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.
Ascent began in 2011
Family is at the heart of who Wiggins is. He has five siblings and is the youngest of the three brothers. He has an easy smile and a bright expressive face, is playful with those he knows and otherwise quiet. When he mishears something, he says pardon me. He doesn’t blush to tell his family he loves them.
“Happy 17th birthday to my beautiful little sister,” Wiggins said on Instagram in January, posting a pic of him and Angey. “love you!!”
The athleticism is in his genes. His mother, Marita Payne, a native of Barbados before her family established itself in Vaughan, won two silver medals as a sprinter for Canada at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, in the 4x100-metres and 4x400 relay. Her individual times in the 200 and 400 metres are still Canadian records.
Mitchell Wiggins, Andrew’s father, grew up in North Carolina and was a first-round NBA draft pick in 1983. Three years later, he went to the NBA finals with Houston, but lost. In early 1987, he was suspended after testing positive for cocaine. He returned two years later for several more NBA seasons, before playing in Europe.
Marita and Mitchell met at Florida State University, which they both attended, and Andrew Christian Wiggins, the fourth of their six kids, was born in 1995. The family settled in the neighbourhoods of Marita’s youth when Andrew was in elementary school.
Glen Shields Public School and the Dufferin Clark Community Centre, three kilometres apart with a park named after Marita in between, were the playgrounds of his childhood. He learned basketball playing with his older brothers. Today, when Andrew does a quick spin move after driving to his right, those who know him best see his older brother, Mitchell Jr.
The family was bound by their Christian faith. “Don’t make dumb mistakes,” their dad said. “Don’t do something stupid.”
Andrew was a straight-and-narrow child. His teachers never even heard him swearing. Most Sundays, the family was at church. Marita, these days, text-messages her children daily snippets of faith, scripture and inspiration.
“We grew up in the church,” older brother Nick says. In Andrew’s Twitter profile pic, he has his arm around Marita, the two smiling at each other, an illustration of Jesus in the background. “It’s a big thing,” Andrew says. “God’s always above anything.”
The two older Wiggins boys excelled in basketball but not like their younger brother.
Mitchell Jr., a college senior, is playing lower-level hoops in Florida; Nick, also a senior, is the sixth man for the undefeated Wichita State Shockers, who play two hours southwest of Andrew’s Jayhawks. The two teams could, in theory, face each other deep in the NCAA tournament.
“We all talk like we’re best friends,” Nick says of the brothers.
Andrew’s ascent began in 2011, when he was 14 and filmed in North Carolina during an aborted foray at a questionable prep school. The 40-second reel quickly garnered a million views on YouTube. Andrew played his Grade 10 season at Vaughan Secondary, winning a provincial title. Gyms were packed to capacity, including reporters and college scouts.
“Everybody,” Vaughan coach Gus Gymnopoulos says, “wanted a piece.”
Andrew moved on to Huntington Prep in West Virginia for Grades 11 and 12. In the summers, he played for Canada internationally and excelled on a circuit for all-star high-school players. He is part of a cohort of top-flight basketball players coming out of Canada, many from the Toronto area, kids who grew up on Vince Carter and the Raptors, watched Canadian Steve Nash win the NBA MVP trophy twice in his Hall of Fame-calibre career, and themselves received strong coaching. Among them: Anthony Bennett, who last year was Canada’s first No.1 NBA draft pick, and Tristan Thompson, who went No.4 in 2011.
For Andrew Wiggins, leaving Huntington Prep last spring, the last moments of high school seemed more important than impending fame. Prom was a week before his Kansas decision; Wiggins wore a white tux. A couple of days after, he played paintball with his teammates. “Lol,” said Wiggins on Instagram. “Went straight call of duty mode on em!”
On graduation, Wiggins wrote a 660-word open letter of thanks to the community, including the school’s janitor.
“I am proud,” he wrote, “to say I played here.”
The U.S. college recruitment of Wiggins could have been a circus. Instead, the teenager eschewed Klieg lights and the cajoling of coaches and considered only a handful of schools. At Kansas, Self offered Wiggins a sterling basketball education and a shot at a national title: Five championship banners hang at the north end of Allen Fieldhouse. He offered to turn a prodigy into a professional.
“What we promised,” Self says, “was to put him in a position where he was as prepared as could be after one year.”
Becoming a better player
Wiggins arrived last June for a summer session at the university, 65 km west of Kansas City. “Feels good to be out here in Kansas!” he tweeted.
For all his obvious ability, his weaknesses on the court were also evident. At practices, Self pushed the then-18-year-old to take charge. If Wiggins disappeared into a secondary role, Self would run the whole team, telling everyone: “I’m sick and tired of watching Andrew not be as good as he can be.”
In his Middle American twang, the Oklahoma-born coach puts it this way: “Andrew’s a pleaser. He wants to please his teammates, he wants to please his coaches, he wants to please his family. Maybe to a fault sometimes. What we try to do is put him in situations where he’s challenged every day – and that fitting in isn’t good enough. You have to separate. When he’s passive, he becomes a thinker. And when you think, you can’t play.”
Off court, film and fitness were the primary focus.
Jeff Forbes, the Jayhawks video co-ordinator, gets the new recruits right away. He wants them to study and learn, as if they’re in the NBA. While Wiggins has often been likened to LeBron James, Forbes had him parse film of Tracy McGrady, the now-retired NBA star who is the same height as Wiggins, was similarly talented, and played the same position, the wing – a blend of shooting guard and small forward.
Even practices were filmed and assessed. There were many adjustments: When guarding right-handed shooters, Wiggins was instructed to get his left hand up, his right arm free to make trouble. In team sessions, studying opponents, Forbes assembled 200 clips and banged them out in fractions of three or four seconds over 15 minutes, demanding the concentration of a game. Wiggins was fast to memorize all aspects.
“Andrew has learned how to be a professional,” Forbes says. “Once he was here, and the car got driving, it just took off.”
In the weight room, there was Andrea Hudy. She has been called Kansas’s secret weapon and numerous NBA players credit her tutelage for making the leap to the pros. “She made me a lot stronger,” Wiggins says. “She works miracles.”
Some of the principal work was on what’s called anterior chain strength – power through the knees, flexible calves and strong quads, the basis of lateral movement. It’s the strength to stay with an opponent driving to the hoop, or to burst past a defender. One exercise was jumping off an object, down about 75 centimetres, and up immediately as high as the athlete could manage. “Ground reaction forces,” Hudy says.
On her iPhone, she charted progress, the gauges of load, explode, drive, measured by the latest technology.
“In basketball, you never run in a straight line,” Hudy says. “Andrew is an exceptional athlete. But he wasn’t exceptionally versed in basketball movements. We emphasize basketball movements, to make him a better basketball player.”
There were flashes of just that. Through December, January and into February, Wiggins would star in some games, only to have nights when observers would wonder what the fuss was all about.
By mid-February, the lessons learned during a rapid schooling in Kansas were apparent at a mid-afternoon practice. Now, not just the talent was on display but the work ethic, too.
Wiggins quietly chastised himself – “Damn” – when he missed an open three-point shot from the corner, hustling back on defence. “Get your hands up,” one of the coaches reminded him. Later, from the top of the three-point arc, Wiggins drove to the hoop, wove through three defenders and spun the ball up and in.
On another play, he leaped to the rim from two metres away but couldn’t get the dunk to go down; a moment later, on a second chance from well behind the three-point line, Wiggins shot with a defender in his face – swish.
Self, who has coached many fine players, sees the perfect NBA body in Wiggins, and unlimited potential.
“Andrew’s a different dude,” he says. “He’s a guy that can do things you can’t coach, and athletically, he can make plays you can’t teach. You talk to every NBA person, they say, ‘Wait till he’s 22, wait till he’s 21.’ The kid just turned 19. His ceiling is so high. So high.”
‘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.”