LAWRENCE — On the night before Wilt Chamberlain was to make his debut in the fall of 1956, a small crowd gathered inside a cafeteria at the Kansas Student Union. They pushed some tables together, set up a few television cameras, and Chamberlain folded his sprawling frame into a seat next to Northwestern sophomore center Joe Ruklick.
Just a few feet apart, Chamberlain and Ruklick sat like prizefighters before a heavyweight title bout. Chamberlain, a 7-foot-1 center from Overbrook High in Philadelphia, was the biggest thing to land in Lawrence since former Kansas Gov. Charles Robinson handed over 40 acres of land to build a state university on Mount Oread in 1863.
When Chamberlain arrived in the fall of 1955, nobody expected him to erect his own limestone building. But they did expect some more chalk for the school’s basketball legacy.
Chamberlain had suited up for the KU freshman team, in accordance with the rules of the day. He had scored 42 points and snatched 29 rebounds in a scrimmage victory over the KU varsity. And for 12 months, the campus had buzzed in anticipation over the school’s new colossus.
Ruklick, a kid from Chicago, had spent the last two years reading magazine stories about Chamberlain. In fact, before Ruklick enrolled at Northwestern, he had traveled to Murray, Ky., to play in a high school All-American game and expected to see Chamberlain. When both teams consisted of nothing but white players, Ruklick understood why Chamberlain wasn’t there.
So on that evening in the student union, as the cameras were set to roll, and Sports Illustrated tracked Chamberlain’s every move, Ruklick pulled his fellow center aside for a private moment.
“Wilt,” Ruklick remembers saying. “I stood there getting the All-American emblem trophy, and I knew I was standing in your shoes.”
Wilt listened for a moment, then answered:
“It’s OK, man ... you earned it.”
If Ruklick was hoping the heartfelt connection would earn him some mercy from Chamberlain the next night, that certainly wasn’t the case. In front of a packed Allen Fieldhouse, Chamberlain set a Big Seven Conference record by scoring 52 points and pulling down 31 rebounds in an 87-69 victory. After the first half, in which Chamberlain had 25 points, Ruklick sat in the locker room, demoralized. A teammate, guard Nick Mantis, combed a halftime box score, looked at Ruklick and couldn’t help but laugh.
“It seemed absurd …,” Ruklick says now. “Well, he was dunking the ball and scoring at will on me.”
Nearly 57 years later, Andrew Wiggins has to laugh, too, listening to this story. The expectations are so outsized, so absurd, so Wiltian, for this KU freshman.
“He can’t live up to the hype,” KU coach Bill Self says. “It’s impossible.”
In early October, a month before his first collegiate game, Wiggins shared the cover of Sports Illustrated with photos of Chamberlain and Danny Manning, another Kansas legend. In five days, Wiggins will play his first regular-season game for KU, taking the floor against Louisiana-Monroe. He’s not expecting 52 and 31.
“That game Wilt had; that first game,” Wiggins says. “That’s ridiculous. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that in college.”
• • •
If the Andrew Wiggins experiment at Kansas is deemed a success, it will not be because he meets the expectations that have been laid out before him. For the most part, he can’t.
Wiggins, a 6-foot-8 swingman, the son of two professional athletes, the great Maple hope of Canadian basketball, is expected to dunk from the free-throw line, average 30 points, and lead KU to a fourth NCAA title before becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
As Self says ... impossible.
But if Wiggins’ time in Lawrence is a success, it will be because he came close. It will be because Self finds a way to maximize his one season with the best player he has ever recruited. It will be because the greatest KU recruiting class of Self’s tenure grows into a Bill Self team.
It will be, Self says, because Wiggins begins to understand how good he can be.
“They’re comparing him to Wilt Chamberlain,” Self says, “and Chamberlain is the most dominant player that’s ever played the game. The kid is 18 years old and he’s never made a college basket, but we’re going to compare him to Chamberlain? That’s impossible. But could he be a great one? Absolutely. Should we expect him to be a great one? Yes, we should.”
• • •
It is a Tuesday in October, and Self is talking about his favorite stats. There are numbers he watches, trends he studies, evidence to show that one of his teams is playing the right way.
To be a Self team, the players must learn to rebound. To be a Self team, the players must learn to guard. There’s an old story, from the first months Self was on the job at Kansas in 2003. When he met with his new players, including guards Keith Langford and Aaron Miles, they told him they liked to take the ball out of the basket and run.
That’s great, Self responded, but how about not letting them score in the first place?
“The most important thing to me,” Self says, “is defensive field-goal percentage and rebounding.”
One second later, Self mentions one more thing:
“If you could keep a stat on 50-50 balls,” he says, “when the ball is in the air, and nobody has possession.... If you could keep a stat, then my goal would be that we get 70 percent of the 50-50 balls.
“So if there’s 20 in a game, we just won 14-6, you score on half of them, that’s eight more points. That’s a difference in winning and losing. And it doesn’t have anything to do with winning or losing.”
There is, of course, no stat that measures 50-50 balls. How could you even define one? But for Self, this is not the point. The end result is not how many 50-50 balls Kansas gets — it’s that they believe that every one should belong to them.
This is how Self’s teams have won nine straight Big 12 titles. This is how Self’s teams have won so many games in the final minutes. This is how a team comes from nine points down to win an NCAA championship game in overtime.
“He has an uncanny way of making kids as close to their ceiling as they can,” KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend says. “And he knows the guys that have a lot more to give.”
For the moment, Self is still learning about Wiggins, still learning about freshman guard Wayne Selden and freshman center Joel Embiid. Still learning about a team that must replace five starters and integrate seven newcomers. Wiggins, Selden and Embiid could be NBA first-round picks — maybe as soon as next summer — but can Self teach them how to play his way? Will these freshmen, when the fire is white hot, throw their body on the floor — everything else be damned?
“The fun thing about coaching,” Self says, “is taking a beginning product… an infant, and then trying to develop it in a way where eight months later, you’ve got a mature person or team that has played against its ceiling as much as possible.
“That’s kind of how we grow.”
But with Wiggins on campus, there is a palpable urgency to accelerate the process. In a year, Wiggins will be gone, and a new crop of freshmen will arrive, and if we’re really witnessing a once-in-a-generation talent at Kansas, then Self only has one chance to get it right.
“When the perception is that kids may not be at a place a long time,” Self says, “the perception is you need to do something with them while they’re there. I feel that, too. I feel we need to have these guys have unbelievable experiences while they’re here. But not at the expense of the team.”
• • •
Wiggins’ first months on campus have included some rather absurd contradictions. The Sports Illustrated cover; the photo shoot with GQ; the announcement that Canadian sports network TSN, Canada’s answer to ESPN, will broadcast every Kansas game.
But Wiggins is still an 18-year-old, still a college student, barred from making any money off his own name until he leaves Kansas. He is the new face of college basketball, despite not paying much attention to the sport while growing up just outside Toronto. Earlier this year, when Wiggins was informed about a possible interview with ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, one of the leading voices of the sport, somebody from KU had to tell Wiggins who Bilas was.
It’s that sort of innocence, a stoic kind of presence, that has endeared Wiggins to his teammates.
“He doesn’t have reactions,” Selden says. “He’ll smile and laugh, but he’s not gonna give too much. You wouldn’t even realize he is who he is.”
When Wiggins was looking for a school, he decided he wanted it to feel like a close-knit family. That’s what he had back home, growing up with two older brothers and three sisters. His mother Marita was an Olympic sprinter, and his father Mitchell was an NBA point guard. And beyond the world-class genetics, they also taught their son to keep a close inner circle.
That’s what he’s found at Kansas. He’s rooming with the son of his coach, Tyler Self, and his favorite part about college is when the entire team rolls somewhere in Lawrence, like one unit.
“Being part of something so special, like a family,” Wiggins says. “Because some teams, you always have that one outcast or that one person that nobody really messes with. But on our team, everybody is just like a family.”
Now the experiment begins and the family must grow; coach and phenom, tradition and potential, innocence and hype, all believing in a season without limits.
“I don’t know if a young team has the potential to max out,” Self says, “because there’s another step they can always take.”