Lindell Wigginton helping lead Nova Scotia’s basketball rise

Nova Scotia native Lindell Wigginton is leading the charge as the province rises on the Canadian basketball stage. (Nathan Graybeal/CP)

The rule of thumb when articles are posted on the internet is ‘don’t read the comments’ – the spaces at the bottom of stories that are all too often places where cruel things are said, often under the cover of anonymity.

But Lindell Wigginton brings out the best in people, and maybe the best people.

In a feature on the rising hoops star from Dartmouth, N.S., in the Local Express last December there is one comment that echoes even louder now than it did then.

“Keep doing you, young fella. We are all very proud of you. You are blazing a beautiful path,” it reads, signed Wade Smith, principal of Citadel High School, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

It’s a remarkable journey to be sure. And the words of Smith are noted and not to be overlooked.

It wasn’t the last communication Wigginton received from Smith, an iconic figure in Nova Scotia basketball and an influential coach of Wigginton’s in his middle school years, a role Smith played in the lives of countless teenagers both through basketball and in his long education career.

In early April, as word began circulating that Smith had been diagnosed with inoperable, incurable stomach cancer, Wigginton reached out instantly via text from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, the prestigious prep school that helped spur the likes of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo to NBA stardom. Wigginton was the first Canadian to play there when he took the plunge, heading to the tiny rural campus for 11th grade, and the do-everything point guard quickly emerged as one of the top high school prospects in North America.

“When I heard [Smith] had the cancer I messaged him right away,” said Wigginton, who parlayed Smith’s work with him at the Community YMCA in Halifax to player-of-the-year status in Virginia high school hoops, a spot in the Nike Hoop Summit and a scholarship at Iowa State beginning in September. “He was just telling me I was doing great and he was proud of me, and I told him I just wanted him to get better.”

They exchanged messages regularly over the next few weeks, the tone always the same: his old coach encouraging Wigginton on all his pursuits, the kid from Halifax ever more resolved to justify Smith’s faith.

When Smith passed away on June 2, it sent a tremor through Nova Scotia basketball and beyond.

“I knew him well,” says Wigginton. “He was a huge influence on me.”

Nova Scotia native Lindell Wigginton, right, headlines the Canadian roster for next month’s FIBA U-19 Basketball World Cup in Cairo. (Nathan Graybeal/CP)

Wigginton will take Smith’s memory with him on the next step of his journey, which takes him to Cairo, Egypt, where he’ll be the starting point guard for Canada at the Under-19 World Cup beginning July 1.

He’ll be playing for his province, too, however. Nova Scotia’s basketball roots spread wide and deep – Smith being one of its most prominent sons – but recognition outside of the province hasn’t always been easy to come by.

“I’m trying to make a statement, make people want to go back and see the other players that are there,” says Wigginton. “I have a chip on my shoulder because no one really comes from Nova Scotia and I want to be that first guy to make it.”

It’s a long way from home, but at least he’ll have company as fellow Nova Scotian Nate Darling made the team as well.

“It’s a big honour for two of us to be on the team,” says Darling, who is heading into his second year at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. “There’s a lot of talent in Nova Scotia that gets overlooked, so for me to come out here and represent for Nova Scotia, I think it shows that the East Coast can play with the Ontario boys, but there a lot of kids that get overlooked because Nova Scotia’s not a basketball powerhouse and we’re trying to change that.”

While Canada’s stature in international basketball has been rising steadily in recent years, particularly at the age group level, the teams haven’t always been ‘national’ in scope, with a heavy concentration of talent hailing from the Greater Toronto Area.

The U-19 squad will once again rely heavily on GTA products such as Rowan Barrett Jr., the just-turned 17-year-old who is already widely projected as an NBA lottery pick in the summer of 2019 or 2020. Eight of the 15 roster spots (including the three alternates) are taken up by players from the Golden Horseshoe.

But the entry is a little more widely representative of the overall growth of the game Canada-wide. Grant Shephard, a six-foot-10 forward is from Kelowna, B.C., and Winnipeg’s James Wagner are the two U Sports players on the roster (UBC and the University of Manitoba, respectively) and Anthony Longpre represents the burgeoning Quebec basketball scene. Noah Kirkwood is from Ottawa.

But in Wigginton and Darling, the team has a different look altogether.

“I would guess this is a first, to have two Nova Scotia kids represent Canada at a world championship,” said former national team head coach Steve Konchalski, who just finished his 43rd season as head coach at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. He will travel to Egypt as a mentor coach on head man Roy Rana’s staff. “I can’t think of that ever happening. Hopefully it’s an indication of continued development.”

The Nova Scotia duo can walk confidently among their Ontario peers. It was just two summers ago that Darling played a starring role in one of the province’s all-time basketball highlights – Team Nova Scotia’s gold-medal, overtime win against Team Ontario at the national basketball championships, the final played out in front of a rabid home crowd in Halifax.

Darling went off for 50 points and was named tournament MVP, getting the better of a duel with Barrett, who scored 30 in the final and was a first-team all-star playing two years above his age group. Wigginton didn’t play because he had AAU commitments, but he was at the game, caught up with the crowd.

“It was surreal,” says Darling. “I still get goosebumps when I think about it. It hadn’t been done in about 30 years or something, but once I heard it was in Halifax and I was the right age to play it all kind of fell into place. It was really a magical story.”

And yes, the Nova Scotia kids mention their gold medal to their Ontario teammates on occasion.

“It’s always fun to joke around with them. We’re all buddies and stuff, so it’s fun to give them a little crap about it,” says Darling. “But at the end of the day we all have the same goal, it’s just friends joking around.”

The Nova Scotia basketball community is small, tightly knit and proud of their own. Smith, who turned 50 in May, had touched nearly everyone in it before he passed away.

The last time Nova Scotia won the national championship was 1987, when it was led to the title by Smith, a silky shooting guard who was in the midst of an All-Canadian career at St. FX, playing for Konchalski and against Darling’s father, Jason, who was starring at St. Mary’s University at the time.

He also played three summers on the junior national team himself, setting a standard for those who have come since.

And while Smith’s basketball career was noteworthy and an inspiration to the likes of Wigginton and Darling – he finished as St. FX’s all-time leading scorer – his contributions after he finished playing are what have proved lasting, as an educator and a coach.

“He touched so many lives as a basketball player, as a coach, as an educator, as a spokesperson in the African-Canadian community and as a role model,” says Konchalski.

This will be the first summer Smith won’t be a counsellor at St. FX’s summer basketball camp in 28 years.

St. Francis Xavier University coach Steve Konchalski, pictured on the sidelines during a 2012 game. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

The U-17 win wasn’t a one-off. Last summer in Winnipeg, Nova Scotia swept gold in the U-15 and U-17 categories at the national championships and Smith’s sons – Jaxon and Jaydon – were on the U-15 and U-17 teams, respectively.

Nova Scotia will be going for its third straight U-17 title this summer in Regina.

Smith went to hospital for a hernia operation on April 7th, was diagnosed with cancer on April 8th and was given less than 12 months to live. He passed on June 2, 55 days later. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral, the overflow crammed into a community hall, the 700-seat church filled 90 minutes before the service.

He leaves behind his wife, Sherry and two sons. The oldest – Jaydon — will be playing for Konchalski at St. FX this fall.

And in the minds of Wigginton and Darling, he leaves behind a legacy that they will be carrying forward this summer and beyond.

“My dad was good friends with him. I knew him really well. It’s obviously a tragedy,” said Darling. “I reached out to his son, it’s a big hurt for the basketball community in Nova Scotia for sure. He did so many things for the community. He blessed lives that needed a good father figure. He was a person a lot of people looked up to.”

Says Wiggington:

“He was a great coach. He taught me a lot on an off the court. He’s a great guy, overall … when he passed away that was a sad feeling. A sad feeling.”

No one would have been prouder than Smith to see two Nova Scotia kids travelling around the world representing their province and their country.

Wigginton and Darling continue Smith’s basketball legacy, taking their games to heights no one from their province has ever reached, even as their hearts are that much heavier along the way.

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