NBA Draft Rewind: Remembering Mitchell Wiggins

Andrew Wiggins's best asset? The man to his left, father and former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins. - Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Depending on whom you ask, Andrew Wiggins is the crown jewel of the 2014 NBA Draft class. Once upon a time, his father was a highly-regarded prospect as well, but fate ultimately caused the elder Wiggins to travel a far more difficult path.

In the not-too-distant past, a player with the last name of Wiggins suited up for the Philadelphia 76ers. But unlike his son Andrew, a 19-year-old potential star who figures to be the cornerstone of an NBA franchise for the next 10 years, Mitchell Wiggins's main goal during his stint with the Sixers was simply to secure a future for himself and his family.

Mitchell Wiggins was traded twice before he ever stepped foot inside an NBA practice gym. 31 years ago, the Sixers dealt the 1983 first-round draft pick that would eventually be used on Wiggins in a swap with Indiana that brought journeyman center Clemon Johnson to Philadelphia. On draft night, shortly after he was selected 23rd overall by the Pacers, Wiggins was sent to Chicago in exchange for Sidney Lowe and a 1984 second-round pick.

Fresh off of his second straight All-American campaign at Florida State, 24-year-old Mitchell Wiggins joined an undermanned, out-matched Chicago Bulls team that had exactly zero players on the roster with more than five years of experience. At 27, Dave Corzine was the team's elder statesman, and the 6'11" center was the pivot on a squad that included such luminaries as Dave Greenwood, Quintin Dailey and Orlando Woolridge.

You already know how the rest of this story goes for the Bulls: Chicago finished the year with the third-worst record in the league (27-55), drafted a junior from North Carolina by the name of Michael Jordan, and the very landscape of the NBA was changed forever.

Things weren't so idyllic for Mitchell Wiggins, however. The Bulls traded him in the summer of '84 to the Houston Rockets, and life was good for about two and a half seasons when, just as he was coming into his own as a player, Wiggins was banned from the league after testing positive for cocaine.

Wiggins's initial denials of his drug problem played a significant role in his suspension, and years later, he was more than willing to accept full responsibility for his actions:


"I made life very complicated," Wiggins said. "Now I go day by day. Life, for me, is very simple again. I wake up, work hard, and everything falls into place."

...

"I made bad decisions. Part of it was hanging around with the wrong crowd and doing what they did. But if you use drugs or if you drink, those other people don't put the drugs in your mouth or the drink in your hand. I made the decisions, and it cost me."

"Some guys, like Len Bias or Don Rogers, they did it, and they died. Some guys, it can cost them their careers or their lives. I'm getting another chance. I did things that were my fault, and I paid the price. Now I have to show I'm worthy of this chance."

Wiggins was reinstated to the NBA during the summer of 1989, and his return to the Association was a feel-good story of sorts. He pledged $10 for every point that he scored during the 1989-90 season to the Salvation Army (an organization whose support groups helped Wiggins battle his addiction), and by the end of the year, Wiggins was on the hook for more than $10,000.

15.5 points per game is an impressive scoring average for anyone, much less a player who missed more than two full seasons. Even so, the Houston Rockets decided not to re-sign their 31-year-old shooting guard (thanks in part to the emergence of a young Vernon Maxwell), and in the fall of 1990, Wiggins was all set to join the Sixers as the team headed into training camp.

That deal never came to pass. According to a report from Bob Ford of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the agreement fell through after Wiggins refused to complete a physical exam that included a urinalysis. The details surrounding the incident are murky at best: While there are those who believe that the five-year veteran was unofficially banned from the league due to violating the terms of his after-care program, the word from Wiggins himself was that several leg injuries caused him to sit out the season:

"I could have played last year, but when the opportunity was there, I was hurt and banged up," Wiggins said. "I hurt my knee, then my calf and my hamstring. (Playing) would have hurt me more at that point than it would have helped me."

A year later, owner Harold Katz and the 76ers came calling again, and the two sides agreed on a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $335,000. Legendary Sixers' beat writer Phil Jasner chronicled Wiggins's return to the league for the Philadelphia Daily News:

There is a risk involved, but the Sixers know that if Wiggins falters in his after-care program, he would be banned from the league for life and that they would be relieved of their financial obligation.

"We - society - owe people a second chance," Katz said. "Mitchell's a big boy. If he doesn't do it, shame on Mitchell."

Wiggins played 49 games that year, averaging 4.3 points and 1.9 rebounds per contest. He was little more than a footnote in a 35-47 campaign that wound up being Charles Barkley's last season in Philadelphia. In one of the final games of the year - a 99-94 loss to the Boston Celtics - Wiggins showed flashes of the player that he could have been had he not derailed his own career some five years earlier:

Mitchell Wiggins was a blast from the past, a tiny point of light in a dark and dismal season.

In the 76ers' 79th game, on the night they were mathematically eliminated from a playoff berth and were guaranteed a lottery pick, he did what he had hoped to do all season.

Wiggins scored a season-best 19 points, matched his season-best of eight field goals, in 12 attempts. But because this is the Sixers season that never really was, he was still just one more soul adrift in a sea of hopelessness.

Wiggins's NBA career would last exactly three more games. After becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 1992, Wiggins would spend a decade eking out a living in virtually every professional basketball league that would hand him a uniform. Over the next ten years, he would play in the Continental Basketball Association, the Greek League, the Philippine Basketball Association, the Carolina Basketball League, the World Basketball League and the United States Basketball League, interspersed with brief stints in both Italy and France.

In the fall of 2002, Wiggins was hired as the head coach of the Spearfish Black Hills Heat in the Extreme Basketball Association. Even then, the former Seminole was still chasing his NBA dream with the fervor of a man 20 years his junior.

"I will have to wait and see," said Wiggins in an interview with South Dakota's Rapid City Journal when asked if he'd serve as a player/coach. "I did work out with the Toronto Raptors in the pre-season and, even though I am 42, I can still contribute if need be."

Andrew Wiggins's athletic gifts are enough on their own to set him apart from most of his peers, but his greatest asset may the voice in his ear advising him to be wary of the pitfalls that come with fortune and fame. A world of expectations will be placed upon the shoulders of the former Kansas star regardless of where he ends up, but thanks to the guidance of his father, the youngest of Mitchell Wiggins's three sons should be able to keep basketball - and everything else - in the proper perspective.

"You run, jump, take a shot and get back on defense," said Mitchell Wiggins back in 1991. "Simple game."

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