Michigan Wolverines Basketball: Franz Wagner Leaves With Legacy Secure
To say Franz Wagner's career didn't end the way he'd hoped would be an understatement. Two shots to win and propel Michigan into the Final Four, including an airball from the top of the key he'd make eight times out of 10 in practice in a 51-49 loss to UCLA ... it was tough for everyone associated with the program to stomach, but hardest, of course, for the kid who gave his heart and soul to the program for two years.
Just having him come to America from Berlin, Germany to follow his brother Moritz (Moe) was a win for the program. Moe's eyes lit up during his junior year when we first asked about his younger brother and the chances he might follow in his footsteps.
You knew then there was a shot, but few could have guessed he'd have the same impact his brother did. He absolutely did, though he'll be here one year less, and his best days are still ahead of him.
"My brother, Moe, of course gave me helpful advice about [playing at Michigan]," he said in an article for The Players' Tribune. "And I had good conversations with Coach [Juwan] Howard and his staff. But still … college in the States, that was basically a mystery. It meant flying halfway around the world, to live alone, in a whole different culture — the opposite of a comfortable choice. It meant I’d have to take a leap of faith.
"And after months of going back and forth in my head about it (and against the advice and expectations of almost everybody at home), that’s what I did. Not because Moe did it — but because I wanted to do it my way. I took a leap of faith."
He's doing it again now, but not after a few long weeks of thinking about it. It was nearly unfathomable that he'd return — "there is nothing on the boards that has him lower than 20, and he is as high as nine [overall NBA Draft pick]," assistant coach Phil Martelli said Friday — yet he told people in the building he was still undecided as of the weekend.
It seemed clear his final act weighed on him, that many might remember him not for all his contributions on both ends of the floor (his snub for the Big Ten All-Defense team remains a joke), but instead for his struggles against the Bruins.
He made that clear in his goodbyes to the Michigan fan base.
"I have to thank my teammates. Most of you probably already know this, but my season ended on a very sour note," he said. "And man, I won’t lie — it was a tough couple of weeks after that. It hurt a lot. Not just because it hurts to lose, and I’m such a competitor, but also because it felt like I let everybody down. Most of all our seniors.
"One missed shot by me … and their Michigan careers were over, just like that. I was pretty hard on myself about it. But the guys were so supportive of me — they had my back like true brothers. They’ll be my brothers for life."
The word "family" might be overused, he said, but that's exactly how he felt about the folks around him in Ann Arbor. Former head coach John Beilein left for Cleveland while Wagner was boarding a plane for his official visit to Ann Arbor, at which point he probably would have committed. Enter Howard, who picked up right where Beilein left off. He even went to see Wagner in Greece while recruiting him, and he made him feel at home the second he arrived on campus.
"He’s given me the best basketball education I could ask for … but at the same time, he’s never put coaching me as a player ahead of caring about me as a person," Wagner said. "The program is in great hands."
And on solid footing, thanks in large part to Wagner's contributions. No, he didn't go out the way he wanted to, but such is life. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose ... a lot of the greats had forgettable moments in their last games, but most are looked upon extremely fondly for their on-court exploits.
Wagner will be, too, a 4.0 student who always put the team first and never took a second off, either on or off the court.
"What an unbelievable kid," Martelli said in wrapping up our conversation.
That pretty much says it all.
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