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The Globe and Mail

Hometown phenom Wiggins gets a hero’s welcome from Toronto fans

Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins smiles before his team plays the Toronto Raptors in their NBA basketball game in Toronto, March 18, 2015.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

At Toronto Raptors games, the announcement of the visiting team's starting lineup is usually a rushed affair that must be tolerated: the "turn off your phone" announcement before the feature film begins. At the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, basketball fans drew out the ritual – a hometown boy was in the house, after all.

(Game recap: Andrew Wiggins stirs excitement in first NBA hometown game)

As the spotlight briefly fell on 20-year-old phenom Andrew Wiggins a few minutes before tipoff, the crowd erupted in cheers and hearty applause, some rising to their feet. Although last year's first overall NBA draft pick was wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey, by every other measure, this was a homecoming for Canada's brightest new talent in the NBA, a man who grew up in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto, and whom the city has claimed as its own.

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The game was one of the first to sell out this season in anticipation of Mr. Wiggins's appearance, according to a spokesperson for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. So momentous was the occasion that even Prime Minister Stephen Harper was at the ACC. Mr. Wiggins's parents sat courtside.

In a professional sports market that for so many years disappointed fans, basketball emerged last season as one sport worth rallying behind when the Raptors made it to the playoffs. That fervour has held up this season, and now, finally, the city has a local to pin its hopes to, even if he is not playing for the home team.

An hour before tipoff, Charlie Au was standing just behind the rows of courtside seats – as close as security would let him get – in hopes of watching Mr. Wiggins warm up. He was in a Wiggins jersey, but not the Timberwolves one the player wears on court – a Raptors one custom-emblazoned with the player's name.

"Hometown boy is coming home," Mr. Au said. "This is more fitting for sure."

In the first quarter, one man in the lower bowl yelled out, "Wiggins, you're on the wrong side." Others booed a few minutes later when the young player was subbed out, sitting on the bench for much of the first half after picking up three fouls.

Although he had a modest showing at his first game in Toronto, overshadowed in scoring by Timberwolves guard Kevin Martin in a 105-100 loss to the Raptors, fans were delighted with his presence.

Long before he played for the Timberwolves, before he was the top pick in the NBA draft, before he played for an elite college team, Mr. Wiggins was a legend in his hometown. After he joined the senior team at Vaughan Secondary School, north of Toronto, every venue the team played at was packed, recalls Gus Gymnopoulos, who still coaches at the school.

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Mr. Wiggins's legacy there is enduring. Current players often pester Mr. Gymnopoulos to see old game DVDs. This year, the school is retiring Mr. Wiggins's jersey, No. 22, to honour the player who made it to the NBA. On the first day of class, a few students are always surprised to learn of their school's most famous alumnus.

"They walk into the building and they see his pictures up and they're like, 'He went here? Oh my gosh,'" Mr. Gymnopoulos says.

Claudene Onguti first saw Mr. Wiggins five years ago, during the season he played for Mr. Gymnopoulos. On the drive to the game in downtown Toronto from Scarborough, Ms. Onguti's friends talked about this kid who was "supposed to be the next LeBron [James]." She was skeptical – after all, Mr. Wiggins was only in grade 10. She left the court that day a convert to the Church of Wiggins. He was a force on the defensive end and far faster than other players, but the fact that a local player was so talented left an impression, Ms. Onguti said.

"I think a lot of us are really proud of him and we're just excited to see him play in the city that kind of helped develop his skill. And play where he has so much support," she said hours before the game.

In the week before Wednesday's game, fans were scrambling to get their hands on Wiggins merchandise.

The Sport Chek at Maple Leaf Square had 36 Wiggins player tees in stock at the start of last week but, as of Wednesday afternoon, was down to five.

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"Basketball products from jerseys to basketballs are always in high demand in the GTA. When players like Andrew Wiggins come to town, it's not unlikely to see an increase in traffic," said Christina Rogers, a spokesperson for Sport Chek.

Sunny Dey leapt up from his seat in the lower bowl every time Wiggins scored on Wednesday night, proudly tugging on the Wiggins Timberwolves jersey he received last November for his birthday.

He paid $140 for his seat – more than he says he has ever spent on a ticket – for the privilege of seeing Mr. Wiggins on the Raptors court. He dreams that one day Mr. Wiggins will wear Raptors colours.

"It's our LeBron, it's our Michael Jordan, it's our Kobe Bryant in Canada," he said.

Tony McIntyre, the co-founder of Nike CIA Bounce, a Toronto basketball program that has brought up some of the best young talents in the league, coached Mr. Wiggins when he was a teen. Playing in Toronto is just as much a milestone for the player as it is for his fans, Mr. McIntyre said.

"As a basketball player, number one is you always want to play in your home city," Mr. McIntyre said. When the young players with the biggest dreams attend their first game at the ACC, it's always an occasion. "I think the significance really is you mark that down on your calendar as, 'I can't wait to play the Raptors. I can't wait to play in Toronto.'"

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