John Wall: Crossing over off the court
NEW YORK — Behind the wooden doors, the audience waits.
And now, for your enjoyable pleasures, I have a special treat. North Carolina born and raised, he played under the tutelage of John Calipari at Kentucky. He was the No. 1 pick in the draft. It's my honor to welcome Mr. Johnnnnn Walllllll...
The Wizards star bursts through the double doors of the packed gymnasium. It can barely contain a basketball court, much less the 70 3rd-5th graders at P.S. 19 and the dozens of adults who have also packed inside for the chance to see one of the NBA’s biggest stars. He’s here as part of the NBA’s FIT campaign, which miraculously managed to deploy NBA players and personnel to 100 Manhattan schools to teach basketball clinics last Friday with All-Star Weekend in town.
“It’s just crazy to think,” Wall will say later, “that anyone would want me to come to something like this. Knowing where I came from, I never thought it would have happened.”
For the second straight year, Wall is an All-Star. This season, as a deserving starter. He's having a career season in Washington which is why he's here in New York, representing the best in the NBA. But in a larger sense, he's arrived here -- and not in jail or on the streets -- because he's learned how to find balance off the court.
Wall was born in a rough neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C. His father, John Wall Sr., was in prison for robbery; and his mother, Frances Pulley, worked two jobs to keep the family afloat. When he was little, he longed for visits with his father. In 1998, John Wall Sr. was diagnosed with liver cancer. The following year, he was released a month early from his sentence. In August, on a family vacation to White Lake, N.C., he died. Wall still remembers the sound of the ambulance’s sirens as they took his dad away.
After his father’s death, John Wall couldn’t contain his anger or his energy. They combined and nearly sent him down a path toward prison. He’d fight with anyone, even family members caring for him, for any reason. His worst fight went for several rounds on a baseball field and involved John swinging an aluminum bat at another kid’s head. He cut classes. He ignored teachers and coaches. He toed the line in every way imaginable. “It’d be easier for me to say what didn’t I do,” Wall says.
“It wasn’t that he got in trouble,” Pulley says, “he stayed in trouble.”
Basketball became the only positive outlet for his excess energy, which means it also became the best—maybe the only—leverage for curbing his bad behavior. (Before basketball, the best idea anyone came up with was banning him from drinking chocolate milk at lunch.) LeVelle Moton, who for years ran a basketball camp for underprivileged kids in North Carolina and is now the coach at North Carolina Central, was the first one to try. When Wall came to his camp at age 11, he cried, yelled and screamed whenever anything—as small as a foul call—didn’t go his way on the first day. On the second day, Moton sent him home.
Coaches continued to test him, and with mixed results. Broughton High coach Jeff Ferrell, in an incident that is becoming nearly as famous as Clifton Herring’s non-dismissal of Michael Jordan, cut Wall from his team. He repeated his sophomore year of high school before enrolling in Word of God Christian Academy, where coach Levi Beckwith began to teach him a little patience. “He’d bench me in games, whether I deserved it or not,” Wall says, “just to test me. To see if I could handle it.”
But the one message that truly changed him happened when he was about 15 years old. He’d gotten in a fight after school, beat up a kid pretty badly, and Pulley had seen enough of that. She asked him a simple question that has stuck with him ever since: “Do you want to play basketball, or do you want to end up like your father?” She then drove him to Durham, where a friend of a friend ran a group home, and left him there for two days. When she picked him up, he was a changed man. He started to focus more on basketball and less on misbehaving.
But viewing basketball just as a job, just as a way out, could have burned him out. He had to learn to funnel his aggression into his game and still take from it the simple joy that drew him to it originally. Kentucky coach John Calipari was the first person who gave him the freedom to do both. “That was his No. 1 lesson to me,” Wall says. “He just wanted me to be myself and to have fun.”
To take stress away, which he admittedly runs into ("I take losses hard") Wall listens to music. On road trips, teammates ask not to have the hotel room next to—or, God forbid—below his. “It sounds like a night club in there,” Wall says. He laughs and says he listens mostly to “bangers,” a term for up-temp songs, even when he’s relaxing. For vacations, he mostly returns home to Raleigh to see his mom, play spades and spend time with their pit bulls.
“When he’s running around sometimes, he seems like he still has the energy of a 15-year-old—no, maybe even a 12-year-old,” Pulley says. “But when he’s home with me now he’s learned to rest.”
Wall needed rest today. In addition to that strained Achilles, he’s been battling a cold for the past couple weeks. But he realized the event at P.S. 19 would be more important. And maybe, too, that it would be a fun diversion from the business side of All-Star weekend.
“John has always loved spending time with kids,” Pulley says. “I guess he grew up so fast that he missed this, and he likes to make sure other kids don’t.”
Dayon Floyd, a clinician and emcee who often works with the Knicks and the NBA, introduced Wall and now blows his whistle to switch drills.
Wall moves from a ladder run to a layup line to a defensive stance drill, and by now he’s working up a sweat. He switches to a dribbling drill where he spins around twice halfway through to let the girl he’s competing against come close to beating him. He’s slowed slightly because of the three microphones camera crews have attached to him; their bases are weighing down his pants so much he had to borrow a belt from a Wizards public relations. rep. Nonetheless, when he’s close enough to the basket, he grabs a ball and throws down a casual left-handed dunk for the kids.
For many of the kids, it seems like another day at school. A boy named Xavier cries, not because he can’t get close to Wall, but because he’s been cut in line. But for others, today will be retold many times. A boy named Aaron shows off for Wall during his drills. A girl with a braid below her waist gets a high-five from him and turns to her friends, who are in awe. She tells them she’ll never wash it again.
“Something like this, it never happened to me when I was a kid,” Wall says. “I wish it had. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long to figure things out. So if I can help just one kid, I know that’s enough.”
After the drills, which last maybe 15 minutes, the children arrange themselves in five lines to listen to him speak and then pose for a picture. He gives three on-camera interviews and then appeases the adults who have stayed behind by posing for pictures. In the principal’s office, he waits for school to be dismissed and changes back into his leather jacket that says “Loyalty” and his red flat brim that says, “Wall-Star.” When the principal makes the announcement, Floyd says that was always his favorite part of the day—when he got to go home. Wall nods in agreement.
Then he gets up to go. In the hallway on the way out, three boys, armed with their iPhones, steal glances at him from around the corner. ‘I told you he was still here,’ one says before being set back to his locker.
There were plenty of times when John Wall thought he would never get here, an NBA star, a role model. But he is here, so he lingers for a second, looks at them and smiles.