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Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins, right, is covered by Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart during an NCAA college basketball game in the Big 12 Conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo., on March 13, 2014. (Orlin Wagner/The Associated Press)
Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins, right, is covered by Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart during an NCAA college basketball game in the Big 12 Conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo., on March 13, 2014. (Orlin Wagner/The Associated Press)

Is Canada’s Andrew Wiggins too nice to be an NBA superstar? Add to ...

 

‘Basketball, here, is really a way of life’

On the east side of Lawrence, a city of about 90,000, the rolling lawn of Memorial Park Cemetery is an expanse of dead brown and vacant yellow. There is a breeze and sun; the earth smells of promise, the coming spring. Near the back, near two tall oaks and a small obelisk, lies a modest grave marker. A small Canadian flag, fluttering, is planted in the moistened earth.

This is the final resting place of James Naismith, the Almonte, Ont.-born inventor of basketball who nailed up the famous peach basket in 1891 while working at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass.

Seven years later, a former boss pushed him for a job at Kansas. “Recommend James Naismith,” a telegram read, “inventor of basketball, medical doctor, Presbyterian minister, teetotaller, all-around athlete, non-smoker, and owner of vocabulary without cuss words.”

Naismith planted basketball in the Kansas soil. In 2010, David Booth, a Kansas grad, bought Naismith’s original 13 rules of the game for $4.3-million (U.S.) at auction; they will be housed this fall in a new addition to a large museum that bears his family’s name and is attached to Allen Fieldhouse.

“Basketball, here, is really a way of life,” says Booth, who became a billionaire in mutual funds. “You know, those of us who like basketball, there’s almost a ballet to it, when it’s done right. Watching Andrew, he’s one of the people who make you think of that.”

Not every night. On Feb. 24, two nights after the Texas game, Wiggins and Kansas started strong against Oklahoma but soon lost steam. Wiggins was so-so. The crowd was agitated. But Kansas, led by veteran Naadir Tharpe, fought off the visiting Sooners. With a couple of minutes left, Wiggins drained a three-pointer and thrust his fist high, a rare moment of celebration. Kansas clinched its remarkable 10th consecutive Big 12 championship.

“I snuck it down,” a grinning Wiggins said at the postgame news conference.

For all the pressure, it is clearly fun being Andrew Wiggins. He’s already met the greats of the sport – Jordan, James. He texts with fellow Torontonian and rap star Drake. He has girlfriends.

He was photographed with rapper Kanye West backstage after a concert in Toronto when he was home last Christmas. But he also grabs as many quiet moments as he can. Playing Call of Duty on Xbox, or hanging out with Joel Embiid, a seven-footer from Cameroon and the Jayhawks’ other freshman star. The two grab food – pizza, McDonald’s – and sometimes shoot casual hoops. “Our relation is so close,” says Embiid, currently out of action with a back injury. “Everything he does, I know. Everything I do, he knows.”

The basketball world sees Wiggins’s talent revealed. His coaches are convinced. “When he is 22 or 23 years old,” assistant bench boss Kurtis Townsend says, “he’ll be one of the best players in the [NBA].”

The question of fire – the instinct to take a game and make it his own – remains. Wiggins is unconcerned. He knows he can do it.

“Lot of the time I don’t have to, you know?” he says. “I’m on a team where anyone can get their shot off at any time. I’m around a great team, with great scorers, great defenders. So a lot of things people want me to do, I don’t have to do.”

“When we think of fire,” says Roy Rana, Wiggins’s coach several summers on junior national Canadian teams, “we think of yelling and screaming. You have those quiet assassins who aren’t necessarily the most vocal, who don’t show their emotions. Andrew’s composed at all times. Sometimes people think that’s a lack of fire.”

Still, come March Madness, Wiggins watchers will look to No.22 to display greatness. If Kansas is to claim another championship in early April, Wiggins will have to shine.

“Andrew wants to be good,” Self says. “He’s just a mild-mannered, soft-spoken kid. Andrew, he’s like the star that doesn’t care if he’s a star. He just likes to hang out and be a kid. He’s one of the few that’s not in a hurry to grow up.”

Self pauses for a moment. “Even though he knows he’s going to have to pretty soon.”

He’s already proved he can. On the road at the regular season’s end, Kansas lost to underdog West Virginia, but Wiggins put on the singular performance of his season, taking charge in a failed comeback. His tally of 41 points, and a stellar show of defence including five steals and four blocks, was the sort of stunner everyone had waited to see.

“The kid Andrew Wiggins showed his heart today in a loss,” Los Angeles Lakers guard (and fellow Canadian) Steve Nash tweeted. “Watch out.”

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