FEATURE ON ANDREW WIGGINS
Canadian basketball historian, Curtis J. Phillips attended a Jayhawks game in early January. Here is his story…
Lawrence, Kansas -Cerebral palsy may have cheated 26 year-old Jace Johnson of some of his physical attributes but not of his passion for University of Kansas Jayhawks basketball and one particular player. Like the majority of fans at Allen Fieldhouse on January 5th, the 26 year-old native of Overland Park, Kansas is wearing the KU traditional colours of blue and crimson. His wheelchair is also sporting KU tints. Watching pregame activities, he patiently awaits for the Jayhawks to take to the floor. Their opponent, the No. 21 ranked San Diego State Aztecs. Despite the polar vortex that has this college town of Lawrence, Kansas in a deep freeze, the fans, 16,000 plus, are loud and crazy.
Some have said that this is the loudest gym in North America.
Situated behind Johnson at the south end are banners hanging from the rafters. They show the names of prominent KU players from the past. They include Clyde Lovellette, JoJo White, Paul Pierce, Danny Manning, Kirk Hinrich and most notably, Wilt Chamberlain.
The north end of Allen Fieldhouse has a banner high, reading "Pay Heed, All Who Enter: Beware of the Phog” in honour of former Jayhawk coach Phog Allen (1907-1909, 1919-1956). Below the Phog warning hang NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship banners ... 1922, 1923 (Helms Foundation Championship) 1952, 1988 and 2008. They were also runner up in 1940, 1953, 1957, 1991, 2003, and 2012 and made Final Four appearances in 1940, 1952, 1953, 1957, 1971, 1974, 1986, 1988, 1991, 1993, 2002, 2003, 2008, and 2012. Winning and tradition is big time at KU.
After singing the American national anthem they will join in for their alma mater Crimson and Blue with the crowd swaying back and forth like waves on the ocean. The song is concluded with the famous “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk" chant.
This preamble is not important for Johnson though. In his 12th year of attending Jayhawks home games, his all-time favourite player is about to run onto the court with his team. Johnson's eyes light up and he is smiling when he sees No. 22, Andrew Wiggins of Thornhill, Ontario.
Wiggins, although only a freshman, needs no introduction. In 2013 he was named Mr. Basketball USA, Gatorade National Player of the Year, Naismith Prep Player of the Year and McDonald’s All-American.
“We like watching him and he can really slam dunk and everything,” said Doug Johnson, 61, Jace’s father in regards to why Wiggins is both their favourite Jayhawks player. “We also like how he can shoot from outside. If you have other players up there in Canada like him they should all come down here.”
Prior to the start of the 2013-2014 college season, Sports Illustrated featured Wiggins on its cover. The title reads: “The Freshman … From Wilt to Manning to Wiggins.”
Never judge a book, or in this case, a magazine by its cover though. The SI shoot was not meant to compare Wiggins as the next Manning, yet alone Chamberlain, but to profile each of the respective players in regards to their journey towards their freshman seasons on campus.
“I think it (Sports Illustrated cover) put quite a lot of pressure on him. Poor kid,” said Doug Johnson, shaking his head.
Bob Davis, radio play-by-play voice for the Jayhawks since 1984, echoes Johnson’s statement.
“Unfair...totally unfair pressure because Wilt Chamberlain was Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt had 42 points and 29 rebounds in his first game as a Jayhawk and Danny (Manning) was here for four years and scored almost 3,000 points (2,951 points, 1 187 rebounds).
“It is different now with media and social media and the hype is just unbelievable. Andrew has been front and centre since he was a teenager. But he seems to handle it well. He is a laid back young type of guy and enjoys being part of the team. It is not about him. He has the skills and they are just starting to come out. He has a great attitude. He is quiet and you have to coax him a bit to talk a bit.”
Davis’ colour man on broadcasts, Greg Gurley, a former Jayhawks player from 1992-1995, also coincides on the over hype.
“I think the Sports Illustrated cover was crazy. It’s great for Kansas and Andrew but the expectations were so exaggerated,” said Gurley. “Andrew is a great kid but it is unfair…he did not ask for this. Andrew has unbelievable talent and insurmountable potential but it takes a while to learn how to play and achieve success at this level. He is going to have a great season not to say that he is not already having one (14 games, 15.3 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game). He continues “The talk during the summer was 'How many points will Andrew Wiggins average per game...20, 25?' I kept trying to temper those comments. No. 1 - that is unbelievable expectations for a freshman. No. 2 - he is at one of the best programs in the country with eight other guys who are not as good but nearly as good. Plus it is mathematically impossible...there are not enough shots in this system.”
A system in which Wiggins would take 14 field goal attempts this particular Sunday afternoon while scoring 14 points in 38 minutes of play, the Jayhawks losing 61-57 to the Aztecs.
Following Wiggins brief post-game interview with the 50-plus media in attendance, I had an exclusive one-on-one with the young man who attended Vaughn Secondary School in the GTA before taking his game south to play for Huntington Prep School in West Virginia in 2011.
Usually, at least for this longtime basketball scribe, when you ask basketball players who they emulated when they were young they will usually bring up names that were popular during their eras....Chamberlain, Baylor, Dr. J, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Nash, Kobe, LeBron...etc.
For Wiggins the answer was different.
“I was always in a basketball orientated family so I looked up to my older brothers and my father,” said the 6-foot-8 guard.
Brothers' Nick and Mitchell Jr. also play collegiate hoops with Nick, a 6-foot-6 guard now in his senior year for the Wichita State Shockers currently ranked No. 6 in the NCAA polls while Mitchell Jr. is a 6-foot-6 senior forward with Southeastern University Fire which play NAIA.
Their father Mitchell played at Florida State and was the 23rd pick in the 1983 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers. He played in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Then continued to play in Europe for the rest of his career.
About his choice of wearing the Kansas Jayhawks jersey Andrew responded: “It is a joy to be playing at one of the strongest basketball schools in the United States.”
Of the comparison to Chamberlain and Manning on the SI cover Wiggins said: “It is a blessing to be put in the same sentence as legends like that. It makes me want to work harder to get to that level.”
Having represented Canada at the 2010 FIBA Under-17 World Championships and 2012 FIBA Americas Under-18 Championships, both bronze medal finishes, he hopes one day to represent Canada at the Summer Olympics.
“Representing my country is always something to be proud of. Playing (at University of Kansas) I give people hope in Canada that there will be another player like me or a lot more players coming to play (in NCAA) while doing their thing.” (There are currently 97 Canadians on NCAA Division I men's basketball program rosters).
Asked of what the chances are that a Canadian is drafted No. 1 in the NBA back-to-back (former Canadian teammate Anthony Bennett was picked No. 1 last year by the Cleveland Cavaliers) Wiggins slightly shrugged his shoulders. Then when asked what advice he would give players in such a situation, (one year college and then possible NBA draft No. 1) he replied, “Never rush. Take your time. And make the right decisions.”
Asked one final question, “Do you miss the weather back home in Toronto right now?” he smiled and said “No.”
According to Gurley, Wiggins has no real nickname, “Just Wiggs”.
Considering by all accounts that he is a quiet young man who lets his game do the talking...how about the moniker of Andrew “The Whisper” Wiggins.
It’s a Canadian thing.