SLAM 167 is on sale now! Read Editor-in-Chief Ben Osborne’s issue introduction here, and below Assistant Editor Franklyn Calle puts some context behind his cover story (which you can read in full in the print issue).—Ed.
The text message read, “U can come to room 705.” It culminated an eventful day that had been in the works since last November. While the text might sound like some sort of cryptic message for classified-only personnel, considering the magnitude of hoopla the two players involved have garnered, and the amount of attention they have to deal with when they’re on the road (and in everyday life, period)—as I would end up finding in the 48+ hours I spent with them—it kind of seemed appropriate. See, when you’ve been anointed the next prodigy of a game like basketball—as Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker have—things tend to get unordinary at times.
The text’s sender was Huntington Prep head coach Rob Fulford. The setting was a hotel in Downtown Springfield (MA). The day was Sunday, January 20, 2013. The time was at around 11 p.m. Before moving any further, let’s rewind some 14 hours earlier…
At around 9 a.m., both players met at the lobby of the hotel to get a ride to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where the photo shoot for this cover took place. Both were in town for the Hoophall Classic during that Martin Luther King weekend. Accompanying Parker was Simeon assistant coach Jeff Duncan, while Wiggins was with Huntington Prep assistants David Meddings and Arkel Bruce. Parker and Wiggins shook hands as they met in the hotel’s lobby, cracking smiles in between. Here were the two most talked-about high school stars since LeBron James, hanging out for the very first time. A quick Google search and you’ll find tons of articles and forums that debate and attempt to settle the score as to who’s really the better player out of the two right now, and who will ultimately have the better career in the long run. Funny thing is, despite the media’s attempt to create some sort of rivalry between the two, in their time together, neither seemed to be concerned about basketball comparisons or rankings. They were simply two 17-year-olds able to share similar expectations that no two other individuals on this planet could relate to: basketball’s next superstars. “This was the first time we actually got to hang out and talk,” said Wiggins, who becomes the first ever Canadian-born player to be on the cover of SLAM Magazine. “He’s a really cool guy, down to earth. We got along quick.”
The shoot took a couple of hours, with our photographer Trevor Paulhus taking flicks of them throughout the different levels of the museum. Right after all the photos were taken, Parker sat down with me for an exclusive interview for the print story. I ended up talking with Wiggins later on that night since he had to rejoin his team right away for an upcoming game, which would appear live on ESPN’s flagship channel, in just a few hours. (Plus, he was hungry.)
During our talk, Parker opened up about being dropped to the second spot in the rankings after his injury last summer and the mindset he’s had ever since. He also touched on all the negative (and some were just unnecessarily hateful and stupid) tweets—which were in the “thousands”—that were sent to him right after he announced his intentions of joining Duke University in the fall. He gave his take on all the NBA player comparisons he’s gotten and what it really means to him. Among the many interesting perspectives he provided was his reason for having a favorite player that hasn’t played in the League in approximately four decades, contrasting the players from back in the day to the ones from today. Yet, because of space limits in the magazine, there were a few things we feel are noteworthy that didn’t make the final cut. In the print copy you’ll be able to read up on what the hotel scene looks like when Parker and Wiggins hit the road, there were a couple of side-stories that didn’t run but seemed nonetheless interesting.
In the case of Parker, Simeon’s Duncan says people looking to meet the Chicago stud became the norm when the team hit the road over the years. But the team did become wary after noticing that for the past three years the same two guys have waited around to approach Parker for autographs in Springfield (MA), which caught the attention of head coach Rob Smith and his coaching staff—and they subsequently were extra cautious to make sure no one tried to take advantage of him. Duncan stayed close to the highly-touted forward at all times when the team traveled out of state. Point is, at such a young age, Parker has already dealt with some of the “crazy stuff” that comes with the notoriety.
A similar case applies to Wiggins. While in the magazine we specifically focus on the large fanbase that greeted the Toronto-native when he traveled to Kentucky for the Marshall County Hoop Festival, there was also the time he was in Florida for the City of Palms tourney in Mid-December and coach Fulford felt the need to intervene after noticing that Andrew’s star-in-the-making profile might give folks the wrong intentions. “In City of Palms it was probably the worst as far as memorabilia people there,” recalls Fulford. “Andrew signed like 10 floor pieces for one guy. And the next day, the guy comes back wanting more and I told him, ‘He’s not signing anymore. If you want it signed, what’s your son’s name or who is it to? Because you’re just not going to make money off him.’ And he got pissed off and we said, ‘Too bad,’ and we moved him out of the way.” It just goes to show how bad it can get when the two most highly regarded prep players in the world hit the road.
Parker, a devout Mormon, brushed off the attention and instead credits his parents—his mother Lola and his father Sonny, a former NBA player—for helping him stay well grounded all these years and having a great supporting cast to fall back on. He handles himself like a pro, and the way in which he eloquently articulates his thoughts traces back to when Lola would practice with him. According to Sonny, back when Jabari was in the third grade, Lola would ask him a lot of questions, like a reporter would, to get him comfortable answering during interviews. You can see where his smooth and collected demeanor comes from.
Not long after I spoke with Parker, he steps out into the HOF lobby and stands in line at Subway to catch something to eat. Within a couple of minutes, he finds himself surrounded by kids, and even a couple of adults, asking him for autographs. He looks around and quietly steps out of the line to take some photos and sign a couple of basketballs. Duncan quickly steps in to make sure it doesn’t take too long and so that Jabari could rejoin the line. After all, he was just a 17-year-old (18 on March 15) trying to get some lunch.
About four hours later, Wiggins and his Huntington Prep squad played New Hampton live on ESPN. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Not bad for someone who was battling bronchitis at the time. As both teams were warming up prior to the game, a boy around the age of 7 or 8 walks up by himself to the Huntington bench and asks assistant coach Baker Neal, “Coach, is this Andrew Wiggins team’s bench?” Neal laughed and told him it was. “I want to give Andrew Wiggins a present,” the young kid replied. “Would you please give this to Andrew Wiggins?” He hands over to Neal a white headband that reads “Shooting Touch” placed neatly inside a small Ziploc bag. Just a couple of minutes later, Andrew walks to the bench and sits next to Baker, as the game is about to start. The same kid returns and taps Duncan on the shoulder, points toward Andrew and whispers to him, “Is this Andrew Wiggins?” Neal then turns to Andrew and tells him that a boy wants to give him a present while showing him the enclosed headband. Andrew looks at the bag and, sporting a smile from ear to ear, turns to the kid and says, “Thank you very much.” The boy ecstatically smiles back, giggling away his excitement.
Back to room 705.
Coach Fulford and I are talking, waiting for Wiggins to walk in and join us. He eventually does. A soft-spoken kid with a first-class attitude. It’s not so far from midnight, and Wiggins looks tired after a long day (which included having about 25 reporters waiting for him outside the locker room after the game), but he still agrees to sit down, hang out and talk. We begin to talk about his blessed genes—his Olympic medal-winning mother and his former NBA standout dad, and how they’ve shaped his life. We talked about his large following, especially kids, and the influence he looks to have on them. We talked fame, expectations and even predicted where he sees the Canadian national team in 10 years—all of which are detailed in the magazine.
A couple of weeks ago, a hater at Sports Illustrated questioned Wiggins’ motivation, and on a larger scope, Canada’s basketball talent production over the years, while also even taking a jab at his father, former Houston Rockets shooting guard Mitchell Wiggins, over a positive cocaine test/suspension that happened decades ago. How did Andrew respond? By dropping 57 points that same night, prompting Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash (who also grew up in Canada, but born in South Africa) to tweet, “Congrats to @22wiggins for the ‘B•••• don’t kill my vibe’ game of the week. 57pts and missed 4 shots. Take that critic.” I jumped on a phone call with Mitchell two weeks after the photo shoot and he also brushed off any worries about his past and his son. “[The NBA suspension is] something that me and Andrew have spoken about over a number of times. Being that he’s my son, he’s heard it for a while and we’ve spoken about that,” said Mitchell. “It’s something in the past and something I put behind me a long time ago. It has nothing to do with him. He’s on a great path to living the dream and I’m proud of him. It’s not something that concerns me about him, in that respect.”
Just like Parker, Wiggins (who still hasn’t chosen a college and is considering Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida State and Kansas—in no particular order) has benefited greatly from committed parents that have kept him humbled, focused and grounded throughout the whole process. Mitchell mentioned that the close-knit family keeps a small inner-circle and is therefore hard to infiltrate. The same goes for the Parkers. Thus, the critics and naysayers don’t get to either one of them.
If there is anything we want folks to take away from this month’s cover story, it’s that when it comes to Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, what impresses us most is how they’ve been able to handle everything off-the-court that has come along with their talents. It is the reason why both have grown such large fan bases, the reason why they’re on this cover, and the reason you’re going to be rooting for them for years to come.