Behind John Wall
LEXINGTON, Ky. – He’ll be a multimillionaire in seven months, but right now, the projected No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft is walking toward the exit of the Joe Craft Center, hoping to find a ride to English class.
“Too cold outside to walk,” says Kentucky freshman John Wall, tugging his stocking cap over his ears. “Way too cold.”
And often too time-consuming.
A few months ago, Wall was almost late to a tutoring session because he was continually asked to stop and pose for pictures with fawning classmates. When the problem persisted, Wall began walking with his headphones on – and his head down.
“That way,” Wall told friends, “if someone is trying to stop me, I can’t see them and I can’t hear them, so they can’t say I was acting rude.”
Other than his ability on the court, that’s what stands out the most about Wall. He cares about what others think of him – probably because he realizes there are so many perceptions about him that aren’t true.
A 6-foot-4 point guard, Wall will almost surely turn pro after just one season at Kentucky. Most NBA analysts say he would’ve been the top overall selection in last year’s draft had he been eligible to submit his name straight out of high school.
Still, Wall hardly fits the stereotype of an arrogant, one-and-done player who views college as an annoying pit stop en route to the NBA. If anything, he’s just the opposite.
“It’s nice to be known as a good player,” Wall says. “But I want to be known as a good person, too.”
It may be awhile before Wall gets that reputation nationally. In Lexington, though, it’s already established.
When he’s not at practice or in the weight room, Wall spends a large chunk of his free time roaming the halls of university’s athletic offices, hobnobbing with administrators 20 and 30 years his elder – or plopping down in a chair to read a basketball magazine.
Hardly the habits of a prima donna.
During the summer, he achieved a 4.0 grade-point average – mainly, he says, because he made it a point to sit in the front row of each class.
“Some of the best advice I ever got,” Wall says. “If you sit in the back, you can laugh and get away with anything. But if you’re in the front, you have to pay attention.”
When he’s out in public, Wall says he never lets his pants sag below his waist, and he has no plans to regrow the braids his AAU coach made him shave when he was 14. Wall doesn’t have any tattoos.
“I’m not trying to put down the people that have them,” Wall says. “But for me right now, it’s all about image. You can’t walk around looking like a thug. There are kids out there looking up to me. I’ve got to set a good example.”
The more Wall talks, the more it becomes obvious that he has a firm grasp of his situation.
Sure, he can still be the immature freshman who likes to poke fun at Kentucky coach John Calipari for his awkward running motion on a treadmill, or the goofy kid who readily admits to climbing into his mother’s bed six years ago after being spooked by “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
But other times – most times – Wall is mature beyond his 19 years, a focused athlete who doesn’t date in order to avoid distractions, a gentleman who spews yes-sirs and no-sirs like an army cadet, a grown man who knows what’s at stake.
“I came here for two reasons: to get better and to win,” Wall says. “I know one thing leads to the other. Whether I stay here one year or two years or three, I’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of people to make proud.”
Including one man Wall was robbed of the chance to truly know – a man who’s watching over his every move.
As much as he’s enjoyed the opportunities and fame presented to him through basketball, the most meaningful moment of John Wall’s life thus far occurred on a beach nearly 10 years ago in Lumberton, N.C.
“It was the last time,” Wall says, “that I saw my dad.”
With school set to start on Monday, Wall’s parents had made a last-minute decision to take their children on a weekend getaway. Along with ending the summer on a fun note, Wall’s mother, Frances Pulley, knew the trip would provide a good opportunity for John to spend some time with his father, John Wall Sr., who had been diagnosed with liver cancer and been given six months to live.
It turned out to be six weeks.
On the final day of the vacation, Wall’s father fell ill and had to be hospitalized. He died the next morning.
“Everyone tells me I look like him and that I act like him,” says Wall, who was only 9 at the time. “People say he was a good guy, a fun guy to be around.”
“That weekend is the best memory of my life,” he says. “Just playing on the beach with him, going out to eat and having good conversations … I’m just so glad we took that trip so I have that to remember him by. I was so young, you know … I just don’t have much else.”
The death of Wall’s father caused a strain on the family that was felt for years to come.
Whether she was folding sheets in the housekeeping department of a local hotel or serving as an in-home caregiver for an elderly man, Frances Pulley worked nearly around the clock to provide for John and his two sisters.
Sometimes she’d pick John up from school, spend a few hours with him at home and then leave him with his sisters while she reported to an overnight job.
“Then she’d come home in the morning, make us breakfast, send us to school and go right back to work,” Wall says. “I wouldn’t want any other mom in this world.”
Even today, Frances downplays her efforts.
“Back in those days,” she says, “I just did what I had to do.”
As hard as she was working away from home, Frances also had her hands full with John. With no male role model in his life, John often had problems dealing with authority in the years immediately following his father’s death. He got into fights at school and developed a nasty habit of talking back to his teachers.
Wall was even cut from the basketball team as a sophomore at Broughton High School in Raleigh – and his attitude was one of the main reasons.
“I just wasn’t a happy kid,” says Wall, who transferred to Word of God Christian Academy that same year. “I was mad all the time. I played AAU and I didn’t trust my coaches and what they were telling me. I didn’t feel like anyone could tell me things as good as my dad did.
“My mom … finally she just talked to me and said, ‘You’ve got to get over it. You’ve got to start trusting people again or you’re never going to get anywhere.’”
About that time, John met two men who would change his life.
To some, brothers Brian and Dwon Clifton epitomize the seedy side of the game, where men befriend a potential prospect at a young age, take on the role of “adviser” during the recruiting process and then try to steer the player to a certain school – often for their own monetary benefit.
According to Wall, that wasn’t the case with the Cliftons.
Instead, he says, the brothers were the key reason for his attitude adjustment – and the improvement he made as a player – that led him where he is today.
Wall says he met the Cliftons when he was 12 and began playing for their AAU program, D-One Sports, about two years later.
“Brian wouldn’t even let me play until I shaved my braids,” Wall says. “He’s the one that taught me everything about image and how to carry myself and how to act off the court. They helped me get my head on straight. They used basketball to give me some guidance in life.”
Before he met the Cliftons, Wall was a good but undisciplined player who lit up the competition in local parks and gyms around Raleigh. But once Wall joined D-One Sports, he went from a local legend to a national name.
Things really took off for Wall in the summer of 2007, when he scored 27 points in a game against Brandon Jennings’ AAU team in Philadelphia. Recruiting letters began to flood his mailbox and his name began appearing on hundreds of Internet sites. All of it was a bit overwhelming for Wall – especially after Rivals.com ranked him as the No. 1 overall player in the Class of 2009.
“I used to get on those sites and read about all the other players in the rankings,” Wall says. “Then I’d go to the AAU camps and I was all quiet and shy because I was nervous. Everyone there knew everyone else – but no one knew me.
“Then it all changed. I started walking into those camps and introducing myself to everyone there. All of a sudden, I was just this confident person.”
Wall’s mother noticed the difference.
“It was good to see him so happy,” Frances Pulley says. “It had been a tough three or four years for him.”
Still, as much fun as Wall was having, his final two years of school at Word of God were also filled with stress. Along with trying to live up to his gaudy reputation as the country’s top player, Wall was having a difficult time trying to select a college.
He visited Kansas and sat in on the ring ceremony for the 2007-08 championship squad. Then there was pressure to go to school down the road at Duke or N.C. State. Miami brought Wall in for an official visit, and the wild card was Baylor, which had added Dwon Clifton to its staff – presumably to help entice Wall to sign with the Bears.
“That was a tough time for John,” Pulley says. “I could tell it wore on him by looking at his face.”
Wall says he kept thinking back to what Dwon – who played at Clemson and UNC-Greensboro – had told him a year or two earlier about the recruiting process.
“Don’t go to a school just because your friends are there or because it sounds like a dream school,” Wall remembers Dwon saying. “Go to a program that fits your style of play.”
With that in mind, Wall continued to watch games involving Memphis. He loved the freedom guards such as Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans had in John Calipari’s Dribble Drive offense, and he couldn’t help but think of himself in that role.
Calipari recalled his first meeting with Wall.
“Kids always say to me, ‘Can you do for me what you did for so-and-so?’” Calipari says. “I always tell them, ‘You have that potential – but are you willing to work that hard?’
“They don’t realize how hard guys like Derrick and Tyreke worked and how much time they spent in the gym. I just told [Wall] about what it was going to take for him to be special.”
After watching Rose and Evans go with the first and fourth overall selections, respectively, in the 2008 and 2009 NBA drafts, Wall was sold.
“The other schools were nice,” Wall says. “But through it all, I just kept thinking back to Coach Cal.”
By the spring of Wall’s senior year, Calipari had left Memphis for Kentucky. For Wall, the chance to play for his favorite coach at one of the most tradition-rich programs in America seemed like a no-brainer. He signed with Kentucky – even though Brian Clifton was reportedly against it.
Asked about his relationship with Brian Clifton, Calipari says: “It’s OK. I’m fine with Brian. At the end of the day, the kid is here, he’s playing for me, and that’s all that matters.”
Calipari says Wall’s decision to become a Wildcat should squelch any notion that Brian Clifton – who did not return a call for this story – was calling the shots in Wall’s recruitment.
Calipari says negative stories and rumors are often floated about players when they don’t choose certain schools.
“We’re sitting here working with him everyday and saying, ‘What a great kid – one of the best kids we’ve ever been around,” Calipari says. “But sometimes the story still gets written another way. Why is that? I don’t know. Sometimes kids pick a school and they get cleansed. In John’s case, maybe he didn’t go where people wanted him to go.”
“In the end, John always wanted to play for me,” he says. “That was the overriding factor for what he did. The thing about John … the kid is a pleaser. He doesn’t want to make anyone mad. That’s why it took him so long to make his decision. He didn’t want to have to tell anybody no.”
With about two minutes left in Monday’s 94-57 shellacking of UNC-Asheville, John Wall looked toward the scorers’ table and saw seldom-used reserve Mark Krebs waiting to check in.
“Without me even telling him to,” Calipari says, “John immediately fouled to stop the clock so we could make the substitution. That shows you right there the kind of leader we got, the kind of kid we got.”
People who come in contact with Wall each day are learning that, too – even though his collegiate career didn’t get off to a smooth start.
Shortly before signing with the Wildcats last spring, Wall was cited for breaking and entering after he and two friends entered an abandoned home in Raleigh. Nothing was taken from the home and there was no sign of forced entry. Wall eventually worked out an agreement for dismissal of the citation through the district attorney’s office, but the headlines still dinged Wall’s image.
Then, last month, Wall was suspended for Kentucky’s season opener against Morehead State because of a situation involving Brian Clifton, who was a certified sports agent for a period during Wall’s recruitment as a junior in high school. Wall became eligible after he repaid almost $800 to Clifton – who is no longer an agent – for expenses incurred during unofficial college visits during that time frame.
With those issues now behind him, Wall’s rock-star status with Kentucky basketball fans continues to grow. He’s averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 assists for the fifth-ranked Wildcats, who are 7-0.
Wall hit a game-winning buzzer-beater in a 72-70 victory over Miami (Ohio) in his college debut. Last week, he made a 12-foot fadeaway jumper with 30 seconds left and then two free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining to force overtime in a victory over Stanford in Cancun.
Calipari says Wall’s reputation as one of the country’s top players makes his recent performances even more impressive.
“Every [opposing player] is trying to make their name at his expense,” says Calipari, noting that Wall is slightly ahead of where Rose and Evans were at this point in their freshman seasons.
Still, as well as Wall is playing, he knows he has to get better – fast – if the Wildcats have serious aspirations of competing for a national championship. They’ll get their first major test of the season on Saturday, when Kentucky plays host to No. 10 North Carolina at Rupp Arena. His mother is planning to make the seven-hour drive from Raleigh for the game.
“I’m so happy he’s there in a good place, a safe place,” she says. “It’s a place where I don’t have to worry about him.”
Aside from a phone call made from last year’s Final Four, North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t recruit Wall – reportedly because of a strained relationship with the Cliftons – even though Wall grew up in Raleigh. Still, Williams couldn’t be any more impressed with the guard his team will try to contain Saturday.
“He’s the best point-guard prospect I’ve seen since Jason Kidd,” Williams says. “I love the way he plays.”
Excited as he is about playing against a school from his home state, Wall says he is more eager to see how Kentucky fares against a high-quality opponent such as the defending national champions. Calipari says it’s possible that his team, which has yet to face a ranked opponent, could get “punched in the mouth.”
But he also realizes his squad is talented enough to beat anyone when things are clicking – especially with Wall in the lineup. Calipari says Wall is still too “loosey-goosey” at times, and that he needs to cut down on his turnovers. When it comes to attitude, though, Wall is playing with the poise of a senior.
Not that he’ll ever know what that feels like.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be here,” Wall says. “I’m not even thinking about that right now. I just know that, however long I’m here, I’m going to have fun. I’m going to enjoy the moment. I may be growing up – but I don’t want to grow up too fast.”