ALMONTE, Ontario — Here in this rural Canadian field, 100 feet from the old blue schoolhouse, James Naismith and his friends would play their favorite game: Duck on a Rock.
Each boy was given a stone and faced with the challenge of landing it on the face of the field’s large rock. If Naismith missed, he had to retrieve his stone before another boy tagged him. Naismith liked how the game combined coordination and strength. It was best, the boys learned, if you lobbed your stone with a hint of arcing touch.
Nearly 140 years later — and nearly 240 miles away — a Canadian eighth-grader named Andrew Wiggins walked into a community center outside Toronto to shoot baskets after school. The gym was mostly empty as a youth coordinator sat in an office nearby.
Nearly every afternoon, Andrew practically lived on this small rectangular patch of hardwood. He loved to practice his jump shot and craft his natural spin move. But he really liked to dunk.
On this day, Andrew came around the corner, his shoulders slumped and heavy. “There’s a problem,” he said.
That’s when Vaughan Parsons followed Andrew into the gym and saw the glass scattered about the floor.
Wiggins had shattered his first backboard.
“We were (ticked),” Parsons says, smiling. “But in a way, I know he felt good.”
Here inside this gym, Parsons had a front-row seat to the latest piece of Canadian basketball history.
More than 120 years after Naismith left his home in rural Ontario and invented the game at the Springfield YMCA, another Ontario kid grew into the best teenage basketball prospect in the world, then followed Naismith’s path south to Kansas.
Wiggins was raised in Vaughan, on the outskirts of Toronto. His story is part familiar, part Canadian: the grandson of immigrants searching for a better life; the product of a community serving as an incubator for a brilliant talent; an 18-year-old trying to break his natural instincts to stay quiet and blend in.
“We do a lot of thinking before we talk,” says his mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins.
“Andrew’s been like that forever,” says Nick Wiggins, Andrew’s older brother.
“He’s a team-oriented guy,” says Rowan Barrett, executive vice president of Canada Basketball. “He’s very Canadian, and I think his talent forces him to be more than that.”
Wiggins, a 6-foot-8 small forward, was college basketball’s No. 1 overall recruit last season, and he could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft this June. If he is, he’ll be the second straight Canadian to claim that honor.
While those in Kansas wait to see if Wiggins can grow into a college superstar before he leaves Lawrence, Canadians are watching closely.
They call him “Maple Jordan,” and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper sends Wiggins messages on Twitter. All of KU’s games this season will air nationally on TSN, the Canadian version of ESPN. And in discussing Wiggins’ future, some countrymen even invoke a name more absurd than Michael Jordan.
They say Wiggins can do for Canadian basketball what Wayne Gretzky did for hockey.
“I think Andrew could capture this country’s imagination,” says Roy Rana, who coached Wiggins on the U-17 Canadian national team.
But back home, in the place the Wiggins kids call Vaughan City, they simply know him as Andrew, the fourth child of Mitchell and Marita, the former professional athletes who live in the quiet neighborhood between two parks.
Her son is still just 18, Marita says, and it’s easy to forget that. So she shares with Andrew a lesson she learned long ago: Remember who you are.
“If you have a young child, and you send them out on their own with no firm foundation, they’ll go to the left and to the right,” Marita says. “But if you built a solid foundation … you’re steady. You’re floating good on that water. The winds won’t push you to and fro. You’re anchored. He has an anchor.”
A video tour of James Naismith's boyhood homeA man who has lived on the property in Almonte, Ontario, where James Naismith
grew up takes us on a tour of where the inventor of basketball attended school,
lived and played as a boy.
James Naismith’s father, John, left Scotland as a teenager, settling among an enclave of Scottish immigrants in northern Ontario.
He married a woman named Margaret Young, started a family, and then, in a three-week span in the fall of 1870, both John and Margaret died in a grisly outbreak of typhoid fever.
James was 9 and suddenly an orphan. When the pain became too much, he would climb into a crawl space in the family’s barn and think of his parents, crying as he tried to talk with his mother.
Most days, Andrew Wiggins shares at least one word with his mom. Sometimes more. Marita will tap out a mass text message for all six of her children, then press send. Sometimes it’s a quote from scripture; sometimes it’s a lesson Marita learned during her Olympic track and field career.
Lately, Marita says, she’s been sending a simple four-word message to Andrew: “Challenges are for Champions.” She likes the sound of that one.
Marita had learned something about challenges. In the 1960s, when she was a little girl growing up in Christ Church Parish in Barbados, her parents, Clarence and Ina, left for New York to study and work, seeking a better life for their children.
By 1970, when Marita was 9, her parents sent for the kids. They settled in Toronto, where she became a star sprinter at Vaughan Road Collegiate. She then chased her dreams at Florida State University, where she met a basketball player named Mitchell Wiggins, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from LaGrange, N.C. Together, they would build their careers — and a family.
Marita won two NCAA titles and then two Olympic silver medals, in the 400- and 1,600-meter relays, at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Mitchell played his rookie NBA season with the Chicago Bulls in 1983-84 before being traded to Houston just months after the Bulls drafted Jordan No. 3 overall.
After the trade, there were highs, like an appearance in the 1986 NBA Finals. But there were lows, too. After a positive test for cocaine during the 1986-87 season, Mitchell was suspended from the league for two seasons.
While his NBA career was derailed, Mitchell found a kindred spirit in Marita, somebody who could push him. Mitchell returned to the NBA and played a few years in Europe. After Andrew, their fourth child, was born in 1995, the family spent some time in Greece before settling for good in Vaughan in 2002.
They found a calm neighborhood. It was lined with light brick houses and winding cul-de-sacs. The Dufferin Clark Community Centre was within walking distance. And the park behind the neighborhood was soon named Marita Payne Park — a tribute to Andrew’s mother’s track glory.
They all settled in for a quiet life outside the spotlight, attending church most Sundays. By then, the family had two more daughters, Angelica and Taya, joining Mitchell Jr., Nick, Stephanie and Andrew.
“I didn’t say I wanted six,” Marita says. “But God gave us six, and that was good for me.”
If you were going to create a basketball phenom, you would be hard-pressed to find a better environment.
In addition to his parents’ genes, Andrew had two older brothers to test himself against daily.
“I guess you could say we bullied him around a little bit,” Nick, a senior at Wichita State, says of he and Mitchell Jr., who plays at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla. “(We) toughened him up a little bit.”
“The object of the game is to have the players of one team put the ball into their own basket and to prevent the opponents from putting it in the other basket … it is frequently necessary for one player to pass the ball to another in order to keep possession of it until a favorable opportunity to make a goal occurs.”
— James Naismith
On Oct. 10, 2009, a young man named Nils Wagner toted a video camera and some equipment into a gymnasium at Barton College in Wilson, N.C.
Wagner, the owner of an Internet start-up called HoopMixTape.com, had arrived to film the players at the Elite80 Fall Showcase, a camp run by a fledgling scouting company.
The event was filled with a handful of future NBA players, but one of the camp’s directors led Wagner to a smaller, auxiliary gym.
“There’s a 13-year-old you have to see,” Joe Davis told Wagner. “He’s got a left hook, a right hook ... he’s dunking on everybody.”
As Wagner filmed a few of Andrew Wiggins’ games, the highlights piled up. At one point, Wiggins clutched the ball on the left wing, crossing over with one dribble before finishing a vicious one-handed dunk.
“We felt like we’d stumbled upon like a generational talent,” Davis says.
Two days later, Wagner culled together 40 seconds worth of highlights and uploaded the video to YouTube with a not-so-quiet title: “Best 13 Year Old In The Nation 6’6 Andrew Wiggins!”
A few months later, the video had been viewed one million times. Four years later, Wiggins’ first dunk in a KU summer scrimmage would be posted to YouTube and chattered about for days. But Wagner’s film was the beginning, the nexus of Wiggins Mania.
“He just blew up,” says Wiggins’ younger sister Angelica, a student at Vaughan Secondary School.
But in the case of any creation story, sometimes the facts get skewed. On that day in North Carolina, Wiggins was indeed dunking on everybody. But he was not 13, as the YouTube video declared. He was actually 14, and a ninth grader.
Not that anybody really noticed.
A high school coach shares his Andrew Wiggins highlightGus Gymnopoulos, who coached Andrew Wiggins during his sophomore season
at Vaughan Secondary School outside Toronto, talks about one of Wiggins' best games
-- as a 15-year-old taking on a college team of older players.
“Basketball is a team game demanding a high degree of accuracy, judgment, individual skill, initiative, self control and the spirit of cooperation. It demands that each player be skilled in all phases of the game.”
— James Naismith
It is a Thursday in November, and Gus Gymnopoulos, the basketball coach at Vaughan Secondary School, pushes through a hallway, stopping to show a visitor the trophy case.
It doubles as a shrine to Andrew Wiggins and his older brothers, and there’s a lot for Gymnopoulos to explain. There’s a signed ball, photos and trophies from the season when Andrew led Vaughan to a 45-1 record and a provincial championship.
He may have been the best sophomore basketball player in North America, playing his games in a small gym that fit just a few hundred people. On many nights, Gymnopoulos says, the place was packed — a rare sight in Canadian high school basketball.
“People are just drawn to him,” Gymnopoulos says. “There’s just something magnetic about him.”
Gymnopoulos still likes to tell the story from the night Vaughan played Dawson College, and Wiggins finished an alley-oop while getting pushed in the back and drawing a foul. He was 15.
“He had this mental capacity for him to not feel pressure and be relaxed,” Gymnopoulos said. “It almost seems like he doesn’t even care, the way he is on the court sometimes. But it’s not even that. He’s just relaxed.”
Wiggins’ sophomore year was, for all practical purposes, one of the last that he could truly be a kid. The year before, he was at a prep school in North Carolina, but he got homesick and the academics there were questionable. He returned to the United States for his junior and senior season of high school, transferring to Huntington Prep in West Virginia.
Three years later, Wiggins says his one year at Vaughan still is his favorite basketball season.
“Nothing compares to playing at home,” he says. “Playing in front of my family and friends.”
“I am sure that no man can derive more satisfaction from money or power than I do from seeing a pair of basketball goals in some out of the way place.”
— James Naismith
The headquarters of Canada Basketball sits tucked into a nearly hidden strip mall in Etobicoke, a large municipality that hugs the western edge of Toronto. A company called Footlogix, which specializes in foot-care products, is next door. A coffee shop and a Subway are down the street. If it wasn’t for the red block letters out front, you might mistake the place for a office-supply store or a life insurance office.
The Canadian basketball office sits in a nondescript strip mall in a Toronto suburb. Canada Basketball officials hope Andrew Wiggins can lead the nation to future Olympic success. Photo by Rustin Dodd, The Kansas City Star
Instead, executive director Michele O’Keefe is sitting in a rather bare office, guiding what could be the most important era of the organization's history.
In participation terms, the sport is growing: participation has increased in each of the last few years, according to officials. But the heart of Canada Basketball’s mission involves the country's greatest crop of young talent. Last year, UNLV power forward Anthony Bennett of Brampton, Ontario, was selected No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft. And former college standouts Tristan Thompson and Andrew Nicholson, both from the Toronto area, were first-round picks in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
There are more like them, and there are more flooding into the NCAA.
“Everyone thinks we’re a hockey nation, and we are,” O’Keefe says. “But Andrew and these other boys bring a lot of “What ifs” to the children of Canada.”
There’s no one explanation for the talent influx in the Toronto area, one of the five largest metropolises in North America. And really, the conditions for a basketball explosion have been forming for decades, with many of Toronto’s future stars cut from a similar profile. Many are first-generation Canadians -- Thompson, Wiggins and Bennett all have parents who emigrated from the Caribbean -- and all came of age after the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise arrived in 1995.
“This generation of players could see the Raptors,” says Barrett, the executive vice president for Canada basketball who played at St. John’s in the early 1990s. “(They could say) ‘I look more like these guys. I guess that’s what I’m going to be.’”
The next step is international success. For years, Canadian basketball was essentially NBA star Steve Nash and a bunch of filler. Now, with Wiggins on the ascent, Canada can dream about a spot on the Olympic podium for the first time since the 1936 Summer Games — when Naismith himself presented the medals after Canada lost to the United States in the first Olympic final.
“I think he has the potential to blow the door off the hinges,” Barrett says of Wiggins, “because Steve (Nash) managed to do it as a player that kind of worked his way up, where as Andrew is kind of coming in already as ‘The Guy.’”
Andrew Wiggins' importance to Canadian basketballRowan Barrett, the assistant general manager for the Canadian Olympic men's
basketball team, talks about the impact Andrew Wiggins has had on the sport in Canada.
“No one who has not experienced it can appreciate the longing a boy has for a father or mother.”
— James Naismith
Last spring, on the weekend of his official recruiting visit to Kansas, Andrew Wiggins and his mother took a brief walk through the Booth Family Hall of Athletics at Allen Fieldhouse, the school’s lavish ode to its athletic tradition. The Wiggins family had just finished meeting with KU strength coach Andrea Hudy, and Marita could tell her son was intrigued.
For years, Marita and Andrew had shared many things: the same inner confidence, the same drive, the same wide smile. But they also shared the same silences.
“She’s quiet like me,” Andrew says. “She just observes a lot of things. She doesn’t really say stuff unless she has to.”
Marita could tell her son was doing the same thing. During the recruiting process, she says she always secretly hoped he would end up at Florida State, her alma mater. But as they stopped for a moment in Allen Fieldhouse, Marita broke the silence.
“Florida State’s in trouble, aren’t they?” she said.
Seven months later, Andrew is at Kansas, adjusting to the hype and expectations of his first college season. For all that Wiggins has gone through, next year will be different. It’s all but assured that he will be a 19-year-old in the NBA, playing alongside men. The spotlight could be even more intense.
“He’s going to have people around him that are going to help him out,” Marita says. “And I think that’s all he needs. Someone there for him at all times.”
Marita pauses for a moment, then mentions her faith.
“That’s something that God had said in the Bible,” Marita says. “Our lives are already pre-destined; we just have to walk in that path.”
Andrew Wiggins announced his commitment to Kansas alongside his mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins (right) during a ceremony May 14 in Huntington W.Va. Photo by The Associated Press
It is a December day in Lawrence, and Kansas coach Bill Self has stopped practice to institute a special rule: For a span of this particular session, Andrew Wiggins is the only player who can shoot.
It’s a ploy that Self has used before, and Wiggins is not the only player that gets the special treatment, but there’s an obvious reason for the drill.
“He is so teammate-oriented that he wants everybody else to do great,” Self says. “I think sometimes he can defer too much.”
From a basketball perspective, the Wiggins experiment at Kansas is close to on schedule. Through 11 games, Wiggins is averaging 15.5 points and 5.5 rebounds after a relatively quiet game Saturday against Georgetown. If he could make a few more free throws and layups, Self says, he’d be closer to 18 points per game. But Wiggins’ talent is so tantalizing, so prodigious, that even Self believes he can take another step.
For Kansas to become a title contender, he’ll probably have to. And if there is hope for KU, it’s that Wiggins has played the best against the best competition.
“I love moments like that,” Wiggins says. “Big crowds. Big-name people in the gym.”
On Saturday morning, as Wiggins prepares to play Georgetown, he walks onto James Naismith Court and stands in line for The Star-Spangled Banner. Allen Fieldhouse is packed, and the daylight from an overcast sky flows through the windows. Wiggins waits quietly as a trumpet echoes through the old building.
The world is out there, and it is big and unforgiving. But in the midst of the madness, Wiggins has an anchor, something to keep him steady through the night.
“As long as you know who you are,” Marita will say, “you’re going to be all right.”
Challenges, after all, are for champions.