a nimble ball handler and passer.

This made him a nightmare matchup for opponents, reflected by his selection as a second-team All-Big Ten player as a junior and as a third-team All-Big Ten player in his senior year.

“He’s one of the hardest matchups in the league,” Ohio State Head Coach Chris Holtmann said prior to the 2019 Big Ten Tournament. “He can do a little bit of everything.”

This growth meant Morgan increasingly found himself in the spotlight. Along with senior guard Zach McRoberts, Morgan was named a co-captain of the Hoosiers for the 2018-19 season, and the pair represented IU at last October’s Big Ten Men’s Basketball Media Day in Rosemont, Illinois.

This trip put Morgan in a position he considers unenviable – with the focus on him.

“That’s definitely a personality thing," Morgan said postgame in the IU locker room during this season's NIT run. “I hate being the center of attention. I can’t stand it.”

Part of his on-court prowess came thanks to the offensive freedom Miller granted to Morgan.

Morgan was allowed to compliment his post play with perimeter shooting under the former University of Dayton head coach, attempting a three-pointer in 56 of his 66 games under Miller.

He did so while playing as a center for the Hoosiers.

Once Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby, part of the same 2015 recruiting class as Morgan, opted to leave IU early for the NBA after the 2016-17 season, a void was left at center.

Crean had used Morgan as a versatile defender within his system, which required all five Hoosiers on the court to be able, in theory, to guard any of their five opponents.

But Miller specifically needed a center.

It was another role for Morgan to slide into, and another chance to display his gritty, team-focused mindset.

“It made me tougher as a person overall,” Morgan said.

Being assigned this fixed position took a beating on Morgan’s body. He already experienced injury problems as a freshman, with a left shoulder that constantly slipped in and out of its socket before needing offseason surgery.

Minor injuries followed over the next three seasons, in part due to Morgan being undersized compared to other Big Ten centers. He said his main concern playing center wasn’t getting hurt, but rather getting exhausted on defense and becoming a non-factor on offense. 

This forced Morgan to learn how to pick and choose his moments on both ends.

“I feel like I’m capable of guarding one through five,” Morgan said after his final college game. “I want to show what I’m able to do on offense, how I’m able to be effective without scoring the ball, even one time. I feel like I can be effective in many more ways than one.”

Whether its locking down opponents’ leading scorers or having an offensive outburst for more than 25 points, as Morgan did nine times, a singular theme remains.

“I try to deflect it to my teammates,” Morgan said. “They try to say, ‘Oh, you had a great game,’ things like that. I say, ‘Wasn’t possible without the teammates.’”

Then-sophomore forward Juwan Morgan pushes past sophomore forward Ibrahima Diallo of Rutgers for a layup in January 2017. Victor Grössling Buy Photos
***

Like many college students saddled with responsibilities, Morgan took comfort in the little things.

This included passing time on road trips the same way – by binge watching anime on his iPad or laptop, watching entire series all the way through, some even three or four times. 

His in-game comforts were Wilson basketballs and T-shirts.

Since Morgan’s days at Waynesville High School in Waynesville, Missouri, he developed an affinity for basketballs made by Wilson Sporting Goods. 

Morgan played with a Wilson ball during all of his games at Waynesville, though that wasn't the case in college.

IU uses an Adidas ball for home games, and the brands differ for road games and tournaments.

Because Wilson is the official ball for the NCAA Tournament and the NIT, Morgan closed three of his four college seasons, including his final three games, playing with his preferred ball. 

He can sharply recall the specific brand of ball used by each school IU played at during his career.

“I always dribble them, shoot them up in the air, or whatever it is, just so I can get a feel for them,” Morgan said. “Regardless of what ball it is, I think my shot’s going in.”

His decision to always wear a T-shirt underneath his jersey during games is also a matter of preference.

“I think I’m weirdly built,” Morgan said. “Like I don’t think I’m fat, but I don’t think I’m like ripped up either. So it’s just comfortable.”

Past college stars like Paul Pierce at the University of Kansas, Rajon Rondo at the University of Kentucky and James Harden at Arizona State University were all singled out by Morgan as sources of inspiration when it came to successful college players who wore a T-shirt.

“Pretty much any guy I could name that wore a T-shirt in college is like an all-star right now, or a hall of famer,” Morgan said. “It’s not a bad thing to wear a T-shirt.”

As Morgan’s sophomore season neared its midway point, he questioned for how much longer the name on the jersey covering the T-shirt would read “INDIANA.”

He said he was no longer comfortable playing for the cream and crimson, despite being in the midst of a 2016-17 season which featured wins against Kansas and the University of North Carolina and harbored hopes of an NCAA Tournament run.

Morgan entertained thoughts of transferring from the program.

“It was like a mental thing I was going through,” Morgan said this season, thinking back to his sophomore season. “I just felt like when I got the ball, like, I didn’t know how to play basketball anymore.”

These concerns were kept quiet by Morgan, only rising to the surface as his senior season neared its end.

It took calming advice from two younger friends and teammates that season, then-freshmen guard Devonte Green and forward De’Ron Davis, to keep Morgan in Bloomington.

“I think we all as players, and just as college kids, we have that thought at some point in our career,” Green said. “I think just pointing out the bond that we have here is like no other. It’s going to be like starting all over, leaving and going somewhere else.”

Morgan also leaned on Crean, during what would be his final season as head coach, for guidance on what to do.

It took several meetings between Morgan, Crean and other members of the coaching staff, spent watching game film and talking through plays, to convince Morgan to stay.

“I thank them for those things,” Morgan said. “I’m really glad I didn’t make that decision to transfer.”

Then-freshman forward Juwan Morgan pauses to shoot during the game against Minnesota in 2016 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. IDS file photo Buy Photos
***

During his four seasons in Bloomington, Morgan had 34 different teammates, each with particular intricacies Morgan learned from and adapted to.

Two of the most influential teammates for Morgan, guard Yogi Ferrell and forward Troy Williams, joined him for only the 2015-16 season. It was Morgan’s first season at IU and the last one for the two upperclassmen before they turned professional.

The pair challenged Morgan to show more emotion, to get in other players’ faces and to become angrier. Williams took a direct approach to conveying this, going after Morgan during intense one-on-one practice drills.

Even before Morgan’s official IU arrival, Williams tried to teach him what college basketball was about. 

Morgan took part in an open gym practice with the team while visiting, and the on-court matchup was Morgan against Williams.

“I tried to rip through and he just took the ball from me and I kind of was just like, ‘Whatever,’” Morgan said. “‘He said, ‘You can’t let that happen anymore. You got to get tougher.’”

The lone season Morgan spent under the tutelage of Ferrell and Williams marked not only IU’s most recent Big Ten title, but also its last appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

IU started that season 4-2, including a dismal 1-2 record at the Maui Invitational with losses to Wake Forest University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Morgan said Ferrell and Williams led the way through those trying early-season moments, issuing challenges on and off the court to players.

He’s tried to follow this example over the last three seasons, providing useful instruction to teammates, although these moments often came behind the scenes.

Morgan’s senior season bottomed out on Feb. 16 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. IU lost to Minnesota by 21 points in an afternoon performance devoid of action, energy and hope.

In the following days, Morgan and McRoberts asserted themselves more in the locker room, delivering messages about what needed to change for the rest of the season.

“Juwan is a great leader,” Green said. “He’s always speaking his mind, what he thinks and he’s always listening.”

Morgan’s effort and energy toward the Hoosier cause during his career can’t be questioned, but team results remained inconsistent through it all.

Blame for this falls on all involved parties —on Morgan’s two coaching staffs, on Morgan’s teammates and at times, on Morgan himself. 

Morgan finished his college career with 1,374 points, 757 rebounds and 138 blocked shots. Those numbers rank him 24th in scoring, 10th in rebounds and eighth in blocked shots all-time among IU players.

He’s also one of only two men, the other being Steve Downing in 1971, to record a triple-double for IU after he posted a stat line of 10 points, rebounds and assists during a December 2018 game against Jacksonville University.

“He does everything for us,” sophomore guard Al Durham said after that game. “I feel like, if anybody, he deserves this. It’s an honor to be a part of it with him.”

But Morgan’s teams never reached college basketball’s premier postseason event with him as a starter. During Morgan’s three seasons as a key contributor, Indiana went 53-47. This includes an 0-5 mark against Purdue.

This coincides with what IU Athletic Director Fred Glass called a “serious rebuild” of the men’s basketball program.

Through the process that has been fitting square-shaped players into the circular pegs of Miller’s new system, Morgan molded himself into whatever his coach needed him to be on a given night.

“He’s so coachable when it comes to asking him to do things that other guys don’t want to do,” Miller said during a media availability this past season. “He’s just a consummate team guy. To me, he’s one of the best players in the Big Ten in the last two years, and in our transition he’s given us a chance.”

Senior forward Juwan Morgan signals for a player to come closer March 14 against Ohio State during the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament in Chicago. Ty Vinson Buy Photos
***

Even during his freshman season Morgan served as a go-to selection to speak with the media after games. This pattern was consistent, through blowout wins and blowout losses, after nonconference games and pivotal Big Ten matchups.

Having a packed room of people peppering questions, often along with accompanying television cameras, may not be the most natural setting for someone who shuns the spotlight at every opportunity.

“If somebody met me in real life, just walking down the street or whatever, they wouldn’t be able to tell how I act on the court,” Morgan said. “I just walk around, don’t say much. They’d never be able to tell.”

But Morgan filled this role the same way he did each of the other ones presented to him at IU: without complaint and often above and beyond what was expected of him.

He was there in January after IU lost by 23 at home to Michigan, and issued one of his stronger statements as team captain.

“We can’t just keep laying down whenever we do get punched,” Morgan said. “We have to be able to fight. I just keep telling the guys that whenever you get hit, you can’t just give up. If one guy is fighting, all five of us are fighting.”

IU’s most recent loss to Purdue was a 48-46 decision in February in Bloomington, a game that ended with Morgan being out-jumped for the deciding basket in the final seconds and missing an open shot at the buzzer for the win.

Fifteen minutes after that attempt barely grazed the rim, Morgan was back inside the media room in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

“He’s been the leader that we’ve needed him to be through this hard time,” freshman guard Romeo Langford said that night with Morgan seated beside him. “He hasn’t shied away from this stretch we’re going on. He’s just become even more of a leader and that’s what we need.”

Morgan accepted the praise when it came, but more importantly, his broad shoulders have weathered the weight of so much blame.

“He’s never quit,” Miller said. “He’s never questioned coaching. He’s never questioned anything. He’s that one guy that you look at and you say, he’s always going to be there for us.”

The lack of questioning by Morgan comes from his background growing up in a military household.

Morgan said this forced him to learn the importance of doing something after only being asked once, and this discipline bled into his basketball career.

With these influences from his childhood, as well as lessons taken from the people around him while in Bloomington, Morgan used his surrounding elements to form his current being.

This also left Morgan with one of the more complicated legacies in recent IU basketball history. 

He’s a player with the individual stats and accolades to be considered “an all-time great Hoosier,” in the words of redshirt junior guard Johnny Jager. But when he was a key contributor, Morgan’s teams were neither overly memorable, nor overly successful, save for his play and the presence of Langford on the 2018-19 squad.

“I just want to be remembered as somebody that never gave up,” Morgan said in the IU locker room after his last game. “Regardless of who we were going against, what we were going against or anything like that. I never gave up.”

Morgan transformed during his time at IU. He changed from a prideful, and at times stubborn, young basketball player into the quintessential team competitor.

But the transformation lacked vindicating team success, which Morgan reiterated so many times was the thing most important to him. Through factors both in and out of his control, too many battles were lost, too many opportunities not seized, for Morgan’s IU teams to be remembered for final scores instead of box scores.

The story of Android 13 ends, in many ways, like the college career of Juwan Morgan did.

In his standard form, Android 13 is unable to keep up with Goku. Other Androids are faster than Android 13, stronger than him, and better than him.

Android 13 absorbs the components of fallen Androids to become more powerful, all the while still exuding calm.

He reaches his elusive super form, completing a personal metamorphosis, before losing to Goku in a final battle.

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