All of us in Lawrence, Kansas, had one thing on our minds: Andrew Wiggins—a kid from Vaughan, Ont. born two years after the Blue Jays won their second World Series who’s recently become the focus of all basketball chatter, from nerdy blogs to national magazine covers.
My band, Arkells, had finished recording our newest album in Los Angeles on Wednesday, meaning I was a two-day drive from Kansas University’s Allen Fieldhouse and the chance to catch Wiggins’ home debut on Friday night. I gladly volunteered to ensure our van and gear made it back to Hamilton, only to find that Nick, our bass player, and our friends Mike and Greg, were all interested in making the pilgrimage alongside me. A Canadian favourite to go first overall in the 2014 NBA draft, Jayhawks basketball and American barbecue—there really is no place like Kansas.
Because Wiggins is expected to follow the well-trodden one-and-done path of many a college hoops star before him, there is a sense around Lawrence that the town must savor this moment. The guy manning the front desk at our hotel, a part-time film professor, told us that Wiggins was enrolled in his Film Studies class for the spring semester; a liquor store clerk broke down game pacing and referee tactics while ringing up a six-pack of Bud Light; and our cab driver, wearing a brand-new Jayhawks t-shirt, said he never misses a game and—because of Wiggins—was impressed with my Canadian citizenship. If Dillon, Texas, the setting of Friday Night Lights, represents the Platonic ideal of American high school football towns, it seemed that Lawrence was its college basketball equivalent.
The Allen Fieldhouse, which seats 16,000 but seems built for 8,000, is a perfect storm of college-basketball fandom: steep aisles, low ceilings, rich alumni swearing at referees, shirtless frat boys coated in Jayhawk-blue paint, bleacher benches that pack three men to a foot, and cheerleaders straight out of central casting. It’s no surprise that Kansas is 107-2 at home since 2007—the greatest homecourt advantage in all of college sports.
I took my seat on press row next to Sean Levine, a KU grad, and sports director at the local radio station, Rock Chalk, Sport Talk. Having attended KU games for a decade, he noted that no other incoming freshman had ever garnered this kind of excitement. His assessment was reinforced by the presence of my other seatmate, Jung Hwan Seo, a sports journalist from South Korea. Seo had flown 20 hours to cover Wiggins’ debut, and was headed to Chicago on Tuesday for KU’s game against Duke before returning home.
Wiggins seemed unfazed by the excitement. He opened the game by showcasing his signature spin move, deftly weaving through three defenders for an easy lob off the backboard. The crowd was delighted and borderline hysterical, and stayed that way all game long, regularly unleashing swells of joyous and deafening noise, more often in response to hard-won defensive stops than flashy offensive plays. Like hardcore hockey fans in Canada, locals in Lawrence have basketball in their blood. Their hoops IQ is through the roof, and they can talk about the game with a degree of complexity and confidence you might have thought only existed in parts of North Carolina and Indiana.
Despite having grown up watching Chris Bosh’s WWE-style chest pounding after big dunks, Wiggins played calmly and rarely celebrated or barked. This was described by the media after the game as a “lack of aggressiveness,” but perhaps it’s a sign of his maturity. Wiggins has already spent a significant portion of his life playing under great pressure and in front of huge crowds. He displays a poise and sly confidence that are beyond his years, a preternatural calm that will only continue to serve him as he plays in increasingly hostile environments.
Although Wiggins is a six-foot-eight forward, he was assigned to guard a player from Louisiana-Monroe who stood about six-foot-two, and with his long arms and quick feet, he showed real defensive potential. On offence, he looked as comfortable crossing over defenders in the paint before dishing to an open shooter as he did stalking the perimeter and hitting a three-pointer off a quick drive-and-kick. Though he kept the crowd in hysterics, Wiggins appeared to be his own worst critic: with KU up 20 late in the second half, he missed two free throws and muttered “f--k me” to himself as he sprinted back on defense.
Wiggins finished the game with a team-leading sixteen points on just nine shots. He also headlined that night’s SportsCenter, ahead of fellow super-hyped freshmen Jabari Parker (who put up 22 points and 6 rebounds in his Duke debut) and Julius Randall (who managed 23 and 15 for the Kentucky Wildcats).
The fans after the game were more than pleased: their barstool conversations carried the same passion for, and knowledge of, basketball that Washington cocktail chatter has for politics. Each year brings with it familiar excitements and new disappointments, nostalgia for the good old days and re-assuring optimism about the future. A girl at the bar, referencing KU’s mixed football history, told me there’s a saying in Lawrence: “Wait ‘til basketball season.” But that doesn’t quite capture the importance of this game to this town: College hoops is what they eat and breathe, even if it’s not always in season.
If all goes according to plan for Wiggins, Friday night was just the first of hundreds of important nationally televised games he’ll end up playing. But there was clearly something special about having been there. Wiggins proved that he’s worthy of all the hype, he created more with such an encouraging debut, and it felt fated that such a talented athlete would make his mark on the national stage surrounded by what might be the most appreciative and passionate fans in America.
Wiggins’ career is hardly determined: he’ll need a lot of hard work and luck to become the great we all expect. But Friday night proved that he is not the product of a narrative inflated by Canadian fans and media. Andrew Wiggins is the real deal. He is the centre of something much bigger.