Kansas' Wiggins makes his return to the Mountain State [The Kansas City Star :: ]
(Kansas City Star (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 08--The teenage basketball prodigy from Canada had been in West Virginia for just a few months when his host father came home with an idea.
Andrew Wiggins was 16, quiet-natured and shy, content to spend his days playing video games on the Thomas family's Xbox. He gorged on microwaved Eggo waffles, and left shoes piled messily in his room. He was always smiling, unfailingly polite, but just didn't say much. Wiggins wasn't one to open himself up to people he had just met.
For two years, Scott and Lesley Thomas had been opening up their home to blue-chip recruits at Huntington Prep, a prep powerhouse that attracts youngsters from all over the world. The Thomases had two sons at home -- Luke, 12, and Clayton, 9 -- and they loved exposing their boys to new cultures. So in the fall of 2011, after Wiggins had joined Huntington and moved into the Thomases' house, Scott gathered his family in the kitchen and explained the night's entertainment.
"Andrew," Scott remembers saying, "Our kids need to learn the Canadian national anthem."
For a few minutes, Wiggins was apprehensive. But slowly, he embraced the challenge, turning Canadian Idol in the Thomases' kitchen.
"Oh Canada," Wiggins began, each word a little louder, "our home and native land ...
"True patriot love in all thy sons command."
For the next two years, Scott says, it would become a family tradition. Every few months, the Thomases would embrace in a group hug around the kitchen table and Wiggins would lead the anthem.
"He doesn't want to stand out or anything when it comes to speaking," Scott Thomas said recently, nearly a year after Wiggins left Huntington. "But he got right in there when it comes to singing."
This is the Wiggins not everyone can see, but it's the one his second family knows best. Before he was a freshman at Kansas, leading the Jayhawks to a 10th straight Big 12 championship -- before he left a one-and-done mark inside Allen Fieldhouse -- Andrew Wiggins was finding his voice in a corner of West Virginia.
After spending his first two high school seasons in the Toronto area, Wiggins moved to Huntington to find better competition. He would build relationships and earn the title of top amateur player in America. But it was the connection he forged with his host family that remains among the strongest ties to those two years of his life.
On Saturday, Wiggins will return to the state of West Virginia as No. 8 Kansas finishes its regular season at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown. It's not quite a second homecoming for Wiggins -- Huntington and Morgantown are nearly three hours apart, on opposite sides of the state. But three days after the Thomas family made the drive to Lawrence to watch him play his final game at Allen Fieldhouse, Lesley Thomas and one of her boys will trek to Morgantown for his last regular-season game.
With a strong performance, Wiggins could juice up his credentials as the prospective Big 12 player of the year.
"It's almost a logical no-brainer," Kansas coach Bill Self says.
But for the Thomas family, during those two years in Huntington, the basketball was always secondary. All around Wiggins, the world was closing in. Scott and Lesley wanted to create a support system for a youngster hundreds of miles from his parents in Toronto.
"He could just come here and be a kid," says Scott Thomas, who works as an entrepreneur and business owner in the Huntington area. "He didn't have to worry about the pressures. ... At the heart of it, it was just a 17-year-old kid that just wanted do stuff like other 17-year-old kids.
Some nights, that meant going to the local bowling alley. Wiggins would fling the ball down the lane as fast as he could, and Luke and Clayton would write down the speeds that flashed on the screen above the lane.
"He would throw it like 40 mph," Lesley said.
On other nights, that meant raiding the kitchen and chowing down on some unspeakably healthy meals. But during his first months in the house, Lesley said, Wiggins fell hard for Eggo waffles. So for three meals a day, he took five frozen waffles out of the box, put them in the microwave, and ate them like tacos with syrup oozing off the sides.
Lesley kept waffles on the grocery list, but Scott wanted to make sure Wiggins was eating healthier. So they started adding protein shakes to the diet. Always vanilla.
"It seemed like that last year here, Andrew grew up a lot," Scott said. "He ate better. ... He wanted to do better. He knew he was about to go to college."
As the first year bled into the second, Scott and Lesley started to realize that Wiggins wasn't like the other high school stars that had played at Huntington Prep. Two years earlier, they had played host to Gorgui Dieng, an African center who would eventually help Louisville to an NCAA championship. But the attention around Wiggins was suffocating.
On the day Wiggins reclassified to the Class of 2014 -- kick-starting a recruitment process that would end at Kansas -- Scott turned on ESPN. Reporters and talking heads were talking about the Canadian amateur who could be the best high school player since LeBron James. Later that day, Wiggins came home with a question.
"Can I have an extra five dollars?" he asked. "They're collecting money at school for a sick girl."
More than a year later, that's the story Scott Thomas remembers most. For two years in Huntington, it was never about Andrew.
More than an hour before Kansas' victory over Texas Tech on Wednesday, the Thomas family sat with Wiggins' parents -- Mitchell and Marita -- and waited for him to appear on the floor at Allen Fieldhouse.
When Wiggins finally hit the floor, his eyes glanced up to his families -- both of them. One second later, he was running toward the bleachers.
"Hey," he said. "How have you been?"
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.
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