Before the game, there are rituals.
They begin with a hymn, fans at Allen Fieldhouse draping their arms around each other, and then comes an incantation, drawn out like a Gregorian chant: “Rock. Chalk. Jayhawk. K.U.”
The noise builds ahead of tipoff on a Saturday evening in February in Lawrence. In this church of U.S. college basketball, a video extols history – James Naismith, Wilt Chamberlain, national championships – and celebrates the promise of the present.
“From Ontario, Canada,” the announcer bellows, and Andrew Wiggins, 6-foot-8, with wisps of hair on chin and lip, bounds onto the court.
Wiggins is the most-hyped Canadian basketball player in history, a startlingly athletic kid who sprang from the Toronto suburb of Vaughan onto the covers of ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated, the latter likening his arrival in Kansas to that of the great Chamberlain more than a half-century ago.
TSN announced a plan to broadcast every University of Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball game this season, shining a spotlight on the most prominent of a new crop of top-tier hoops talent emerging from Canada.
But Bill Self, the broad-shouldered head coach who recruited Wiggins, made clear where the newcomer would stand at one of the most-storied basketball schools in America. “There’s not going to be any billboards about you,” Self told Wiggins. “You’re never going to be the best player who played here. Wilt Chamberlain played here. You’re going to be part of something bigger than yourself.”
Thus began the education of Andrew Wiggins, who quickly ran smack into the reality of his own unmistakable shortcomings. His shooting needed work, as did his ball-handling. His aggressiveness came and went – he seemed almost too willing to fit in, to be just one of the guys. He wasn’t shy, but he didn’t lust for attention. “He’s got zero aura about him,” an unidentified NBA voice said in an ESPN report last fall. “People are making far more of this kid than they should.”
Up against a wall of expectations, Wiggins and his erratic play early in the season raised that most piercing of adjectives – overrated. He was a polite, humble Canadian kid who, on his first visit to the campus, had been impressed the team “just looked like one big family – everybody talked to everybody, there was no one left out or anything like that. When everyone went out they went out as a team. That’s what I liked: the brotherhood.”
All well and good, but where was the arrogance and vanity one expects from a young sports star? Compare Wiggins to the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James all you want, but skeptics wondered about the lack of fire, the sustained ferocity, that carried these athletic marvels to the peak of their profession.
In effect, they asked: Is Andrew Wiggins too nice to be a superstar?
Self has ridden him hard all winter, and watched him grow.
“Here he is where it’s all hype, he hasn’t done anything yet, and people were lined up to go at him. Every night. Every night,” the Kansas coach says. “I don’t think he understood that early. I don’t think he got that. He was a little bit too happy-go-lucky. He understands it better now.”
His recent play has reflected it. As the annual NCAA tournament known as March Madness begins next week, Wiggins is the highest scorer on one of the top teams in the country. He is up for the Naismith Award for the best player in U.S. college basketball. And if he is not the can’t-miss, No.1 pick for the NBA draft in 2014, as the hype once had it, he remains fixed as a certain early first-round draft choice.
He has shown he can rise to a challenge.
On Feb. 1, Wiggins played poorly in a loss to Texas and, afterward, an opponent called him scared.
Wiggins heard it, and remembered.
Three weeks later at Allen Fieldhouse against the same Texas team, he unleashed a highlight reel – blocking shots, nailing three-pointers, throwing down thunderous dunks, sending the blue-clad Kansas faithful into a frenzy. With three minutes left in the first half, the Jayhawks led 35-14, with Wiggins’s 15 points alone outscoring the visitors on the way to a decisive triumph.
After the game, and the round of interviews that followed, a mob of fans gathered in a roped-off area across from the locker room.
Wiggins signed posters, programs, shirts, a young woman’s forearm.
Wearing a hoodie, sweatpants and red-and-white sneakers, he said thank you for birthday wishes – he was turning 19 the next day. He posed for a photo with a beaming young boy in a Wiggins jersey.
It’s as though Wiggins was saying, in his own understated way, it’s possible to be himself and still be great.