Spectators packed the gym so tight, they overflowed into the aisles, peeked through windows above to see him, and lined up afterward to get his autograph. A media mob befitting a major playoff game piled into a conference room to interview him. Everyone was there to see the next great thing.
Maybe everyone needed to be reminded that it was a high-school basketball game, and the subject of all the excitement was a 17-year-old with a lot of pressure on his shoulders.
Andrew Wiggins is a 6-foot-8 phenom from Vaughan, Ont., the most highly rated U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball recruit of the year. He will likely play just one college season, then be the first player chosen in the 2014 NBA draft.
He played in Canada for the last time in his high-school career on Sunday, and the 2,500-seat gym was jammed. Playing his senior season at Huntington Prep in West Virginia, he and his team visited McMaster University and dismantled a local all-star team 81-52. But the game was a sidebar to the spectacle that surrounds Wiggins.
Reporters from every major media outlet in the country paid $10 a head for tickets and squeezed in among the spectators in the stands while balancing laptops on their knees. Photographers and news cameras filled the sidelines. People clicked smart-phone photos and stood pointing their camcorders at Wiggins, capturing something upon which they might some day look back and say, “I saw him play when he was only 17.”
Maybe he’s the next LeBron James. Maybe, like many say, he’s becoming Canada’s Michael Jordan and he’ll lead a rejuvenation of the Canadian national team.
The spring in his vertical appeared effortless as the towering teen with the seven-foot wingspan flew over the hoop without the benefit of a running start.
Within the first three minutes of the game, he had seven points, including a steal he turned into a monster dunk.
He threw down like that two more times before the quarter was through, and on defence he rocketed through the air to block a three-point attempt.
One sensed he could easily keep scoring all day, pleasing the crowd repeatedly with dunks.
Many crossed their fingers for a repeat of a recent game in which he posted 57 points, a response to an article in Sports Illustrated that questioned his work ethic and his future.
On Sunday he peeled off 19 points in the first half without much effort, appearing at moments bored, certainly unchallenged. The game well in hand – an exhibition contest at that – you could hardly blame him. An injury could derail his dream.
After a quiet second half, Wiggins finished the day with 25 points, nine rebounds, a couple of assists and blocks, but some turnovers too.
He wasn’t Huntington’s top scorer. That was Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Wiggins’s best friend, a shooting guard from Toronto who has committed to Florida State University for next year. Rathan-Mayes called Wiggins’s talent “mind boggling.”
“His athletic ability is something you see once in a lifetime,” Rathan-Mayes said. “His work ethic is tremendous, and he’s a humble guy. You don’t see too many guys ranked No.1 in the country who are as humble as he is.”
One would think Wiggins will join his best friend at FSU. After all, Wiggins is the beneficiary of exceptional athletic genes, and both of his parents went there. His father, Mitchell, is a former NBA player, and his mother, Marita Payne, is a Canadian track star. But Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas are still in the running.
“I don’t want to talk about recruiting,” Wiggins said in his press conference after the game, dressed in sweats and a Chicago Bulls hat, big diamond earrings sparkling in each ear.
Wiggins seemed unfazed by the attention. He was soft-spoken and short on words, unless it was to talk about how much he loves and misses his family in Canada. He offered a few glimpses of his wide, coy smile, but provided little insight into the soul of a high schooler with such talent under so much scrutiny. But the youngster hardly skipped a beat when asked what he wished people could know and understand about him.
“That I’m only 17,” he said.