Full Circle

Every athlete dreams of playing just one game at Madison Square Garden. It’s more than a cultural mecca; it’s a place that inspires the best players in the world to display a level of greatness beyond the imaginable. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James — some of their most memorable game-time performances happened at the Garden. I watched those games. I imagined what it would be like to take that court, surrounded by fans, the clock ticking overhead — to have my own moment of greatness at a place that makes, and sometimes breaks, legends.

I got that chance in 2010. Life is interesting, though. Even when a dream comes true, it doesn’t play out the way you imagined.

The game was winding down into the final seconds — eight, to be exact. My team — the Minnesota Lynx — was up against the New York Liberty, closing the game with a seven-point lead.

I ran up the court with the buzzer about to sound, and then, I felt something like a gun shot.

I tore my Achilles. I’d had a few significant injuries before, but this pain was more intense than anything I’d ever felt, or imagined. Raw pain. The pop, the burn, the release — everything, and everything all at once. I was in shock.

The Achilles is such a dynamic part of an athlete’s body. It’s a huge source of power — an important, integral component of everything you do. I tapped into my own naiveté, not wanting to recognize the likely outcome: sidelined, with months of rehab ahead. There I was, sitting in the locker room, deep inside of MSG, hearing from the team doctors that I had one of the worst sports injuries possible. Everything stopped.

When they first told me the news, I had a meltdown. I, quite literally, lost my mind for about half an hour. I couldn’t process it. To call it disbelief would be an understatement. What is going on? Why is this happening? Why me? Will I even walk again? My thoughts were scattershot, racing from the immediacy of the pain to questions about the future and then back to the young girl who’d made it here in the first place. Memories flashed like a strobe light.

For the first time, my life just stopped, suddenly and without warning. I had been playing basketball year-round since I was five years old. My only identity was just that: a basketball player.

My mind went somewhere that it hadn’t gone very often — to my dad.

I had a strong likeness to him. I look like him. I’ve always been a natural athlete. My family assumed that I would follow his path into sports. He was a professional baseball player — a polarizing one, I would come to know — for the San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles. He passed away from AIDS when I was only four years old.

A lot of kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up. No one ever needed to question me. They already knew.

I’ve never been one to think that my life is locked into one place — that I would be one thing for the rest of my life. That’s not to say I rejected sports as a professional means; I remember watching the WNBA as a kid, and enjoying it. But I also remember thinking, Okay. I might not get there. And I’m not going to feel worthless if I don’t get there. It was really important to me to feel like — regardless of my likeness to my dad, and my athletic gifts — my life wasn’t set in stone. That it had possibility.

Stanford represented possibility. I got a full scholarship to play under Tara VanDerveer. It was utopia. When I arrived on campus, I knew that it would take me to wherever I needed to go next.

The irony is that, of all places, it ended up taking me straight to the WNBA.

I know, of course, that I chose to go to the WNBA. But when you’re really good at something — world-class level — the idea of “choice” is not always so simple. We made it to the national championship game against Tennessee in 2008. The next day, after a heartbreaking loss, I was drafted No. 3 overall in the WNBA Draft, by the Lynx.

There was no time to think. I’d gone from junior ball to college to WNBA to the national team; from playing in my backyard to playing with Lisa Leslie. I went to Spain to play overseas in the offseason. A year later, Greece, where my team won the Euro Cup. I was named Player of the Year. Even People Magazine Greece wrote a feature on my team. We beat one of the best Russian teams, which had never happened and likely won’t ever again. After that, Turkey. Back and forth between the U.S. and Europe, year-round.

Everything was surreal: the draft, the travel, the speed of life. Life was happening to me — a path rolling out before me without thought. I got swept up.

Movement at that speed doesn’t allow a lot of room for personal reflection. My only mode was “Go.” Rarely did I pause to stop and think, Where is this path taking me? And what does it mean for the rest of my life? What do I want to be?

My body wouldn’t last, I knew. Basketball isn’t forever. So many athletes aren’t prepared for the “next” in their lives. I certainly wasn’t, and yet, just two years into the league, I faced possible retirement.

In some ways, the Achilles tear was one of the biggest life blessings I’ve been bestowed. I was forced to stop — to rebuild and repair my body, but above all, my mind.

At first, of course, the time off was devastating. It was a huge break from what my life had been up to then. I couldn’t move. I had to relearn the most basic of movements, including how to walk. I had to learn to trust my body again. It was a daunting process.

But having to relearn everything was also a chance to learn everything on my own terms. What would it be like to suddenly not have a year-round playing schedule? How would I fill my time? What relationships would I focus on if I wasn’t focused on basketball?

I went home to Los Angeles for the surgery and to be with my family. I was able to be with my mother and my sister, and my three-year-old nephew. I’d never spent more than a handful of days with him, if that. It’s funny — sometimes you don’t miss people until you’re finally with them. And you realize what you’re missing isn’t that person, necessarily, but the time you never had — the time that passed without you.

During my recovery, I started to understand who I was as a person. I began writing. I love to write. A blank document forces you to turn within yourself, and that can take you anywhere. This might sound like nothing to most people, but then again, most people intentionally map their own course.

After my surgery, I got a call from Coach VanDerveer and assistant coach Kate Paye at Stanford. I hadn’t finished my last quarter there after being drafted. “Candice, you’ve got all this time now,” they said. “Why don’t you come back to Stanford? Come back here and finish school?”

I had the opportunity to finish what I started. But what would’ve read like an ending — graduating after those years away — felt like a beginning.

I’d been a student at Stanford before, but more accurately, a student-athlete. This time around, I feel like I actually got to be a student, full stop. My first quarter, I came close to a 4.0. That was a huge deal for me. I also got the chance to talk to Condoleezza Rice. She was a professor there, and somehow I was able to get a meeting with her.

I didn’t know much about her, beyond the obvious, but she radiates wisdom and calm and confidence. I said to her, point blank: “What do I do next?”

She told me her story: about how she, one of the most accomplished and powerful women in the world, was a “failure” at 26 years old. A failed concert pianist, to be exact. And how it was only then, after failure, in her second try at finding her passion, that she discovered her love of foreign policy.

I soaked in every word.

There’s an old adage about when one door closes, another opens. I learned that the key to success — to finding yourself — was to keep finding more doors, in every form, and to keep opening them. Spend the rest of your life going further, without end, in search of those doors. The only way out is through.

Basketball was one door. Education was another. I was torn between business school and law school, and I sought Condoleeza’s opinion on which I might choose. She encouraged me the way of law school. Suddenly, there was something I could potentially achieve and excel at outside of basketball. I didn’t have to stop at one identity. I could have several, and they could all mean different things. We’re many different versions of ourselves every day; we’re all multi-dimensional. Being a sister is an identity. And a daughter. And an aunt. And a basketball player. And maybe, one day, a lawyer.

Part of embracing all of these self-identities was discovering the truths behind them. And I knew that there was no way to come to terms with my identity as a daughter without starting to learn about my dad.

I read his obituary in the L.A. Times for the first time that year — I was 25. The headline was: Alan Wiggins, a Troubled Life, A Lonely Death. The only things I really knew about him, I’d read or heard from others. For so long, I shunned him. I judged him. His drug issues, his behavior, even his death. Every time I put on a jersey with his name — my name — on the back, I carried that burden.

It wasn’t until I read that obituary, during my own time of self-discovery, that I realized the many aspects of him that are inseparable from me. There are parts of my dad, reflected in parts of myself, which I instinctively understood. Like how he was always in the locker room, debating. He always wanted to debate. It didn’t matter if you were talking about Coke or Pepsi; if you took the position of Coke, he’d take Pepsi. I see that in myself.

I learned that when they tested the IQs of everyone on the Orioles, my dad scored the highest on the team. He didn’t go to college, but he had the highest IQ. He was brilliant.

He was also very isolated. His mind was so isolated. And that’s something that I really identify with. I feel alone with myself in the WNBA. I connect with fans and I connect with my teammates, but I’ve never felt like this was it for me. I’ve played knowing there’s something bigger beyond the game. For all the game has given me, it’s a lonely feeling sometimes.

I returned to basketball in 2011 with a better sense of self. It’s now been five years, a few teams and a WNBA championship since that day in Madison Square Garden. I’ve come full circle. Basketball has taken me all over the world and brought me back to the Garden, now my home, and the New York Liberty, my team.

Every time I sit down in the locker room or step onto the court, there is a part of me that thinks about that day — about the pain, the questions and, now, slowly, the answers. Who am I, and what does that mean?

I’m only 28, but this is what I’ve come up with:

I’m Candice Wiggins.

And that means everything.