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Model Talent (Part I of II)

/ Source: StudentSports

Candice Wiggins is an All-American in basketball and a major college prospect in volleyball, but its the family she represents and what shes done away from the court that makes her one of the most unforgettable kids youll ever meet. Photo by Tom Hauck

Medals of Sadness

Faces covered in paint arent unusual at the California Interscholastic Federation state basketball championships.

But this young man was slathered in blue body paint from nearly head-to-toe as he led cheers for the La Jolla Country Day girls team in the 2001 finals at ARCO Arena in Sacramento. They called him The Blue Wave and his name was Kenner Michael.

La Jolla Country Day won the game by 69-58 over Redwood Christian of Castro Valley and the small, private school was on the map again.

The teams most impressive player that day, despite early foul trouble that kept her on the bench for most of the first half, was a lightning-quick freshman named Candice Wiggins.

The thought of seeing her for three more years in the state finals was enticing to many long-time attendees of the event. The young guard already was among the states scoring leaders with an average of more than 26 points per game.

The next day, as La Jolla Country Day players and supporters were making their way back down Interstate 5 toward the San Diego area, a van overturned. Kenner Michael, the teams unofficial mascot, was killed.

The euphoric feeling of winning a state title for Wiggins and her teammates was instantly replaced by the stunning realization of how fragile life can be.

Several days later, at a memorial service for Michael, Wiggins walked up to the mother of the boy who died and handed her two medals. One was her state championship team medal, the other was a medal given to her for sportsmanship.

It says right on the medal, Winning at all costs is not winning at all, Wiggins said at the time in a story published by the San Diego Union-Tribune. It wasnt worth the loss of a life. I just wanted to show JoAnne (Kenners mom) that he was more important to us than the state championship.

Officials at the CIF state office were so impressed with such wisdom and action from a 14-year-old that they ordered duplicate medals. They were presented to Wiggins as part of a school assembly later in the school year.

Tragedy at a Young Age

Today, impressions of Candice Wiggins from college coaches in two sports and even longtime sportswriters have been equally praiseful.

The 5-foot-11 senior could be the best girls athlete in the nation for 2003- 04 and whats happened in her life has so many twists and turns that Disney could have made it a ride at California Adventure.

Its a good thing Candice doesnt remember much before she was five years old. When she was three, she had half of her face torn off when a car backed into her. Then when she was four, her father died from AIDS at age 32.

Young Candice was visiting relatives in Pasadena on that day in 1990. A woman backing up in her driveway hadnt noticed three girls Candice and two cousins -- walking behind the car.

Luckily, none of the toddlers were run over and the two cousins only suffered bruises. But Candices shirt became entangled in the undercarriage behind one of the wheels and she was pulled in. Before the car stopped rolling, her face was slashed, virtually in half.

It was so bad you could see all the way to the bone, said Angela Wiggins, Candices mother. She still needs some plastic surgery because of it. We were just thankful that she wasnt smashed worse.

Candices life was never in danger because of the accident, but she did stay in the hospital for one week and there have been several surgeries. There is still a visible scar, too, just above the left eyebrow.

At the time of the accident, Angelas husband, Alan Wiggins, was still alive, still hoping against all odds that someday hed return to Major League Baseball.

But a few months later, Wiggins, still just six years removed from hitting .364 in the World Series for the San Diego Padres, started suffering from the symptoms of full blown AIDS.

He died on January 6, 1991 at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.

From Pasadena to the Padres

Alan Wiggins is perceived by many to be a tragic figure, someone with bright promise who fell under the intoxicating realm of drugs. But his widow still reacts strongly to that image, and does so with such veracity that its obvious theres still a lot of pain she may never overcome.

It also could be that losing a partner youve been with since high school, someone you met in junior high, is hard for anyone whos never been there to understand.

Alan and Angela both graduated from John Muir High of Pasadena in 1976. His next stop was Pasadena City College, where Wiggins was initially spotted by major league scouts, primarily because of his blazing speed on the bases and as a second baseman.

Another second baseman who followed the same path out of Muir in the 1930s was a fella named Jackie Robinson. Yes, that Jackie Robinson.

By the time he was playing for Lodi of the Class A California League in 1980, he and Angela were married and he was starting to make a name for himself. It was during that 1980 season when Alan stole an amazing 120 bases, the all-time record at the time for baseball at any level.

By the 1981 season, Wiggins had been called up to the big leagues to play for the Padres. It was then during the 1982 season when hisdifficulty with drugs became widely known. A one-month suspension was given to him during that season and it was a battle that hung over him for the rest of his life.

All was swell during the 1983 and 1984 seasons. Wiggins, normally batting in the leadoff spot in the lineup with future Hall of Famer and roommate Tony Gwynn hitting third, had batting averages of .276 and .258 in those two seasons and stole 136 bases. His 70 steals in 1984 is still the Padres club record.

In the 1984 World Series, one the Padres lost in six games to Sparky Andersons Detroit Tigers, Wiggins stood out in the spotlight with eight hits in 22 at-bats.

The 1985 season was the absolute opposite of the previous year. Wiggins was suspended for a good portion of the season and by the time it was over hed been traded to the Baltimore Orioles.

Here is where the story becomes less clear. Press reports would indicate that Alans drug problems continued to haunt him, but Angela says that her husband was clean for three years and didnt revert back to drugs until after he became depressed about his baseball career.

A lot of people in the Orioles organization wanted it to be Cal Ripken at shortstop and Billy Ripken at second, Angela said. My husband was told not to steal, not to play his kind of game. Then when he was pinch-hitting, people would say, Hey, I wonder if hes using again. It was a lot of pressure on him, it wasnt fair and he didnt know how to handle it.

When it was over, Wiggins had played seven major league seasons, four with the Padres and three with the Orioles. Angela also says things might have been different had two owners, who she says were very supportive, had not died, Edward Bennett Williams in Baltimore and Ray Kroc in San Diego.

It is believed Wiggins contracted the AIDS virus from an infected needle. But he became sick during a time when little was known about the illness, and people would jump to the wrong conclusions.

Alan was one of the first athletes to admit he had a drug problem and he had no drug rehabilitation centers to go to, Angela said. He was called a faggot and we were almost made to look like we were Bonnie and Clyde.

In November of 1990, Wiggins lungs began to fail and he had to go to the hospital. Doctors said just before Christmas that he may not pull through. Steve Garvey, known more for being an ex-L.A. Dodger than an ex-Padre, was one former teammate who visited often.

Almost 10 months to the day after Wiggins died, another 32-year-old athlete became connected to AIDS. It was Magic Johnson, who stunned the sports world by announcing his retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers since he had become infected with the virus.

Johnson has never developed the full-blown version of the disease that killed Wiggins due to advancements in treatment and by taking care of himself.

Still, it makes you wonder what might have been had Wiggins been infected just a few years later.

Focus on the Family

Next June, when the graduating class of La Jolla Country Day throws their caps into the air, what will Angela Wiggins heave toward the heavens? Shell be graduating in a sense as well, entering a phase of her life shes been looking forward to for a long time.

On that day, when Candice starts looking toward college and beyond, Angela will have successfully completed the hardest part of raising three children by herself. Alans death created a major void, of course, but he did make sure his family was taken care of once he was gone.

Angela, 46, has never had to worry about a job and has dedicated herself completely to the kids -- Cassandra, now 20 and about to graduate herself from New York University, Alan Jr., 18, who is starting his collegiate career this fall at the University of San Francisco, and Candice, 16, who can go to literally any college she wants.

That her mother has given her full devotion to herself and to her brother and sister is certainly a motivating factor for Candice.

I do play for her, Candice said. All her life has been for us. She hasnt had a life for herself.

Its been challenging, Angela said. All three of them played sports and the hardest times are when I had to be three places at the same time. I had to be the man of the family, too.

Alans brother, Donald Wiggins, has been very helpful and Angelas brother, Darrell McKenzie, has been in the support system as well.

Despite the athletic background of her late husband, Angela has always stressed academics with her kids and all of them have been honor students. Candice carries a GPA of 3.72 into her senior year at La Jolla Country Day, a private school known for a demanding academic course load, and her teachers talk about her classroom leadership the way coaches do about star players.

Cassandra is tall, almost 6-foot, and Angela tried to steer her towards basketball. She was good, too, and enjoyed outstanding seasons at Poway High and at Muir. But her mother says the passion for it just wasnt there.

For Alan Jr. and Candice, their passion for basketball was honed upon hours and hours of going one-on-one against each other on the playground. Alan says his sister never won, but she remembers a time when it was more like 50-50.

Candice just begged me to play basketball all the time, Angela said. She has the same desire in her heart for basketball that her father had for baseball.

In the seventh grade, Candice played with her brother on a boys team. Mixing it up with boys at that age is always a big benefit for a young girls player and that was definitely the case with Candice.

Those two years with my brother really made me better, Candice said. It was a different level and a different game. It set me apart from other girls.

Choice of a School

Where she would go to high school then became the major question for Angela and Candice. Alan Jr. was attending public schools in the Poway area where the family has lived for many years.

But Angela remembered a conversation she had with Alan Sr. before he died about how great he thought it would be if Candice could go to La Jolla Country Day, the same school were the grandchildren of Padre owners Ray and Joan Kroc were attending.

Joan Kroc, whose late husband was the founder of McDonalds, even helped Candice get admitted to the school. She started attending classes at La Jolla Country Day, which accepts students from nursery school through 12th grade, as an eighth-grader.

Athletically, for such a small school, La Jolla Country Day has made a significant mark in California. The Torreys are so small they dont play 11-man football, but last fall their eight-man team was the best of its kind in the state and they once had a running back, Rashaan Salaam, who later would win the Heisman Trophy.

The school also has been dominant in small school tennis and one player who once led the girls squad was Alexandra Stevenson, who is the daughter of basketball legend Julius Erving.

There were only whispers of who Stevensons father was when she was at the school. The story didnt break until Stevenson, who is now generally ranked among the top 50 players in the world, was winning matches at Wimbledon four years ago.

Making Waves at an Early Age

Ironically, a year before Candice started playing on the high school level, one of the states top Division V girls teams was being fielded at a rival school, Santa Fe Christian of Solana Beach. A Santa Fe Christian player, Brandi Collato, also was the Division V state player of the year as a junior.

Collato would end her career with 3,226 points for a new San Diego Section record the next season, but she wasnt the player of the year. A certain freshman had arrived.

Not many high school girls basketball coaches have experience at the Division I college level, so when they evaluate players on their team they do so from a limited vantage point. Thats not the case for La Jolla Country Day girls coach Terri Bamford. Before coming over to the Torreys, she had been an assistant coach at UC Irvine as well as a head coach for seven years at San Pasqual High of Escondido.

Bamford came into the gym one day in 1999 to see a promising seventh grader shed heard had enrolled at the school. It didnt take long for her to know that the upcoming years at La Jolla Country Day might be special.

Candice jumped right out at the beginning of that practice, Bamford said. She was involved in every play. She had eye-opening quickness.

When Wiggins reached the varsity level for the 2000-01 season, she wasnt the only promising freshman on the team, either. A 6-3 center, Marissa Rivera, also had come to the school. In fact, in that state title game win over Redwood Christian, it was Rivera, with 20 points, who was La Jolla Country Days top scorer.

Having a state championship team with so many freshmen was pretty incredible, Bamford said. We also knew even then that we might have one of the best players in the country.

With Wiggins, Rivera and others returning the following season, the Torreys went wire-to-wire as the states No. 1 team in their division. They started playing much bigger schools earlier in the season, including a competitive loss vs. national powerhouse Lynwood, and rolled up easy win after easy win in the playoffs.

It wasnt until the Division V state final of 2002 when La Jolla Country Day finally met a challenge as the Torreys faced Modesto Christian and its twin towers, Courtney and Ashley Paris, who are now at Piedmont High and are among the top juniors in the nation.

Foul trouble again disrupted Candices game and she had to spend much of the third quarter on the bench. In the fourth quarter, though, Candice scored on drives to bucket, converted her free throws, and came up with steals. Her dominant showing led the Torreys to a come-from-behind 53-49 win and she ended up with 38 points, the second-most points ever scored by a girl in a California state final.

What separates her from any other player Ive ever seen is how hard she plays, Bamford said. Shes the complete package, she can handle the ball and is a great team player. She never stops and never takes a play off.

After that game, Candice was one of five finalists for the states Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year honor, given out by Cal-Hi Sports, which has covered prep sports in the state for 25 years. Her credentials included a 30-point per game scoring average as well as playoff outings of 42, 38 and 37 points before she even headed out to the ARCO Arena court for her memorable state final.

In one of the closest decisions anyone involved with the selection process can remember, Candice was not the player of the year. It went instead to Lynwood point guard Sade Wiley-Gatewood, who would be a cover story for this magazine herself if just basketball ability (and not compelling story angles) were the only criteria involved.

Candice was the San Diego County player of the year for the second straight time and later in the school year was named the states small school girls athlete of the year.

TOMORROW: Wiggins prepares to overcome a bitter loss on the court and looks at where shell play at the next level

Mark Tennis has been the executive editor of Student Sports Inc. since the companys inception in 1993. He has been the editor of Cal-Hi Sports and for 25 years.