Basketball star Candice Wiggins is an exceedingly positive person -- even when she's talking about a subject as serious as AIDS.
"People hear the word and react with fear," she said over lunch at Target Center's NBA City, sporting metallic sandals, a fitted Union Jack windbreaker, short denims and a smile as bright as Beyoncé's. "Then they don't learn what they need to know. You can be upfront and open about it without being judgmental or shoving it down people's throats."
Off the court, the 22-year-old guard for the Minnesota Lynx has begun to be an advocate for AIDS awareness and HIV prevention. She appeared at the recent Minnesota AIDS Walk. In her home state of California, she has lent her name to the Candice Wiggins Foundation Fund, part of the San Francisco Foundation, as well as to Until There's a Cure, which raises money for AIDS vaccine development and youth education, Wiggins' particular passion.
"You'd be surprised how many young people I meet who aren't educated about the basic facts," she said. "They think you can get it by just touching someone who has it, or sharing water. People are still afraid to talk about it, to ask about it. I want to make it cool to be educated about your health, like having the latest hot outfit. It shouldn't make you nervous. It should make you proud."
AIDS is now the leading cause of death for black women under 40. In Minnesota, women made up 27 percent of new cases in 2008, compared with 18 percent 10 years ago. Nearly 70 percent were women of color.
"It was easy for women to get together over breast cancer," she said. "But they don't want to be associated with AIDS because they think they'll also be associated with drugs or promiscuity. They say, 'That's not me, I don't identify with that.' I say, it's a big community issue, a nationwide issue, and everyone should pull together just like with other diseaes."
Her concern comes from a deeply personal place. Nearly every story written about the young sports phenom mentions her father, major-league baseball player Alan Wiggins, who died from complications of AIDS in 1991 at age 32. Wiggins, who played for the San Diego Padres, also had a drug problem.
His youngest daughter, Candice, was not quite 4 when he died. It seems more likely that a child that age, traumatized by all the grief around her, would grow up not wanting to think about the big scary thing that took her daddy away.
"I could have gone a totally different way," she said. "I credit my mom. She sheltered me at first because she didn't want to tarnish my opinion of my dad. When I got old enough, I explored it on my own. I wanted to know. Now she sees it as a prophecy fulfilled."
Angela Wiggins, who still lives in California, sees a lot of her late husband in Candice: "The way she eats, her mannerisms, her love of lime soda -- she plays her game like him, signs her name like him. He was a good speaker like she is. And they're both Aquarius."
Youth AIDS education advocates and scholars say volunteers like Wiggins can make a real difference.
"She is telling the world that there is no shame in loving someone with HIV/AIDS and that we each must do our part to increase awareness, compassion, understanding and support in the fight against it," said Dr. Gary Remafedi, a pediatrics professor at the University of Minnesota who directs youths and AIDS projects.
"It's always good to have someone who can identify in a personal way," said Theresa Evans-Ross, who coordinates HIV/AIDS prevention programs at North High School and churches. "Especially sports stars who are being positive role models. Kids look up to them."
Wiggins says she's encouraged by the progress she sees.
"At the AIDS walk, they had pamphlets for a group of junior runners, which they were calling 'passports' to be stamped at various stations where they would get more information about AIDS," she said. "When I was growing up, we never would have been able to be so open and curious. There was nothing for kids to see and learn from."
Someday soon, she hopes to write a children's book on the topic.
"There's a way it could be done that would be right," she said. "Kids are affected, too."
Regardless of where her career takes her, Wiggins plans to continue being a visible face -- and voice -- in the fight against AIDS. "Until there's a cure, I'll be a part of it."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046