By Cormac Gordon / Photo by Anna Mulé
Sometimes it’s all about rebounding.
And not just on the basketball court.
Dwaun Anderson ’16 understands that now.
In the spring of 2011, the soft-spoken Wagner sophomore was a high school hoops star in tiny Suttons Bay, Michigan, one of the villages that dot Lake Michigan 300 miles north of Detroit. He had just been named Mr. Basketball, an honor awarded to the best senior high school player each year in that basketball-crazed state. Even better, the 6-foot-4 teenager was on his way to play at national powerhouse Michigan State University, a program coming off back-to-back Final Four appearances.
It was, he said, “a dream come true.”
Back then, Anderson allowed himself to think that he might even become one of the few Native Americans to make it to the NBA. Then real life intervened in the cruelest of ways.
Anderson’s mother, 42-year-old Mary Lynn Anderson, a full-blooded member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, died in May 2011, following a long struggle with alcoholism. For a boy whose father was never really a part of his life, the loss was devastating.
A few weeks after Mary Lynn Anderson was buried in a modest plot on the Indian reservation grounds, Dwaun left the cherry orchards and wooded trails of Suttons Bay, and traveled 150 miles south for summer classes at Michigan State.
But Anderson wasn’t ready. Not for the huge campus, or the study regimen. Even basketball, his lifetime passion, had become a chore. “When I got there I was going through the toughest part of my life,” he says. “I was angry, and I started thinking I was losing my love of the game.”
Out of a sense of desperation as much as anything else, Anderson made a difficult personal decision. He walked away from the Spartans.
In this case, leaving school a couple of weeks before freshman orientation wasn’t some unnoticed change of direction by another confused teenage athlete. This was the state’s reigning Mr. Basketball leaving the preeminent program in that part of the country. It was a big deal, greeted with the media frenzy that accompanies such movements.
But it was also something the bruised, distracted Anderson felt he had to do on a very personal level.
Dan Hurley, Wagner’s coach at the time, heard about Anderson’s situation and reached out to the grief-stricken kid. Anderson had never heard of Wagner, but he came for a visit, even while more marquee basketball programs were sending out feelers.
Anderson liked what he saw: a small school with a country-like campus and a rising basketball program that fit what he needed at that point in his life. In December of 2011, Anderson arrived as the highest-profile basketball recruit in Wagner history.
It didn’t take long for his personal life to begin changing for the better. Anderson was not yet eligible to play, but he could practice with his new teammates, living with them in the dorms and hanging with them in down time.
“Dwaun started adjusting, I thought, right away,” says Bashir Mason, a former Hurley assistant who was named head coach in April 2012. “He was a kid who had a lot to figure out, but it was like he’d been looking for a new environment and a chance to start over.”
When the season began last September, two things became clear immediately: Anderson was an enormous talent, extraordinarily quick and athletic. He was also raw and inexperienced, and not all that confident for someone of his abilities.
In the early part of the schedule, Anderson struggled shooting the ball, and he sometimes missed defensive rotations. He lacked nothing in effort, but execution was at times a problem. “I was nervous,” he admits. “I didn’t know what to expect, and when I had a few bad games in a row I began to lose confidence.”
Mason’s prescription for his new player? “Coach told me to just keep playing, not to get down.”
As the weeks progressed, Anderson was gaining a renewed sense of himself. “I came to be in a completely different place from where I’d been,” he says. “I was back to being comfortable, where just being happy was a given again.”
In part, he credits being at Wagner with that change. “This is a good place for me,” Anderson says. “I have a lot of friends and not a lot of distractions. It’s really worked out.”
Toward the end of Wagner’s 19-12 season, Anderson’s game improved markedly. Over the last 10 games, the small forward averaged almost seven points and four rebounds per game in just 16 minutes of playing time. In a truly unusual stat for someone his size, Anderson registered seven explosive blocks in the final four games.
Mason believes the final weeks were a small tease of what’s to come. “At the end of the season, Dwaun was just beginning to get his feet under him,” he says. “I believe before it’s over he will be everything he and everyone else thought he could be.”