How Candice Wiggins Overcame The 'Shame' Of Her Father's Death

ByCandice Wiggins as told to Whitney Joiner ESPN logo
Monday, November 2, 2015

Alan Wiggins was a professional baseball player who succumbed to the pressures of racism by using drugs. He died from AIDS in 1991. When Magic Johnson announced he contracted HIV, Candice Wiggins' family stopped being ashamed of her father's death. She tells her story to The Recollectors' Whitney Joiner.

My life begins when my father's ended. He died when I was just shy of 4 years old. My brother was 7 and my sister was 9, so they spent a lot more time with him and were more aware of who he was. I remember him holding me, but I don't have the same vivid memories they do. I have flashes, and profound memories of his spirit

He was born in Los Angeles and moved to Pasadena. Race was a huge issue in Pasadena. There's Altadena and Pasadena [Altadena is directly north of the city of Pasadena]. Pasadena was all white; Altadena was all black. There were new ideas on how to get the kids to be integrated by evenly distributing whites and blacks at school together. They were trying to get rid of segregation. But when my dad was in Little League, they had segregated teams.

My mom and dad were middle school sweethearts and went to John Muir High School, where Jackie Robinson went. He was a hometown hero for my father. He integrated baseball, and that inspired Dad. My dad admitted to my mom that he once stole a baseball card signed by Jackie Robinson from another kid. He felt he deserved it more, because the other kid was white. Jackie Robinson provided a path for my dad. Baseball was the sport to play in Pasadena.

He went to Pasadena City College, where he got drafted and played in the California Angels as a second basemen and left fielder. He broke all kinds of records there. In the 1980s, he was called to the majors and signed to the Padres. He had more record-breaking seasons and led the Padres to the World Series in 1984. He was the catalyst; without him they wouldn't have won.

By playing baseball, I think my father faced more issues than the typical African-American male would have. Baseball is America's pastime. It's such a part of American culture. Racism is also a part of American culture. It's inherently a part of our identity as Americans. It took a long time for baseball to be integrated. There was so much hate thrown at Jackie Robinson. My father was very intelligent and he had a particular point of view: he was called "militant" and "insubordinate." He was not afraid to call out racism; he preferred to discuss things. He would rather people be racist to his face so he could talk about it. He wanted to take it down. A lot of times he'd be the only black guy around. You could tell he had this fight. People wanted him to take it easier, so it made him the target of a lot of anger. Being on the road, in the hotels -- you're made very aware of your status in society. He posed a threat to closed-minded people.

I think at a certain point he gave into the pressure. It's tough throwing a free throw at Madison Square Garden, but I can't imagine being at the pitcher's mound in in Yankee Stadium. I think that's why he escaped to drugs -- trying to have some control over his life. He was busted for cocaine possession in 1985. He went missing for five days. Didn't show up to a game. He was one of the first athletes to be in rehab, at Hazelden in Minnesota.

My mom and friends of his said that he scoffed at rehab, that it wasn't going to do anything. He became very defiant. When you're a pro athlete, there's this idea that you're owned by something, that you're a product. Everyone's watching every move. He thought rehab was another way to control him.

Dad was traded in 1986 to the Baltimore Orioles. He had a lot of promise; he was MVP of spring training one year. But Cal Ripken Sr. and Jr. and Billy Ripken were on the team, and I think there was conflict with them. Dad's drug use spiraled out of control. They'd been testing him every day for cocaine and he was testing negative, but when they stopped testing him, he started using again, so he was released from the Orioles in 1987.

I had just been born. Once he was released from baseball, I think he felt like his life was basically over. His drug problems escalated: doing heroin, sharing needles. He went back to L.A., bought a penthouse apartment downtown. He contracted the HIV virus, and was told he had full-blown AIDS. Mom kept us away from him. People didn't know a lot about AIDS then.

I remember visiting him when I was around 3. There was a pink coffee table in his living room and on top of it was a lot of drug paraphernalia -- something that I would identify now as a crack pipe. He'd already given up. I didn't really put it together that this person was my dad. I was thinking, "This is a bad guy." That's my strongest memory of him: everything else I know comes from my mother, sister, and brother.

His decline was rapid, and in November 1990 he was hospitalized. We didn't visit so much; anyone who went had to wear a facemask. He died in 1991, and of his former Orioles teammates, only Lee Lacey came. I remember looking at him in his casket; he was 70 pounds and had lesions. You're just like, "Okay, this is as bad as it gets." The whole world seemed over, like it could fade into black right there.

The rest of my life became compartmentalized. I forgot about his existence. I had to, because there was so much shame associated with him. There was always a cloud that hovered over us, with our family name being so linked to AIDS. It was really hard. Everyone was like, "That's the AIDS family."

Then Magic Johnson comes out and says he's HIV positive. My mom became obsessed with Magic. The following season after he announced his status, she signed us all up for basketball. She thought baseball and its racism had destroyed our family. Mom was really upset about AIDS; she wore a huge scarlet AIDS ribbon. I think for her, Magic Johnson changed the public perception of the disease. She felt like basketball was more accepting; there might be support for her children.

My mother wanted to fulfill the things that she and my dad had talked about before he died, like us going to college. She knew you could play a sport and get in. We all went on basketball scholarships: my sister to NYU, my brother to the University of San Francisco, and me to Stanford. Now my brother plays professional ball overseas.

I started to gain a higher profile in high school. I really wanted our name to be associated with something other than baseball, AIDS, drugs and tragedy. I never brought him up. There was no such thing as "Alan Wiggins." There was so much pain associated with it. I'd wish, "Why couldn't he have been hit by a truck or something?" You'd say, "AIDS" and you'd see the other person's face, and immediately your spirit sinks.

In 2003, ESPN interviewed us. That was the first time I heard my mom and brother speak on my dad. After that, there was this volunteer group at my high school that went into classrooms, teaching about AIDS. The kids were so bold; they knew all these statistics and wanted everyone to do the AIDS Walk. I felt like,"People are talking about AIDS now; it's not this crazy thing I should be ashamed of." They were kids my age. It was no longer like, "Oh, it's too hard for kids, don't tell her, it's too grown up."

So I joined that group and started to have conversations about it with friends on my basketball team. I thought, "This is something I could talk about and something I probably should talk about. I have the context that might affect people." But I was still scared. Then the San Diego Union-Tribune did this article about us, and I said, "I'm not going to be ashamed of my father."

My mother was like, "You're going to bring your dad back from the grave." I saw what she meant, because the higher I got, the more the media attention I received, and it was all about my dad. His obituary is so sad: the title was "A Troubled Life, a Lonely Death." It became my goal to figure out how he got there, why he got there, what could've stopped him.

In 2011, I said, "I'm going to figure out who he is," and I started interviewing friends of his. The more I learned, the more I realized that I'd judged my dad my whole life, in a way that's not right. Now he's taught me how not to judge.

The Recollectors, co-founded by Whitney Joiner and Alysia Abbott, is a storytelling site and community for the children and families left behind by parents who died of AIDS.