Being Heterosexual Was Her Biggest Hurdle. Now for the Rebound

Being Heterosexual Was Her Biggest Hurdle. Now for the Rebound

New York Liberty guard Candice Wiggins pushes the ball down the court against Minnesota Lynx guard Jennifer O'Neill during the second half of an WNBA basketball game on June 1, 2015, in Minneapolis.

SourceStacy Bengs/Associated Press

Why you should care

Candice Wiggins is searching for an off-court calling after burning basketball bridges.

About to be the first female basketball player inducted into San Diego’s sports hall of fame, Candice Wiggins wanted to make a strong statement for the next generation. She sat down with her hometown paper to speak her truth to her community. It did not go according to plan.

The former WNBA star alleged in a fateful February 2017 interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune that her heterosexual orientation and popularity caused her to be bullied throughout her professional career. Her romantic preference for men, and the accompanying locker room headaches, was the “biggest hurdle of my career.” The kicker: “I would say 98 percent of the women in the WNBA are gay,” Wiggins said at the time. “It was a conformist type of place. There was a whole different set of rules.”

Adjusting to life after a professional sports career is hard. It’s harder for female athletes, who tend to have a smaller nest egg from their playing days and a shallower well of fame to draw from in their second careers than male athletes. But what happens when, just as that second act begins, you torch your professional and personal connections with comments beamed around the world? For Wiggins, 31, it’s a mix of coaching, reality TV competition and oceanside self-reflection. But no backing down. “I don’t want to tell everyone about my new identity,” she says. “I want to show people through the work that I do.”

My words were wielded by others like a weapon.

Candice Wiggins

After an All-America career at Stanford University, Wiggins reached the pinnacle of women’s basketball. Drafted third overall by the Minnesota Lynx in 2008, she was Sixth Woman of the Year as a rookie, was starting by year two and won a WNBA title in year four. But after 2010, something began to change. Wiggins never wanted to be boxed in as merely a basketball player — as she felt was the case for her pro-baseball-playing father, San Diego Padres star Alan Wiggins. She no longer found fulfillment on the court or camaraderie in the locker room, and her production deteriorated. By the time she averaged 2.8 points per game for the New York Liberty in 2015, Wiggins knew her basketball journey had finished. In March 2016, at age 29, she turned down an extension with New York and retired instead.

Truth is, Wiggins still believes she can play in the WNBA, and the dwindling stat lines don’t tell the whole story. That led to the interview. “I was speaking to an outlet that knew me, to a community that knew me,” says Wiggins. “But my words were wielded by others like a weapon.”

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Stanford’s Candice Wiggins flips up a shot against Tennessee’s Candace Parker (No. 3) during the national championship game at the NCAA Women’s Final Four on April 8, 2008, in Tampa, Florida.

Source Amy Sancetta/Associated Press

The backlash was deafening. Some players, like Atlanta Dream center Imani Boyette, said they understood Wiggins’ concerns but were disappointed in her drastic overstatement. Others went the route of character assassination. The point guard’s college coach landed somewhere in between. “I don’t know that math was ever Candice’s strength,” Tara VanDerveer told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That to me sounds homophobic and negative.”

Wiggins admits that “98 percent” was “just what it felt like to me,” and she has since avoided the topic. “I knew it was painful, but it was my personal story, not the ultimate truth. My priority was helping people understand why I left,” she says. And Wiggins maintains that she has heard from supporters in private. “No one likes to discuss it because it’s such a private point of view,” she says. “One girl who had a much less successful career than me reached out and thanked me for speaking out. She was disappointed in her career.… That doesn’t make me happy, but it does make me content.”

After retiring in 2016, Wiggins went seeking new fulfillment. First stop? The hometown that raised her into a basketball, volleyball and track star before everything got messy. She called La Jolla Country Day basketball coach Terri Bamford and asked to come work. “Candice is brilliant, but she also really cares what people think,” says Bamford, noting that Wiggins’ idol status at La Jolla has not changed due to the controversy. “We know her, so it was a great environment to begin her new journey.”

“As a coach, she’s beyond anything I thought she was capable of,” says Bamford. “She’s so patient and really inspired the players.” In addition to coaching the junior varsity basketball and volleyball teams, Wiggins runs a club basketball program in San Diego (Wiggins’ Waves) and a youth training camp. Last year, she also taught physical education.

When she’s not coaching and training, Wiggins writes essays for her personal website and appears at speaking engagements, though those opportunities have slowed since her exit from the WNBA. In 2017, Wiggins appeared on MTV’s The Challenge: Champs vs. Pros, a reality show that pits 10 MTV Challenge champions against former professional athletes. For Wiggins, it was a chance to move outside her comfort zone and give people a better look at her character in the wake of controversy. She was eliminated in episode one.

Wiggins thinks often of whether she would do things differently with the WNBA, given another chance. And while she talks herself in circles, a fast mind connecting hypothetical roads diverged by rhetorical rubble, the answer is: Probably not. She understands that her words were painful, but she also believes that while she may have been heard, no one listened. Instead, her lazy exaggeration allowed her message to be commandeered.

At times, she’ll say she doesn’t care if anyone understands: “If you don’t believe me, reject what I had to say.” But Wiggins is adamant that she spoke out to try to improve the game she loves. “I’m not trying to destroy the system,” she says. “It’s good for women’s sports to have a different dialogue, because our issues are not the same as men’s.”

So what comes after a public quarter-life crisis? Wiggins is still trying to figure out who she is if she’s not a basketball player anymore. It can be a lonely feeling. “We’re all in this together,” she says, as the search for a new team carries on.

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