Candice Wiggins has already made history with professional women’s basketball, but that’s only her half of her story.
In high school she was listed as the best shooting guard in the nation and won a scholarship to Stanford to play volleyball and basketball, an amazing feat, but not the whole story.
She chose Stanford over Duke. Now that’s the whole story. (Just kidding.)
She became the all-time leading scorer in Stanford women’s basketball history. And she continued to make history with her professional career with the WNBA team, the Minnesota Lynx.
But that’s still not the whole story.
What separates her from other athletes is her commitment to something bigger than herself. As a 3-year-old little girl, she didn’t understand why her father, Alan Wiggins, a professional baseball player for the Baltimore Orioles and then the San Diego Padres, had to be away from her so often. She later learned that her father was in the hospital, dying from a disease that in the early ‘90s, no one wanted to talk about. As a heavy drug user he had contracted AIDS during a time when medicine and awareness were scarce and stigma ran rampant. Some of the same issues prevail today concerning the disease.
Because of that enduring stigma, Wiggins works tirelessly telling her story around the world and being the face of the non-profit organization, Until There’s a Cure (www.until.org <http://www.until.org/> ). The organization raises awareness and funds to combat AIDS. To date, the organization has raised $9 million for vaccine development, care services, and youth education.
Wiggins took some time to speak to newsone.com before the WNBA season begins:
Q. How did you get started as an AIDS activist and what are you doing now with the organization now?
A. We’re working with a lot of non-profit organizations right now. There has been huge change since my father was alive with awareness of AIDS. The most recent thing I’ve done is with Greater than AIDS, the campaign I did with my mom. I do speaking engagements telling my story. Until There’s A Cure—a non-profit organization that sells bracelets to help fund education and prevention, I am working with them. My life is about eradicating the stigma of HIV/AIDS because to me that’s where the problem lies.
Q. During the time period your father contracted the disease there was a different perception about AIDS….
A. The thing that shocks me is that the face of AIDS has changed from the early ’90s. It used to be drug users, homosexual males, and now it’s the leading cause of death for African American women in a certain age range, I think 5-36-years-old. It shows how AIDS/HIV has spread to different communities and a lot of it has to do with a lack of awareness, a lack of education, and a stigma. I highly recommend watching the documentary produced by Sheila Johnson who owns the Mystics, The Other City, about the AIDS rate in Washington DC and how it rivals African countries. It’s eye-opening.
Q. Have you ever worked with her [Sheila Johnson] as an AIDS activist?
A. I met her at the screening of the The Other City in San Francisco, she’s happy about the work I am doing. And I’m happy she was able to make such a great documentary about what HIV/AIDS is about now. It’s not just an international issue, it’s also a domestic one targeting African American women.
Q. How old were you when you found out your father had contracted the disease?
A. I have a vague memory of it, the time of his death was the beginning of my life. I vaguely remember it being a tumultuous time, I was 6, 7, 8, and I was reading articles about my Dad and trying to figure out what AIDS was. It was a vague thing until 7th grade science class where we learned about AIDS and I starting learning about the technical aspects of the disease. In the 9th grade I participated in my first AIDS walk. I felt like I don’t have to be afraid of it, I felt a lot of comfort and solace to be with people who weren’t afraid to talk about it.
Q. What age were you when your dad died?
A. I was 3 about to turn 4. He was in and out of the hospital. I was sheltered from him, no one wanted his kids to see him like he was. He was 97 pounds when he died. At that time in the 90s, there wasn’t the medicine like they have now. It was scary, I remember being scared.
Q. Had Magic Johnson come out by then?
A. Magic Johnson had really saved our family’s optimism. He taught our family how to live. He came out with it after my father died. I remember seeing as a kid this campaign he was in with McDonalds. I saw it in a kid’s magazine. He was just so brave and so strong. We felt like we weren’t alone. I actually got a chance to speak to Magic at the NBA All-Star game. He knew who I was and he knew what I was doing, he gave me a big hug. It meant the world to me.
What I learned through my work is that a lot of people are living with HIV and that’s important for people to understand that too. In the ‘90s it wasn’t really a healthy time to have HIV, psychologically healthy, that is. Nowadays people need to know that it doesn’t make it a death sentence.
Q. But what about people that cant afford the medicine?
A. Yes, there are a lot of people who can’t afford it. But there’s also physical health and mental health—being strong-willed. I met a lot of people who are HIV positive and a lot of them have touched my life because they were so happy, they cherish life, every minute of it.
Q. Your father played professional sports?
A. Yeah, he played baseball for the San Diego Padres. In 1984, he led the Padres to their first World Series. He’s a legendary baseball player. He went to same high school as Jackie Robinson and that’s who he wanted to be like. My mom used to tell me he had been playing baseball since he was a little boy and growing up as an African American boy in the ‘60s and ‘70s he had a Jackie Robinson baseball card that was signed by him. My mom said that was his most prized possession. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much he was influenced by Jackie Robinson and even followed in his footsteps. He even got drafted to the Dodgers.
Q. Do they did tell you how he contracted the disease?
A. My father was a heavy drug user. He came from a poor background. When he grew up drug use was very prevalent. He ran with gangs and drugs and his upbringing was in the inner-city. He goes to play baseball and he’s making millions and all of these troubles befall him. I can see without having that support, that solid upbringing like I had, what could happen. I was very privileged–I live in the house that he bought in San Diego, I went to private school. I knew my Dad’s story. I wanted to go to Stanford. Unfortunately no one saved him because he didn’t save himself.
Q. How long did he live with the disease before he passed?
A. I don’t think very long, the needle use goes straight to the bloodstream. I think he deteriorated fast. It was like ‘89, ‘90, and not much was known about it except if you have it, you’re pretty much dead. So I think that was what happened.
Q. In your AIDS outreach do you deal with needle exchange?
A. I was actually invited to the White House in 2009–that was the first time they invited anyone to the White house to talk about HIV/AIDS in the country and that was about putting pressure on the government to allow for needle exchange programs in the DC area and trying to lift the ban because there was a government ban. The exchange program really helps to lower the numbers.
I am really terrified of drugs, but I do feel like I have to be brave. I’m always thinking a surrender/exhange program—that maybe that could have saved my father. I don’t know. I think a lot of people turn their backs on drug users. But that’s my father. You have to have some compassion to want someone to be better, to get help, rather than turn a blind eye, because that’s how the rates get higher.
Q. What is happening in June, that’s a pivotal month for AIDS awareness, right?
A. Yes, National Testing Day is June 25th. I want to do a video to show people about getting tested. I hope that more African American women come out since this is the leading cause of death for African American women.
Q. Was your father vocal about having AIDS?
A. From what I remember and what my mom told me, he didn’t come out. I read an article in 1992 in Reader’s Digest and that article really hurt, a lot of ugly things were said and I don’t think that helped the situation.
Q. What do you think he would say about your success as an athlete and your work as an AIDS activist if he were alive today?
A. I think he would feel proud that he didn’t die in vain. And I really feel like my father, he has all of his life in me. I feel like everything that was positive about him transferred into me. I look a lot like him, I play like him, I’m built him, I talk like him–everyone tells me this. I feel like he’s been reborn in me and I’m proud of that. I always wanted to say, if he could leave his mark on the world he left me. It shows that life does goes on. I hope he’s looking down on me and is proud and that he knows he actually served a bigger purpose.