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Starring in an empty gym

This is not the World Junior Championships Add to ...

On the eve of the WJC final the other day Canada Basketball executive director Wayne Parrish was sharp enough to get himself interviewed by Bob McCown on Prime Time Sports to talk about what is an exciting collection of basketball talent bubbling up with Canadian roots, of which a kid named Andrew Wiggins is among the very bubbliest.

The hook was pretty straight forward: there may be 6.5-million people absorbed by what our country’s best junior hockey players were going to do, but at least some bandwidth should be preserved for some pretty accomplished athletes who aren’t hockey players.

After all, what is more impressive – and this is me thinking out loud, not Wayne Parrish talking – that two Canadians (Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph) are starting as true freshman at the No.13-ranked University of Texas who play on ESPN Saturday against No.9 Connecticut? Or that another wave of junior hockey players made it to the finals of what is effectively a four or five team tournament?

Hockey is great, don’t get me wrong; it’s an incredibly demanding sport and absolutely electric spectacle when played at it’s highest levels.

But the attention is soaks up must be disheartening for anyone who doesn’t play it. Joey Votto had to win the NL MVP before he got his due, arguably. Devon Kershaw has been near dominant on the World Cup cross-country ski circuit, recently but the only way he’s going to get recognition for it is he gets arrested.

That’s the context I had in mind when I went down to watch Wiggins play an opening round game with Vaughan Secondary at the historic St.Mike’s tournament.

I’ve written about him before; it’s an amazing story: his father Mitch Wiggins is a once disgraced former NBA player, his mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins a two-time Olympic medalist. There are credible basketball opinion makers who consider the 6-foot-7 15-year-old the best NBA prospect his age in the world. He has a Youtube video that has been seen 1.6-million times.

But he’s largely anonymous here. There were perhaps 20 people in the gym when his game started – late because the other team was late arriving. Vaughan won in a walk; Wiggins coasted through most of it, though he did manage to knock down five of his six three-pointers, slap back a handful of shots and throw down an in-traffic dunk that Rudy Gay would be proud to have on his reel.

Wiggins told me afterwards that he does dream of playing on a brighter stage: "The excitement would push me to be a better player," he said.

It won’t be an issue for long. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Wiggins will be heading to the US for Grade 11 and 12; the only question being which of the nationally-ranked prep schools he decides to go to before signing with a major D1 power.

And it’s not even because he can’t grow his game here. His coach at Vaughan, Gus Gymnopolous runs an ambitious program that started with two-a-day practices in September and will have his team play nearly 50 games this season. Canada Basketball has provided opportunities for additional training with the likes of former national team star Rowan Barrett and alongside other elite local prospects like Kevin Pangos and Duane Notice.

But the hype, the energy, the focus? Those things can’t manufactured as easily, not when a nation has eyes for one group of elite teenagers at the expense of nearly everything else.

If and when Wiggins does head south, it will be hard to suggest he should stay.



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