Wiggins Is Getting Make-or-break Shot

Posted: July 30, 1991

LOS ANGELES — Basketball, according to Mitchell Wiggins, is very easy to understand. You do the right moves, the predictable moves, and let your talent make them more than just ordinary.

"You run, jump, take a shot and get back on defense. Simple game," said Wiggins, whose basketball career has been anything but simple.

Life is easy to understand as well. You stay in the light, avoid dark corners and never forget that what has been gained can also be lost. Another simple game.

"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."

For Wiggins, signed as a free agent this month by the 76ers, things are falling into place rapidly. They'd better. He is 31 years old and, perhaps, one more misstep from basketball extinction.

"This will make or break me," Wiggins said quietly.

In 1987, the Houston Rockets and the NBA discovered that Wiggins, a 6-foot- 4 guard with innate scoring ability, was a regular user of cocaine.

If a player has a problem with drugs and comes forward for help, the league is lenient. If not, the punishment is harsh. Wiggins was suspended from Jan. 13, 1987, to July 27, 1989, with 2 1/2 seasons cut from the prime of his career. He rejoined the Rockets and played very well in the 1989-90 season, averaging 15.5 points and shooting 48.8 percent from the field. Then he wasn't re-signed.

Last season, Wiggins didn't play a minute of basketball, despite attracting interest from the Sixers, the Pistons, the Bullets and the Nets.

"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."

Not everyone agrees. There are off-the-record rumblings within the league's anti-drug force that Wiggins was not free to pursue basketball. Not because he was using drugs again, but because he wasn't adhering to the strict terms of his after-care program.

Wiggins, who denies that, terms his opportunity with the Sixers his "third chance to do what I do best - play pro basketball."

In the eight seasons since he first entered the NBA, Wiggins might have played 656 games. Instead, he has played a little over half that many - 340.

"This country is based on giving people another chance," said Bob Weinhauer, the Sixers' assistant general manager. "There's always a risk involved, and I'm a very tough guy on drug use because I feel so strongly about it. But we feel this guy is worth the risk."

In the Sixers, Wiggins has found an organization that needs to hit a few long shots. Without much to trade and without a first-round draft pick this year, the team needed to find the best talent available on the free-agent market to attempt again the leap from good to great. Wiggins and Charles Shackleford, the team's new center, are considered lemons by more than a few NBA organizations, but the Sixers hope to extract lemonade.

"It's like anything else - you weigh things," coach Jim Lynam said. "You do some research, talk to a lot of people. In the case of Wiggins, the league doesn't treat these things lightly. The fact that they've given him the go- ahead means that, basically, they have the confidence."

Wiggins said that the confidence has not been misplaced.

"My career has been a roller coaster, but I want to finish on an upswing," he said. "I want that last taste to be good. I want to be able to pursue things after basketball. I'd like to play another four or five years and then get into coaching when I finish. I'm going to get it done.

"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 is expected to be the No. 3 man in the Sixers' backcourt, primarily backing up Hersey Hawkins at shooting guard. The Sixers also would like him to play some point guard, behind Johnny Dawkins, but that could be a bit of a stretch, considering his limited ball-handling ability.

Wiggins played well in his tryout at the Sixers' camp for rookies and free agents this summer, but he is experiencing tenderness in his knees, a condition that has bothered him in the Southern California Summer Pro League. Averaging 19.6 points and 5.3 rebounds in the three games he has played for the Sixers in the summer league, he hopes to get back on the court later this week.

Overall, despite Wiggins' knees, the Sixers are happy with what they have.

"Aside from being in perhaps the best shape of any athlete that's ever come into a camp, he has exhibited a work ethic that's second to none," Weinhauer said. "He's shown that he's not only able to score the basketball, but he has a feel for the total game. He can defensively rebound the ball, can pass the ball, understands defensive concepts and, basically, understands every facet of the game."

"He's a player," Lynam said succinctly. "He knows how to play."

One of those pulling most fervently for Wiggins is John Lucas, a former NBA player and a former drug abuser who now runs a drug-rehabilitation clinic in Houston. Wiggins was one of his clients.

"If he just does the things he needs to do, he'll be fine," Lucas said. ''He has all the tools to stay sober. He just needs to keep thinking right. It has nothing to do with willpower. It's a sickness. The next time you get diarrhea, try willing it to go away."

If the sickness is gone, the new season will show it. If not, it will show that as well.

"You'll be able to see if something is not quite right," Weinhauer said. ''Then he will start to slide in a couple of areas."

Said Wiggins: "I think sometimes about the holes I've gotten out of before. I was the first one in my family to go to college, and I came from a very small town (North Lenoir, N.C.) and was able to play pro sports. Just to do that, I've overcome a lot of odds. Now I can do it again. Most guys who have problems like I've had, they just disappear, and you never hear from them again. I committed to staying in shape and doing the work that will get me all the way back."

Run, jump and get back on defense. Stay in the light, avoid dark corners and never forget.

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