Wiggins’ parents produced winning genetic, competitive pedigree
MINNEAPOLIS — The defender had the perfect angle on Andrew Wiggins as he drove along the baseline in hopes of delivering a thunderous dunk.
During a pickup game three years ago in Canada, a guy that’d hampered the likes of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson got ready to time his ascent. But the 16-year-old Wiggins flashed one of those YouTube-sensational moments before the man between him and the basket could even react.
"As I planted," Mitchell Wiggins Sr. said, "he was landing."
Dozens of lockdown stoppers, from the parks of Vaughan, Ontario to the AAU Circuit to Kansas’ Phog Allen Fieldhouse to the NBA, have witnessed their Welcome to the Andrew Wiggins Experience moment. But the man who begat one of basketball’s most ballyhooed prospects ever has been privy to more than most.
Shoot, he and his superstar track athlete wife, Marita Payne-Wiggins, are largely responsible for creating them.
So to understand the 19-year-old Timberwolves forward who scored 21 points — the same amount as both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — Monday night against Golden State and has defended Jimmy Butler, Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade, etc. admirably so far in his infantile career is to understand where he came from. Not just the genes from a dad who played in the NBA and a mother who has a pair of Olympic silver medals hanging at home, but the mentality that comes from growing up in a household where fierce competition is balanced by unconditional love.
When Andrew was young, his older brothers Mitchell Jr. (a recent graduate and former forward at NAIA Southeastern State) and Nick (a former Wichita State guard now playing professionally in Germany) beat the snot out of him on the outdoor courts near their Toronto-area home. At the age of 11, he was short, scrawny and uncoordinated to the point that coaches sat him at the end of the bench, his father said.
"He might’ve retired" at age 18, Mitch Sr. laughs now.
But Andrew always went back, both because his parents encouraged him to and because his entire existence became predicated upon succeeding at the level his parents did.
Not because they forced him to. Because he wanted to, since he was 2 years old and attended the camps his dad ran for area youth basketball players. He wanted to have a more impressive basketball-reference.com page than Mitchell Sr. when it was all said and done, and he wanted to outperform his brothers.
"You always want your kid to be much better than you ever were," said Marita, a two-time Olympic sprinter for Canada. "That’s what we dreamt for all of our kids, for them to experience what we experienced, but at a much higher level. He’s doing what we dreamed that he would be able to do and all of them would be able to do."
According to Mitchell Wiggins Sr., the game that defines his family was invented in Wilmington, N.C., by a man named Michael.
Wiggins grew up around the same era as His Airness in the same state, attending North Lenoir High School in LaGrange, N.C., before landing a scholarship to Clemson, then transferring to Florida State after one season. In two years with the Seminoles, the wiry, 6-foot-4 shooting guard averaged 23.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
He also met a beautiful girl named Marita who was born in Barbados, later relocated to Toronto and eventually earned 21 NCAA All-American honors as a track and field competitor. They’d bump into each other frequently in the training room and in the athletes’ cafeteria. Eventually, the two married.
Indiana drafted Wiggins 23rd overall in 1983 and immediately traded him to the Bulls (interestingly enough, for current Wolves assistant Sidney Lowe and a draft pick). A year later, Wiggins’ wife took silver in the 4×100 and 4×400 relays at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
That same summer, Wiggins was dealt to Houston. There, he germinated into an off-the-bench defender coach Bill Fitch would use against opponents’ top offensive weapons.
"Mitch was locking people down," said Jim Petersen, FOX Sports North’s Wolves color commentator and assistant coach for the Minnesota Lynx. Petersen played with Wiggins in Houston from 1984-87. "He was the guy that, if there was someone that was out there running around on fire, coach Fitch which throw Mitchell Wiggins on him, and he’d douse the flames."
Both Wiggins and Petersen played an instrumental part in the Rockets’ run to the 1985-86 NBA Finals. Led by a pair of Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, Houston eventually fell 4-2 to Boston.
When Sampson was ejected for an infamous fight in Game 5 of that series, Wiggins came off the bench to score 16 points and grab seven rebounds in Houston’s 111-96 triumph.
Wolves assistant Sam Mitchell, a former Minnesota guard, made the Rockets’ training camp roster that year. He was eventually cut, but remembers Wiggins’ tenacious defensive habits — the same that can be seen in Andrew Wiggins today.
"He was a beast," Mitchell said. "He would pick Magic Johnson up 94 feet. Magic hated it. Magic spent the whole night just knocking his hands off. Mitch was a physical guy like that. He was tough."
But he was also foolish.
Cocaine use cut short his promising career. The NBA suspended Wiggins for substance abuse from 1987-89 and again for the 1990-91 season.
He’s been clean for 22 "beautiful years," he says. Among the many messages he tries to impart upon Andrew is one heard by sons from their fathers around the world.
Don’t make the same mistakes I did.
"All my kids know my story. We’ve talked about it," Mitchell said. "Marita stands by me, my family. You just have to come to a point of which way you want to go. I wanted to go walk the right walk and do it the right way."
There are a lot of guys who can run, jump, but there’s not a lot of guys who can run, jump and think one or two plays ahead and see it and understand what’s maybe going to happen.
Fitch — who coached the University of Minnesota men’s team from 1968-1970 before helming the Cavaliers, Celtics, Rockets, Nets and Clippers — was famous for his protracted, monotonous film sessions. He’d hit rewind to point out a mistake without taking his finger off the remote control button, going back dozens of plays then re-watching them and finding new intricacies to note as his players begged him to operate the technology properly.
"It was over and over and over and over," Mitchell Wiggins recalls. "But he made us better through it."
In addition to directing Andrew away from the pitfalls that come with money and fame — drugs being only one of them — the Kansas product’s parents have made a point of sharing any relevant knowledge from their professional careers with him. For dad, that means scouring the scouting report together every single game day.
"I tell him to make shooters drivers, drivers shooters," Wiggins said. "Defensively, he’s way ahead of the game, plus he’s got a lot of fire. He doesn’t want you to score, even if he’s on the bench watching."
Marita is there to, as she puts it, just be mom. She bounces back and forth between Minnesota and Canada, Andrew’s youngest sisters Taya and Angelica live with their dad in Golden Valley. Andrew himself has a Minneapolis home near Cedar Lake he shares with his older sister, Stephanie, his best friend from Toronto and, soon, his brother Mitchell Jr., who’s rehabbing from a shoulder injury and trying to forge his own professional hoops path.
So support is never hard to procure. Familial pressure is, though.
He’ll always be saddled with the external expectations that come with comparisons to LeBron James in high school, being drafted first overall and having a dad who played at the game’s highest level. His mother has a street and two parks named after her in Ontario. Both of his parents are enshrined in the Florida State athletic hall of fame.
But Mitch Sr. and Marita say they’ve never pushed any of their children to greatness, just offered pointers along the way. The fire to compete came organically, Marita said.
"We’re just there to support and there to say, ‘You know what, I know you might’ve had a bad game, but guess what? Tomorrow’s another day. You better pick up and let’s go,’" Marita said.
They’ve tried to keep him from becoming entitled, too.
"Nineteen is his only weakness," Mitchell Sr. said. "I just think that he’s been blessed with special talent and great athleticism, but also I want to instill the knowledge in him, the IQ that separates you. (Larry) Bird had the IQ. KG (Kevin Garnett) had it. (Jordan) had it.
"There are a lot of guys who can run, jump, but there’s not a lot of guys who can run, jump and think one or two plays ahead and see it and understand what’s maybe going to happen."
Averaging 11.9 points on 38.8-percent shooting, 3.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game, Andrew Wiggins isn’t there yet. But when it comes to his inner circle, he’s got a leg up in reaching the echelon he and his family desire for him.
"They’ve been through what I’ve been through right now," he said. "Whenever I need any words of advice or experience things, they always tell me, because they’ve been through it, they’ve done it. It’s always good to have them."
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