Commentary

Hoops, history lessons go hand in hand

Fresno State coach Adrian Wiggins emphasizes life outside of basketball to players

Originally Published: February 16, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Adrian WigginsCourtesy Dan AvilaIn college, Adrian Wiggins learned that his father was African-American and Native American.

For a guy who claims never to have read a work of fiction of his own volition, Fresno State coach Adrian Wiggins seems rather adept at fueling imaginations to dream beyond basketball.

In his fifth full season at the helm in Fresno, Wiggins has his team cruising toward a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs improved to 20-5 overall and 11-0 in the Western Athletic Conference with a win against New Mexico State over the weekend and are hovering around the fringes of the Top 25. They win often, they win big and they win with a fast-paced style that places an eye-pleasing premium on 3-pointers and layups.

Yet if you stumbled into a Fresno State huddle at practice on any given day and expected to hear chalk talk, you'd be almost as likely to find Wiggins talking to his players about the minuscule number of African-American students enrolled in college in the United States in 1917, or sharing with a generation too young to remember even Don Mattingly's days in pinstripes the details of how Lou Gehrig seized an opportunity provided by Wally Pipp's headache.

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Variously described as "sharing time" or "family time," it's all part of the Wiggins experience.

"It's our time to share," Wiggins explained. "And honestly, the big premise is there's more to life than basketball, and we say there's more to basketball than basketball. So it's a thought process, and it's about learning. And I believe with young people, if you take them outside of basketball and step into other parts of the world, you can touch their imagination and get their attention. So we spend time just talking about things outside of basketball."

That extends to any and all topics throughout the season. Wiggins is a voracious reader -- as long as it's nonfiction -- and is never short on material to disseminate and discuss. But it's a philosophy that is particularly emphasized in February, a month in which the coach has twin goals. The first, familiar to any coach in a mid-major league who knows a team's postseason fate likely hinges on dominating the conference competition, is easily explained.

"We don't lose in February," Wiggins said of the basketball mindset.

The second goal explains why it's not just postseason positioning that makes the month meaningful. For Fresno State, winning in February is part of a larger celebration of Black History Month, an endeavor with special significance to the coach. Raised by white grandparents he considered his mom and dad in the military town of Lawton, Okla. (his grandfather spent 25 years in the Army), Wiggins never knew his biological father. It wasn't until he reached college that he found out his father's heritage, and thus part of his own, was half African-American and half Native American.

"I was raised basically like a white person, and I don't know what that means, but I was raised to fill out 'Caucasian' in my book, you know?" Wiggins said. "I didn't know until college that I had mixed origins. So I've kind of lived both sides in a weird way; I really haven't gained an advantage either way, if there's one to gain, I don't think. So I'm very sensitive to the mixed cultures in this world, the minority groups."

[+] EnlargeJaleesa Ross
Dave Menedian for ESPN.comAs a freshman, Jaleesa Ross followed the seniors' example -- which meant listening closely and appreciating coach Adrian Wiggins forays into history.

Perhaps overused and misappropriated on numerous fronts since Barack Obama's election, "post-racial" is one of an endless litany of post-something buzzwords that do little but reinforce how acutely conscious people remain of whatever it is that comes after the hyphen. The truth, at least as Wiggins experiences it in searching communities from California to Australia for the right mix of basketball players to populate his roster, is indeed a younger generation less concerned with distinctions of race. But it's also a generation less aware of how that came to be.

"They really judge your person a lot more these days than what we were used to, rather than judging your color or your look," Wiggins said of the current college-age demographic. "So that's really comforting; I think that's an awesome thing. But it's scary because I think you want to be mindful of the past. You want to be aware of the prejudices that can come up because maybe that will help dissuade the next thing that can happen, whether it's being prejudiced of someone's religion or their gender or their socioeconomic status. It's not just a race or color issue all the time."

That's not light discussion material, particularly during the dog days of a basketball season, when players are already worn down (all the more in a conference with as rough a travel schedule as the Louisiana-to-Hawaii WAC). So it's easy to imagine those same young people surreptitiously rolling their eyes in the way kids do as Wiggins and his assistant coaches offer stories and insights -- one more part of practice to persevere through, as memorable or uplifting as sprints or stretching.

But while Wiggins concedes he might not be the master of discipline depicted in the books he reads and incorporates by coaches like Bobby Knight and Pat Summitt, there may be something to his simultaneous contention that his players understand he's sincere about where he's coming from. It doesn't go in one ear and out the other.

"When we first did it, the seniors, they were into it, so I just took after them," current senior Jaleesa Ross said of her initial experiences with the daily nonbasketball parts of being a Bulldog. "They were into it, so I was into it and it's been like that since I got here."

Wiggins is a convincing talker. He can spin a good yarn over the phone about coming into coaching as a high school assistant in Lawton for Garrett Mantle, Mickey Mantle's nephew -- all told while dropping his kids off for school. But he does not come across as a salesman. When he recruited Ross, who will graduate in three years this May, Wiggins started out by telling the recruiting target of several Pac-10 schools that she didn't play defense and she needed to work on her 3-point shot. In other words, the kind of thing a teacher would say.

Which is why February is about winning for the Bulldogs, but it's also about Black History Month.

"I knew the basics about slavery and the couple of big people that are talked about in textbooks when you're younger," Ross said. "But there's so much more to be expanded on when you get to college. … I didn't realize how important it was until I got to this level. It's important to know any type of history, and Coach Wiggins also emphasizes that, how he didn't really like history and now he can't wait to read it and let us know about it."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.