A once-in-generation talent, Andrew Wiggins has Kansas fans in frenzy
This story originally ran in the October 14, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe to Sports Illustrated, go here.
Basketball was born in the mind of an Ontario man, a Canadian expat who founded the first team at Kansas and bequeathed it to an alum who fashioned himself a guardian of the inventor's intentions. In 1927, Dr. James Naismith's coaching heir, Dr. Forrest (Phog) Allen, won a battle to keep dribbling in the game, even though it wasn't explicitly covered in the original 13 rules, and in '28, he wrote an essay in Country Gentleman magazine entitled "Dunking Isn't Basket Ball." Allen was adamant that the basket should be raised because the average height of the players was increasing. The solution, he believed, was a 12-foot rim. Allen had prototypes constructed for practice and spent decades lobbying the NCAA rules committee to make the change. But in '55, when Allen was being honored by having his name on the new, $2.65 million fieldhouse at KU, the rims were still set at 10 feet.
Allen needed no ulterior motive to recruit 7-foot Wilton Chamberlain, the No. 1 schoolboy player in the class of 1955, out of Philadelphia. He was citius, altius, fortius, Stiltius -- the fastest, tallest, strongest center the sport had ever seen. But Phog also wanted Wilt to serve as a giant middle finger pointing in the direction of the NCAA. In a never-published portion of a '57 interview with Life, Allen said of Chamberlain, "I wanted to get this boy and I wanted him to stuff that basket full of basketballs. I'd show the rules committee how ridiculous that 10-foot basket was."
The NCAA agreed that Wilt might make a mockery of the game, but its rule changes didn't involve the rim. Tales from Chamberlain's scrimmages with the freshman team led to the outlawing, for 1956-57, of redirecting teammates' shots into the hoop, which Wilt did frequently; of inbounding the ball on offense by lobbing it over the backboard, because Wilt was unstoppable on that play; and of jumping over the stripe as a free throw shooter, because Wilt could dunk that way.
By being recruited to volume-dunk the sport into crisis, and instigating new rules before even being allowed to play varsity ball, Wilt set the bar impossibly high for future No. 1-ranked players who enrolled at Kansas. Yet the next one arrived 29 years later and did two things that Wilt did not: graduate and win a national championship. The next one arrived 29 years after that, which brings us to the present, and the question of what another Canadian can do for KU.
On May 18, four days after a certain Ontario boy signed with Kansas, coach Bill Self attended his daughter Lauren's graduation from KU's school of education. The ceremony was held in Allen Fieldhouse, and the dean, Rick Ginsberg, had asked the 2013 grads to submit, on index cards, their most embarrassing moments and greatest regrets. Among the statements he mentioned was, "Not being around to see Andrew Wiggins play for the Jayhawks."
Dang! Self thought when he heard that. Even if it might be a joke ... even though the 18-year-old from Thornhill, outside Toronto, who had played for Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, was the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2013 ... and even though he's the likely No. 1 pick in the '14 NBA draft. This is commencement! And the kid hasn't even made a basket!
On June 15 the 6' 8", 200-pound Wiggins emerged from a gate at Kansas City International Airport to find 15 fans waiting for his autograph. His itinerary had been posted on a message board. One 21-year-old journalism major at Southeast Missouri State had a blue KU jersey with the number 22 -- even before Wiggins had received his own -- because it was available to purchase in multiple stores in Lawrence. Four days later, when Wiggins made his first semipublic basket at KU, a soaring, fast-break dunk just a few seconds into a scrimmage in front of grade-school-aged campers, the play was on YouTube within hours and blogged about extensively.
The hysteria has only increased. Students have been Twitter-stalking Wiggins like tween girls obsessed with another fever-inducing Canadian teenage star. On the eve of Wiggins's return to KU for fall semester, in August, @EvanRiggs15 wrote, "Operation find Andrew Wiggins on campus is only a day away." Three people tweeted about being in his first fall class, and four tweeted about being in his second one, including @J_ST3W_K_C, who posted a photo of the back of Wiggins's head and the Raptors hat on his lap. So much for privacy laws or personal space: On Sept. 5, @Aly_Bauer tweeted about grabbing Wiggins's butt. There were other tweets about spotting him at Walmart, walking with him during a fire drill and delivering him a late-night pizza.
"I'm used to the attention by now," Wiggins says. But if you think he basks in it, consider that he tried to hold his college decision ceremony without any media present, his favorite nonbasketball activity is playing Call of Duty and his Twitter bio says he's "Just a average kid trying to make it." It's an endearing line from someone whose personality could be characterized as Unassuming Canadian, but still: C'mon!
"I used to be an average kid, when I put that up," he insists. "But that ... was a while ago."
This was before a YouTube mixtape tagged him the "Next LeBron" or a media consensus emerged, anointing him the best prospect since Kevin Durant. The correct label is TBD. As Self says, Wiggins is an "athletic freak," thanks largely to his parents, who met when they lived in the same Florida State dorm in 1980. His father, Mitchell, was a 6' 4" shooting guard who played six seasons in the NBA, and his mother, Marita Payne-Wiggins, won silver medals as a member of Canada's 4 × 100 and 4 × 400 relay teams in the '84 Olympics. Genetic potential wasn't the reason they married, but in that regard, Mitchell says, "I will tell you that I made a good choice."
Wiggins has a 44-inch vertical; his one- or two-dribble moves to the rim (often with a spin) are more explosive than those of many small forwards in the NBA, and he has the tools to be a lockdown defender. Kansas video coordinator Jeff Forbes has Wiggins studying Durant's scoring possessions. He says that while Wiggins is soft-spoken, "he picks up things really fast. He immediately noticed how fluid Durant's footwork was coming off screens and how he reads defenses." But holding Wiggins to a Durant-at-Texas standard is unwise due to the kid's tendency to coast. During a recent workout Self had to yell, "Come on, Wiggs! Let's see if you're the best player on the floor!" because he spent 20 minutes blending in. Self had told Wiggins when he arrived in June that although he had yet to earn anything, "if you handle this right, you could potentially have everything you ever dreamed of and go down as one of the most loved athletes to ever come through this university."
The notion of what Andrew Wiggins could be, if he can cultivate a relentlessness to pair with his talent, is why he is being received differently -- even at a school that's won nine straight regular-season Big 12 titles and has two other potential first-rounders in guard Wayne Selden and center Joel Embiid. Even in a college town that's seen this already, twice.
In late August 1983, Jeff Johnson, the senior captain-elect of Lawrence High's basketball team, was called into the classroom of his coach, Ted Juneau, for a good-news/bad-news speech. The bad: Even though Johnson was an established leader -- class president and son of Kansas athletic director Monte Johnson, who had played on the freshman team with Chamberlain -- he would have to share his captainship with a senior from Greensboro, N.C., whose dad had just taken a job at KU. The good: The new kid was 6' 10", and his name was Danny Manning.
"I about s--- my pants when I heard that," Johnson says. "I was the dork who was well-read in recruiting, and I knew that Danny and Chris Washburn were the top two players in the country. My feet didn't touch the ground for the rest of the day."
Manning committed to Kansas on Sept. 22, and by the end of the season, recruiting analysts regarded him as a superior prospect to Washburn (a future NBA bust out of N.C. State) as well as the most versatile high school player since Magic Johnson. Jayhawks coach Larry Brown upped the ante by proclaiming in November 1984, "Danny Manning is the most complete young player I have ever seen. He'll be the best."
Manning's arrival meant more to Kansas than Wiggins's does now. While Wiggins could be a one-and-done cherry atop an unprecedented decade of dominance -- the lone thing the Self era lacks is a No. 1 overall draft pick to be the face of the program in the NBA -- Manning's talent ensured a revival from a stretch of early 1980s struggles. He also represented a ruthless victory in Kansas's blueblood feud with North Carolina.
After firing coach Ted Owens in March 1983, Monte Johnson went to the Final Four in Albuquerque and met with Phog Allen's most successful protégé, who had won the previous season's national title at North Carolina. "If you want the job, I'll cancel all my interviews and the deal's done," Johnson told Dean Smith, but Smith slept on it and declined. He didn't like what had happened to Owens, and it would have been a tough time to bolt from Chapel Hill: The Tar Heels had Michael Jordan returning, and construction had begun on the arena that would eventually become known as the Dean Dome.
Smith recommended a few names, but not the one that Johnson hired: Larry Brown, a former North Carolina point guard and Smith disciple who left a job he loathed with the NBA's Nets just six games before the start of the playoffs. Brown had no patience for slow rebuilds or long residencies -- in his previous college gig he had taken UCLA to the 1980 title game and departed in '81 -- so in his first summer at Kansas he hired an assistant who could make a quick, transformative impact.
Ed Manning was recovering from triple-bypass heart surgery and had most recently been employed as the driver of an 18-wheel truck, so he was a surprising candidate for an assistant's job at Kansas. But Ed had played for Brown on the ABA's Carolina Cougars, he had been an assistant at North Carolina A&T in 1978--79, and -- oh, yes -- he was the father of the No. 1 recruit in the class of '84. "Danny being Ed's son, that was a big plus on our side," Brown says. "And I told Ed, 'You're not gonna lose your job if you don't get Danny, but you'd be a pretty bad recruiter if we couldn't get your son.' "
Danny had just won a state title as a junior at Greensboro's Page High while playing for Mac Morris, who worked UNC's camps, ran UNC's system and was upset enough over Brown's scheming to publicly question his ethics. Danny says that he would most likely have committed to the Tar Heels, but once Ed was offered the Kansas job, there wasn't that much of a discussion. "It was the best thing for my family because it was the best thing for my dad -- trucking was just too tough on his body, and he couldn't pass up a coaching job like that," Manning says. "And I didn't want to be away from my family so [Kansas] was an easy hard decision."
Now the coach at Tulsa after nine years as a Jayhawks assistant, Manning also considered his father to be more qualified than many skeptical media members or rival recruiters did. If he was being touted as the most skilled big man in the country, Manning thought, why would they not give credit to the dad who developed that talent?
The deal went down while Smith was in Spain, working a coaching clinic and taking a vacation with his wife. Upon landing in New York City on the return trip, Smith called his top assistant, Bill Guthridge, to check in and received the news: Brown had succeeded in moving the whole Manning family from Greensboro to Lawrence. Chamberlain's Jayhawks could not beat the Tar Heels in the 1957 national championship game, denying him his best shot at a title, and Chamberlain's old teammate Monte Johnson could not lure Smith back to his alma mater, but the Mannings were a monumental win for Kansas over Carolina.
The chase for Chamberlain was college basketball's first truly national recruiting battle, with some 200 schools offering scholarships. And it had everything in the way of subplots: Racial overtones. Boosters with fat wallets. NBA teams scheming for his draft rights. Spurned rivals, skeptical journalists and relentless NCAA investigators. Even Phog Allen's mixed motives.
KU's chancellor, Franklin D. Murphy, and his old college friend Dowdal Davis, the editor of the Kansas City Call, an African-American newspaper, wanted to find a change agent who could help the status of African-Americans in Kansas, which remained unofficially segregated except for parts of Kansas City. "What I have in mind," Murphy said to Davis in the early 1950s, according to the Life magazine file, "is to bring to the campus an outstanding athlete who will be able to demonstrate by his performance that the idea of unequal opportunity for all is really a stupid one." Murphy and Davis thought Wilt could be Kansas's version of Jackie Robinson.
Allen, on the other hand, sold Kansas as a progressive destination for an African-American star -- or, at least, more progressive than Chamberlain's early favorite, Indiana. When Allen made his one visit to see Chamberlain in Philadelphia, in January 1955, the coach brought along black KU alumnus Lloyd Kerford, a wealthy businessman. Allen also enlisted Davis to visit Chamberlain's home and had black concert singer Etta Moten, another alum, write his family a letter extolling the virtues of the Kansas experience.
The approach worked well enough to get Chamberlain to commit that May -- and then nearly backfired the following September, when he and Doug Leaman, a white Overbrook High teammate and fellow Jayhawks signee, made the 20-hour drive from Philly in Chamberlain's '51 Buick. They stopped to eat at a diner outside of Kansas City, Mo., and were told they would have to eat in the kitchen, out of sight of the rest of the patrons. Chamberlain had been shielded from this kind of prejudice during two well-scripted campus visits, and he was furious when he discovered the reality of the region's racial climate. He sped off to Allen's house in Lawrence and threatened to return to Philly if he ran into any more refusals of service. From that point on, with the backing of Allen's son Mitt, a lawyer, and Murphy, Chamberlain and his African-American friends integrated Lawrence establishments one by one by sitting down, daring anyone to ask them to leave.
At that time, the NCAA allowed boosters to help recruit athletes, but they were not permitted to pay them, though that happened often. In 1985, Chamberlain admitted in an AP story that he received approximately $4,000 in cash payments (the equivalent of $34,000 now) from a few boosters. He maintained close relationships with Skipper Williams, a millionaire investor who hosted Chamberlain's two visits to KU, and Roy Edwards, a rich former KU cheerleader whose home was a refuge for Chamberlain during his frequent visits to Kansas City. Allen told Life magazine that alumni had first started "to sweeten the pot" after World War II and referred to Edwards as a sports nut "who likes to bask in the glory of an alumnus who gets a boy. He called Wilt about once a week, you know."
But Chamberlain also said the money didn't start flowing until he played for the varsity, so as a freshman he had to rely on his campus jobs. He was a celebrity vendor of football programs, but Ron Loneski, a forward from Calumet City, Ill., who was that year's other star recruit, said he and Wilt had a second football-game gig: waving cars into an alumni parking lot, for which they'd receive excellent tips. "I remember Wilt and I sitting in the front seat of his beat-up car, counting the tips -- $20 for me, $20 for you," Loneski says. "Every KU home game we'd make a couple hundred bucks apiece." Indiana coach Branch McCracken whined about the alleged payments from Kansas boosters, although Chamberlain later claimed that the IU boosters had offered to double whatever KU ponied up. Celtics president Walter Brown said that no NBA team could possibly pay [Chamberlain] "what he gets to go to college." (One reason Brown was upset: Chamberlain's selection of Kansas, a state that had no NBA team, helped the Philadelphia Warriors to secure his territorial draft rights in 1955 based on the location of his high school. While Chamberlain was working as a bellhop at Kutsher's Country Club in the Catskills during his high school summers, a guest named Red Auerbach suggested that he go to a school in New England, which would have made him property of the Celtics.)
Leaman, who left Kansas after two days due to homesickness, was playing for St. Joseph's in 1959 when he got pulled out of practice by an NCAA investigator and asked who had covered costs during Chamberlain's second campus visit, which the school wasn't allowed to fund. Wilt had left college in '58, after his junior season, for a one-year stint with the Harlem Globetrotters that paid him close to $100,000, but Leaman didn't want to risk any trouble. As he recalls, "I said the right thing: that we paid our own way." The NCAA eventually caught Kansas in '60 by proving that an unnamed booster made payments on Chamberlain's '56 Oldsmobile and banned the Jayhawks from the '61 and '62 postseasons. There had been far too much ruckus surrounding Chamberlain's recruitment for the NCAA to let it go.
The recruitment of Andrew Wiggins was defined by his silence. As a decision-maker he described himself as "independent" -- determined to make up his own mind, with no need for constant interaction with reporters or even recruiters.
"I wouldn't really talk to college coaches," he says.
Even the ones on your short list?
"Not any of them. I wanted to enjoy my last high school memories."
Thus his story played out according to the social-media age equation of high-traffic topic + silent subject = much misinformation. Around the time Wiggins reclassified from a junior to a senior, in October 2012, it was widely assumed that he was going to either Florida State or Kentucky. The truth? "I was wide open," Wiggins says, "but no one else was recruiting me."
The No. 1 prospect in the world, with seven months left before his decision day, had to ask his Huntington Prep coach, Rob Fulford, to inform teams that he was open to being pursued -- provided they were open to a one-sided relationship.
Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend happened to be in Huntington on the day Wiggins officially reclassified and told him that the Jayhawks -- who were likely to lose most of their lineup, including star freshman scorer Ben McLemore -- wanted in on the hunt. Wiggins said he didn't know much about Kansas but would consider visiting. Townsend had to cling to this small indication of interest. Reticence, like athleticism, runs in the Wiggins family: In a 1984 interview that discussed Mitchell's falling out at Clemson, his first college stop, he said, "Part of the problem I had was that I was so quiet, you couldn't get a whisper out of me, and I was so shy, I couldn't even look [coach] Bill Foster in the eye when he was talking to me." And in a recent Toronto Sun story about Marita, a former teammate said that despite being a fierce competitor, "she was very quiet, still is very quiet and very unassuming." Marita did not respond to interview requests for that piece or this one.
The Wigginses told KU coaches that cellphone messages would get listened to, but that didn't ease their nerves. Self left Andrew one voicemail that said, "Hey, big fella, I know you don't want to deal with this, but it's getting down to crunch time, and if we're in the game at all, throw me a bone. If we're not in the game, just tell me."
They were in the game enough to earn Wiggins's fourth and final campus visit, after Florida State (which shrewdly secured the first one, in December, by honoring Mitchell's and Marita's careers in a halftime video presentation), Kentucky and North Carolina. The Jayhawks hosted Wiggins on March 4, arranging for Marita to meet famed track coach Stanley Redwine, selling the school's own hoops history, and arguing that they had the best personnel and system to showcase Wiggins.
The Wigginses sat behind KU's bench for a 79-42 blowout of Texas Tech, and it was no coincidence that the game plan was heavy on ball screens and lobs, with point guard Elijah Johnson throwing six alley-oops in the first half. Says Self, "We did the things that gave us the best chance to win and were along the lines of what the family would like to see."
The Jayhawks looked for any sign from Wiggins. They were excited when he asked if he could wear non-Adidas gear off the court (they were the only Adidas school of his final four) and if he had to attend summer school: It meant he was mulling over the details. Self called Fulford on May 14, the day of Wiggins's announcement (and the 58th anniversary of Chamberlain's), to ask if he knew anything. Fulford was still in the dark, but said, "If what he's wearing" -- Adidas shoes -- "is any indication, you're in good shape." Townsend said that morning that he had a hunch they were going to get Wiggins, but Self was wary due to their lack of intel from anyone on the inside. He texted Wiggins to say, "Enjoy this, you've earned it," and was buoyed by getting "Thanks" as a response. As Townsend recalls, "Coach was all happy, like, He texted me!"
Even Wiggins's parents didn't know his decision until they arrived in Huntington the night before the announcement. His older brother Nick, a guard at Wichita State, didn't know either, but he had been hoping Andrew would choose KU, which would place him about 150 miles away.
When the big news from Wiggins's press conference was tweeted by Grant Traylor, a reporter from the Huntington Herald-Dispatch and one of just two media members allowed in the room, Jayhawks coaches' phones blew up with congratulatory messages. As they celebrated in their offices in Lawrence, Self texted Wiggins and his parents to tell them how excited everyone was, and that he couldn't wait to talk to them.
Self didn't hear from Wiggins for three days. "He was like, Coach, man, I've been busy, I've got a lot going on at high school. But I could tell he was happy."
Ten days after Manning committed to Kansas, on Oct. 2, 1983, a guest column ran in the sports section of The New York Times with the headline WHY FRESHMEN SHOULD NOT PLAY. The byline was Dean Smith's. "The education, well-being, development and maturation of the young student-athlete would be well served by the elimination of freshmen eligibility for intercollegiate varsity competition in football and basketball in Division I," he wrote. The eligibility rule had changed in '72 due to the unmanageable cost of maintaining freshman teams, and in eight of the 11 seasons that followed, Smith had begrudgingly started freshmen. (One was Jordan, who hit the shot that won Smith his first national title, in '82.)
It was a noble-but-antiquated idea that failed to gain traction. Manning had already been playing pickup with Kansas players during high school, and when he enrolled in 1984, he was immediately slotted as a starter. He had Ed on the bench and his mother, Darnelle, at home to look out for his well-being. Freshman-year roommate Milt Newton, who's now the general manager of the Timberwolves, said he and Danny often went to the Manning home to do laundry and get fed.
The Jayhawks' first game that season was in the Great Alaska Shootout, then the premiere Thanksgiving-week tournament. They played Maryland, which featured Len Bias, a 6' 8" forward who was every bit as good as Manning, plus three years older. Manning relished the chance to go head-to-head with a pro-caliber player. "Len was strong and fast, he had great anticipation skills and he was aggressive," Manning says. "All the things you wanted to be as a player, he had them."
Bias had 18 points and eight rebounds, but Manning held him to just six points in the second half after KU switched from zone to man-to-man. Manning had a 12-and-12 stat line and Kansas won 58--56, with junior Calvin Thompson making the game-winning shot with three seconds left. That was the way Manning preferred it. "Danny never wanted to be the guy," Brown says. "He was happy not dominating the ball; he was just concerned with making his teammates better and playing the right way." Manning didn't reach mythical status until his senior season, when the team he carried to a national title was dubbed Danny and the Miracles.
The best representation of the hype surrounding Chamberlain's debut for the Jayhawks was a photo illustration that ran in the Nov. 16, 1955, Lawrence Journal-World. A giant Wilt, wearing a white T-shirt and paperboy cap, appears to be patting the roof of Allen Fieldhouse, which is half his size. The caption says, "Lofty Wilt Checks the K.U. 'Play Pen.' "
His first game came two days later in Kansas's annual freshman-varsity scrimmage, which drew an estimated 14,000 fans, 12,000 more than normal. It was played on Allen's 70th birthday, and -- additional motive alert! -- the coach was still hoping for an exemption to KU's mandatory-retirement-at-70 rule, arguing that he should be allowed to coach Chamberlain's varsity seasons. Allen didn't win that argument—"He got a raw deal after working hard to get Wilt here," says Loneski -- but he did spend two hours each week working with Chamberlain in 1955-56, and assigned him to read Helen Keller's The Story of My Life in hopes that it would improve the 7-footer's touch and feel. "The fingers are the tactile sense," Allen said. "The ball goes off the fingers."
Or the ball just gets thrown straight down through the basket with violent force, as Chamberlain did repeatedly against the varsity that night. In the bleachers two high schoolers held up a sign with a giant hand hovering over a rim -- such was the fascination with Wilt's peerless dunking ability. One account of the game said that he executed a 360-degree jam.
Chamberlain was also criticized for other shots that were arc-less, errant missiles, and for not hustling -- which was comical because Chamberlain played every minute, piled up 42 points and 23 rebounds, and led the freshmen to an 81-71 victory. It was their first win in the 33-year history of the series, and Allen was hardly upset about it. "There's no question about it," he said of Chamberlain. "He's the greatest basketball player alive today."
For the rest of the season, the greatest basketball player alive was essentially put back in his box. Public appearances by freshmen were restricted to scrimmages before home games -- either intrasquad or against campus intramural teams. Chamberlain averaged 35 points in these scrimmages and burnished his legend with feats of athleticism. Allen was amazed to see Wilt leap and grab one of the coach's beloved 12-foot rims during -practice. (Chamberlain also lettered in track and could clear 6' 61⁄2" in the high jump.) At a youth clinic in Emporia, Kans., Monte Johnson saw Wilt take just one step and touch the top of a backboard that was 13 feet high. "My first thought," says Johnson, "was if that's those kids' new standard of what it takes to play basketball, they're all going to give up."
Here's what shocked Johnson just as much: While wearing Kansas gear outside of Lawrence he was occasionally asked if he was Wilt Chamberlain. Johnson found it so absurd that he sometimes did sign, and thus there are a few fraudulent Wilt Hancocks in circulation. If you were a freshman in 1955 you could be the best basketball player alive and fans still might not know what you looked like, or even if you were black or white.
To Wiggins, Kansas basketball did not exist before 2008, when he watched Mario Chalmers hit his miracle three against Memphis in the national title game. Growing up near Toronto, Wiggins did not follow college hoops -- he was a Raptors fan -- and so on the subject of KU history he is nearly starting at rock and chalk. "But I'm learning," he says.
To him, Manning is the father of a teammate: sophomore walk-on guard Evan Manning. To Wiggins's father, Manning was someone he faced in the NBA on Jan. 25, 1990, when Mitchell scored 28 points for the Rockets -- and hit two game-icing free throws -- in a 102--101 win over the Clippers. (It was one of Mitchell's best performances in an abbreviated comeback following a 21⁄2-season suspension for using cocaine, a career-derailing mistake that is now a cautionary tale for his sons. "My life was my life," he says. "A parent's legacy is to share all that with your kids.")
Chamberlain, to Andrew Wiggins, is but a ghost, a number on a banner hanging in Allen Fieldhouse's south rafters. He was unaware that Wilt wasn't eligible to play as a freshman. The idea of only appearing in scrimmages sounds so preposterous to Wiggins that he says, if that were still the case, "I probably wouldn't have gone to college."
If not for the NBA's age minimum of 19, Wiggins would already be a millionaire. He watched June's draft with his teammates at Self's house, and Wiggins had the surreal experience of seeing a childhood friend, fellow Toronto-area product Anthony Bennett, go No. 1 to the Cavaliers and then, in a live interview, anoint Wiggins as next year's top choice. ESPN's talking heads soon took to discussing his future. Wiggins had kept his college-commitment ceremony off TV, but he could not control that talk of an NBA tank-a-thon for his draft rights overshadowed the lackluster draft in progress. Wiggins tries not to think about such matters, and he confided nothing to his fellow Jayhawks. "You're just not going to get a reaction out of him, with things like the draft," fellow freshman Selden says.
The weekend before, Wiggins had flown back to Kansas City after a visit to Toronto, and on a connecting flight out of Charlotte, he had the joy of being seated next to the rare Kansas fan who did not know who he was. Debbie Yarnell, a law-firm secretary from St. Joseph, Mo., had overheard someone asking the boy in the black warmup suit a Kansas question at the gate, so she asked a few questions of her own on the plane, before getting his autograph on her U.S. Airways boarding pass. Whether he went to Kansas. If he played basketball there. Where he was from. How he got on KU's radar out of Toronto. Who else recruited him. What year he was going to be. And finally, "With the whole redshirt rule, which I don't understand, and Kansas being such a good program, do you think you'll get to play?"
To serious fans, this was an absurd question. Two partners at Yarnell's firm who are KU boosters had a huge laugh when they heard about it. But for Wiggins, who participated in this whole exchange without even offering his last name, was it any more absurd than being asked, before he has even made a basket at Kansas, if he can live up to the label of Best Since LeBron? Wiggins liked Yarnell's last question because it had nothing to do with hype or draft stock or the legacies of Wilt and Manning. The No. 1-ranked freshman in college basketball broke into what Yarnell describes as a beautiful grin, and then assured her, "I'll get to play."