The black stage erected to elevate the Warriors’ return to championship glory was crowded with executives, coaches and players, and several children. Front and center were Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — where they belonged as cornerstones of this dynasty. Andrew Wiggins, the championship newbie, stood behind them with the reserves and rookies, only too happy to soak in the scene while his friends got the shine.
Then ABC’s Lisa Salters, doing interviews on the stage, called Wiggins’ name, and the stage erupted again. That smile of his, the one Curry regards as a rainbow indicating good times for the Warriors, was beaming. It had been seven years of questions about his heart, criticism about the lack of fire in his belly. Yet, here he was, with the Larry O’Brien in his arms, the gleam in his eye reflected in the gold trophy, and a grin wider than Canadian bacon. The stage was now his.
Perhaps Wiggins’ most resounding accomplishment over the first eight years of his career was keeping his profile low. In the shadows. He is a former No. 1 overall pick and forever linked with LeBron James. He was the face of a whole franchise and he averages nearly 20 points per game for his career. Yet, he exists in relative anonymity. In an era of social media saturation and athlete branding, Wiggins has managed to build a persona as a mystery man. He’s done so effectively enough to be labeled as one without a personality. Apathetic became his brand. Dispassionate was the default attribute assigned to him.
But bright lights have a way of revealing what was hidden. In basketball, nothing shines brighter than the spotlight of the finals. There is nowhere to hide. Not only would he be exposed if he floated as he was known to do in Minnesota, but he couldn’t remain in obscurity. Figuratively and literally, being on the NBA Finals stage brought more of Wiggins into view. Shadows grow scarce when playing alongside legends and cresting the NBA mountain. Figuratively, balling on this mega platform revealed elements to his game once missing — consistent defensive excellence, a killer instinct, a hunger for winning. Literally, on that stage, Wiggins’ heart was revealed.
Her name is Amyah. She turns 4 in October.
“Those two,” Draymond Green said of Wiggins and Amyah, smiling as he raised a pair of crossed fingers, “they’re like that.”
Suddenly, it made sense how Wiggins endured the criticism that followed the five-year, $147.7 million maximum contract extension with Minnesota in 2017. It was clear how he could handle a reputation for indifference and being labeled a disappointment: the perspective of fatherhood.
You don’t have to talk to Wiggins long to know he doesn’t like how he was perceived in Minnesota. That max deal came with expectations he never met with the Timberwolves. But it’s clear he believes the player the world witnessed in this postseason is the player he’s always been, just his role and his teammates are different.
Wiggins never spent much time trying to debunk conclusions made about him. You won’t find him on social media defending his own honor or championing himself. He pays no mind to the opinions of those outside a very tight inner circle. If a fan, a writer, even a coach or a teammate not in his circle of trust takes a shot at him, he doesn’t flinch. It helped when, in October 2018, Wiggins got a new context for success and failure, for greatness and mediocrity. He prioritized the judgment of Amyah’s diamond eyes staring back at him. That perspective was squared when his girlfriend, Mychal Johnson, gave birth to the couple’s second child, Alayah, in April 2021.
While Salters was interviewing the Warriors’ two-way star, Amyah made a beeline for daddy. Jordan Poole lifted her from the parquet onto the stage. The twinkle in Wiggins’ eye told it all.
“This is what I do it for, you know? Family,” Wiggins said. “So I’m glad she got the chance to experience it. When she’s older, I can be like, ‘You were here.’ There are pictures and everything. So I’m excited. This is a dream come true.”
It was approaching 2 a.m. in Boston. The players’ journey that began in the champagne showers of the locker room and winded through a media maze on the court ended at a makeshift photo studio in the belly of TD Garden. That’s where the champions and their family members took pictures with the trophy.
Reclined in a chair, with one leg crossed over the other, was another proud dad. Mitchell Wiggins.
Just over 36 years before Wiggins had his career performance, with 26 points and 13 rebounds in Game 5 against the Celtics, his dad had a big Game 5 of his own. The elder Wiggins put up 16 points and seven rebounds off the bench for Houston in the 1986 NBA Finals, helping the Rockets stave off elimination at The Summit. But Andrew wasn’t there. He was nine years from being born.
That’s what made this season, reaching this pinnacle, so special for Wiggins’ pops. His oldest sons were babies when his career ended. He was playing overseas in Europe, his best years coming in the Greek league, when his children were first picking up basketballs. He knows what it’s like to wish your children saw you live in your prime.
“It means something,” said Wiggins’ dad, who was drafted No. 23 in the 1983 draft out of Florida State and played six NBA seasons. “His youngest one is at the house back in San Francisco. She’s 1. I told him it’s very important to have her at the parade. Because, you know, once you instill it in their blood, and they see it in their eyes, the atmosphere and everything, it becomes part of them.”
Dad also knows something about reclamation. While his son bounced backed from a bust label, Mitchell Wiggins had to rebuild his career after a two-year suspension for substance abuse. The NBA’s drug issues in the ’70s and early ’80s led to a new agreement between the players union and the league in 1983. Michael Ray Richardson, then a star for the New Jersey Nets, was the first player banned under the drug policy. When Rockets teammates Mitchell Wiggins and Lewis Lloyd, both 27 at the time — the same age as Andrew Wiggins now — tested positive for cocaine in 1987, the late David Stern banned both players. They weren’t allowed to apply for reinstatement until 1989.
Not only did Mitchell have to get clean and get his life back, he also had to rebuild his reputation. He returned to Houston for the 1989 season, started 52 games and averaged career-highs in points (15.5) and minutes (28.1). The Rockets made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. He didn’t play much as the Lakers swept Houston. But he set the precedent for the growth and digging deeper that has defined Wiggins’ tenure with the Warriors. His dad’s story is also a window into why Wiggins’ self-esteem didn’t erode with his favor.
In the Wiggins’ household, living a good, clean life means something more. His teammates adore him because they came to see his character up close instead of the caricature formerly presented. He never reaches for attention, never bellyaches about getting more shots. He has been a prodigy since he was in junior high school, and yet he wants more than anything to be just one of the guys.
“I can speak for myself personally,” Poole said. “We’re similar in a lot of ways, just kind of do our own thing. We’re, like, closed off. We know how to, like, talk to people and communicate when needed. But he’s just selfless. He wants to see other people succeed, and he’s genuinely a good person. Has good morals. Lives life the right way.”
The biggest sign of the person Wiggins keeps tucked behind the velvet rope, an indicator of why he’s found such favor in Golden State, is most evident in his undeniable bond with his daughters.
No matter how bad things got in Minnesota — and there were five general managers and four head coaches in his 5 1/2 seasons — Wiggins would play the game, say his piece and then walk out of the locker room to find Amyah waiting for him. That was all he needed to put a smile on his face, as he cradled her in his arms and strolled to his car. He was often seen carrying Amyah after games this season. After Game 4, she went viral in his arms, her immaculate one-tooth-missing grin glowing brighter than the gold chains on her neck, which dangled over a t-shirt featuring her dad’s dunk over Luka Dončić.
Wiggs’ daughter rocking a shirt with his Luka poster on it 😂 pic.twitter.com/lPxtKyikXn
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) June 11, 2022
When the finals were over, Wiggins could be found with her on his hip during interviews, knocking his championship cap off his head.
“Everybody realized the talent he had early on, the athletic talent,” his father said. “But the biggest thing that me and his mom are proud of is the man and the son that he became. He’s a father that adores his kids, like I adore my kids. When I see him with his girls, his eyes light up. As a father, that’s when I’m most proud.”
To Amyah, he’s never been a disappointment. To Alayah, he’s always come through. And he’s not done producing.
“I’ma keep swinging for the boy,” he said, flashing that grin again. “I’ma get one eventually. You feel me?”
The journey is especially sweet with them being here for it. Wiggins said the value of their presence is understood as one who didn’t get to see his father’s NBA career up close. His success, he said, is their success.
That was never more clear as Poole lifted Amyah on that stage. This, too, whether she remembers it or not, is her journey.
While he’s been an elite player most of his basketball life, lofty expectations strapped to his shoulders, Wiggins never clamored for the pedestal he was put on in Minnesota, at Kansas, or as a coveted prospect dubbed “the Maple Jordan” coming out of Canada. The attention that comes with the pedestal isn’t his vibe. He likes the background. He likes the simplicity of hoop and home.
But the stage, that he can get used to, for sure. The stage is bigger. There’s room for more people to share the bright lights with him. More room for his daughter to run around, too. Those are two of the eyes he most cares about.
When Amyah’s white shoes landed on the stage, in her blue No. 22 jersey, before she went to her dad, she walked into the embrace of Draymond Green’s son, D.J. His big sister, Olive, wrapped the two littles in a bear hug.
Wiggins smiled and clapped as he hovered over their cuteness. What we’ve come to learn about him is this part of the journey matters as much as the title and the reputation-altering performance. In this moment, he wasn’t the X-factor who helped deliver a championship. He wasn’t the youngster LeBron James didn’t want or the underwhelming centerpiece of whom the Timberwolves grew weary.
He was just a dad. And there was no hiding it.
(Top photo of Andrew Wiggins with daughter Amyah: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)