John Wall idolizes father he never really got to know

Memories shape Wall, now poised to play in his late dad's hometown

The Washington PostJune 23, 2010 

RALEIGH, N.C. — The temperature is well into the 90s, and laundry hangs on a clothesline behind the brick apartment complex on East Davie Street. Inside the two-floor end unit, Frances Pulley rises from the couch and takes the four short steps needed to cross the cramped living room, past the small television and the folding chair set up by a computer desk.

Pulley approaches a wooden cabinet and opens a creaking glass door adorned with family photos. She reaches past her son's high school diploma and pulls out a drawing that is protected in clear plastic.

"I kept it," she says. She's almost too choked up to speak. She points to the top of the picture, a detailed drawing of Batman, where the words "Happy Birthday" are written. "I think he was 4 or 5."

At the bottom is the name "Johnathan" written in long, sweeping strokes.

The drawing is one of John Wall's most cherished possessions. It had been a gift from his father, who had drawn it for him from a jail cell.

Wall's mother looks at the drawing again and chuckles. Then sighs.

"That's a good one, isn't it?" she says.

The apartment doesn't have room for a lot of furniture, but it houses plenty of memories. There's the small kitchen in the back where Pulley whipped together breakfast before leaving for one of the jobs that kept her away from her children most of the day and night. There's the bedroom where John's baby sitter would leave him during his turbulent, and often violent, youth. There's the living room where his high school coach would sit with him, often well after midnight, trying to hash out the differences that sometimes kept one of the country's best young basketball players sitting on the bench.

A plaque that bears the letters "MVP" rests on a chair, along with several packs of cigarettes. Boxes are strewn across the living room floor. Frances Pulley will be moving soon.

Most of the basketball world knows John Wall as the muscle-flexing point guard whom the Washington Wizards are expected to make the first overall pick in the NBA Draft on Thursday. Wall sat courtside at the NBA Finals, has dined with LeBron James and is a rare teenager who has earned praise from President Barack Obama and Dick Vitale.

Beneath that glitzy reputation and swagger is a 19-year-old whose inspiration comes not only from a mother who worked multiple jobs to support the family, but also from a father who was born in Washington and spent most of his final 30 years behind bars in North Carolina.

From the time Wall was nearly 2 years old until after he turned 8, he longed for the weekends because that was when he could see his father, John Carroll Wall. Pulley would drive her son and his younger sister, Cierra, to visit their father in prison.

Pulley never told Wall why his father was in jail — "I don't discuss that," she says — and at that point in his life, he never thought to ask. At that age, he attached no stigma to the prison; for him, it was just the place where his father lived.

For about two hours at a time, the family could sit together and talk, his father sharing superhero drawings he had done for John and Cierra.

"They enjoyed each other," Pulley said. "John wanted (his dad) to himself, but he had a sister so he had to share him."

Wall remembers those visits fondly.

"We could hug," Wall recalled. "We could touch and everything."

In 1998, the older Wall was diagnosed with liver cancer; the following year, he was released from prison a month early when his condition worsened. He was terminally ill.

Near the end of that summer, the parents took the children for a trip to White Lake, N.C. "We stayed at the beach, went on rides, stayed in the water a lot," Pulley said.

The younger John remembers the trip vividly and still calls it the most meaningful time in his life. With the water replacing prison walls as the backdrop to their conversations, father and son talked about life: how to be a better man, the importance of going to school, college one day, and staying out of jail.

Still, the specter of cancer loomed, and on the final day of the trip, the illness struck violently.

Wall remembers a hotel bathtub full of blood. The smell of the hemorrhage. The sound of the ambulance. His mother crying. His father died the next day, Aug. 24, 1999, at age 52.

"I didn't know at that age why God took people away, why people died," Wall said. "It took me a while, like seventh or eighth grade, to realize this is what everybody's got to do. I was not thinking that everybody's got to die someday."

To this day, Wall said, "it's tough for me to go back to beaches."

Earlier this month, while training in Southern California, Wall rarely deviated between his hotel and the gym. A trip to the ocean would bring back too many painful memories.

Looking for a fight

His father's death filled Wall, then a rail-thin kid in elementary school, with a rage that manifested itself in violence.

"People have jokes, so I just said, forget the jokes, we can fight," Wall said. "Just so much anger built up. I was mad at everything. I did not trust coaches, people. Any time somebody told me something, I just said, 'You don't know what you are talking about.' I did not want to believe nobody for some reason. That's just how it was."

Pulley made breakfast and dinner and in between worked a variety of jobs, including driving a small bus for children and working at a hotel. That meant a baby sitter for Wall, usually his older half-sister, Tonya, Pulley's daughter from a previous relationship.

"Could not do it," Wall said. "I used to fight them. My sister was my baby sitter. She used to be scared. I used to basically keep myself. She used to watch me, but I used to fight her — get so mad she would leave me alone — drop me in a room."

There were no other baby sitters because "I probably would have (fought) them, too."

Wall's worst fight occurred when he was 10, waiting for his turn at bat during a sandlot baseball game. One particularly tall, strong 14-year-old boy would not move from home plate. Wall swung the aluminum bat, and it connected with the kid's eyebrow. The two punched and wrestled and kept fighting — taking two-minute breaks — during a marathon slugfest.

Wall's aggression was so intense that, because he lived some 30 minutes from school, his mother would drop him off and sit in the parking lot because she knew he would be sent home in less than two hours. Pulley was unsettled about where she saw her son's life heading. "The same way his father's life was: prison," she said. "In trouble, mostly. It was sad. That was the sad part."

LeVelle Moton, now the head basketball coach at North Carolina Central, has run a youth basketball camp for years. Several years ago, among the players he would let join for free because of their impoverished background was an 11-year-old John Wall.

"Wow, he was crying out," Moton said. "He didn't want any discipline, any structure. John was like, 'I am screaming over here, can you hear me?' I didn't ignore him, but there were like 35 more kids doing the same thing."

When things went Wall's way, he was fine. When they didn't "watch out," Moton said. "He was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode on the basketball floor."

At one point, Moton pulled Wall aside and said that if he didn't change his behavior, he would not be allowed to stay. He was banished from the camp a day later. Wall said he didn't know where he was headed in life at that age, but it was not good. And if he didn't find a way to change, he would have little hope.

"Once I figured it out, I just said, basketball is my escape. This is the best way for me to do it," Wall said. "I just build it into me and basically play every game for (my dad). I feel like I have to step on the court every night and be dominant."

A year later, Wall, still frail, returned with a better attitude. And the following year Moton officiated the championship game and tested Wall's attitude with intentionally bad calls against him. After each whistle, Wall calmly put down the ball and ran back down court to play defense. Afterward, in front of the whole camp, Moton announced the MVP: Wall.

"I was so happy that he straightened out just so he would not be dead in two to three years," Moton said. "It was that kind of story. When your attitude is like that, you'll snap on the wrong person, and that's how you end up in the obituary section."

Gaining an understanding

Despite gradual improvements in his attitude and his game, Wall couldn't outrun his reputation as a problem child. After playing for two years for Garner High just outside of Raleigh, Wall's family moved into the city, which meant he had to attend Broughton High and repeat his sophomore year. He was poised to join current East Carolina guard Brock Young in a backcourt that would have been one of the best in the country.

During team tryouts, Wall remembers dominating, dunking on everybody. But on the way to school one day, Young called him and said, "You got cut." Young was mad; Wall was in disbelief. Wall said his outlook had improved by that point, but several people familiar with the situation said attitude was the main reason Broughton coach Jeff Ferrell cut Wall.

When reached by telephone, Ferrell declined to specify, saying, "It is not public record." When asked about Wall's development, Ferrell said, "I know him as well as I know you, and I don't know you."

Tony Edwards, one of Wall's first summer-league coaches, said: "It crushed him. It was devastating to him. He didn't want to go to school the next day. I mean, it crushed him."

Edwards and fellow summer-league coaches Brian and Dwon Clifton had formed an inner circle that Wall said helped him slowly overcome his distrust in men. Wall, his mom and a team of mentors decided he should transfer to Word of God Christian Academy, which has an enrollment of fewer than 300 students. He attended Friday night chapel and Bible study classes. He met often with Word of God founder Frank Summerfield to build a bond, talk about the loss of his father, academic and social issues.

But it was a work in progress. Summerfield would tell Wall: "John, you can't curse. This is a Christian academy. Help me out here."

Wall was academically ineligible for the fall session with a 1.6 grade-point average, and while his talent began to emerge upon his return, so did his attitude problems. In a game against Mount Zion, Wall stewed on the bench before Coach Levi Beckwith finally told him to enter the game.

Upon reaching the scorer's table, Wall mumbled something to the effect of, "I shouldn't even bother now."

Beckwith heard him and sent him back to the bench. Word of God lost. Beckwith limited Wall's playing time the next two games in the state playoffs.

Still, the coach kept in regular touch with Wall's mom and his summer-league coaches. Whenever an issue emerged, Beckwith usually called them to dissect it before Wall did.

"People say, 'Well, he is like that because his daddy died and he doesn't have a male figure; you can be tough on him and say you can't always use that as an excuse,' " Beckwith said. "It ain't an excuse. An excuse is avoidable. A reason is not."

Beckwith would talk regularly with Wall, asking him what he thought the appropriate punishment should be for his behavior. Beckwith wanted Wall to take responsibility for his actions.

Wall's struggles didn't evaporate overnight, but Beckwith would not allow any situation to fester, making late-night visits to East Davie Street to talk out any problems, even as small as Wall fetching Gatorade before the coach was done talking with him.

"That's when I learned," said Wall, who graduated Word of God with a 2.8 GPA. "I knew I could not beat the coach. And if I could not beat him, I could not beat anybody if I wanted to play."

Wall meets world

Wall repeated his sophomore year in high school, and Brian Clifton helped get him into the 2007 Reebok All-American Camp in Philadelphia. At that point, Wall was known only as one of the best players in North Carolina, but he was about to play among the hottest prospects in the country. And that's when the basketball world discovered John Wall.

"I knew that was my chance," Wall said. "Can't back down."

His speed, jaw-dropping vertical jump and competitive fire distinguished him from his peers. He scored 28 points in a game against Brandon Jennings, the top point guard in the class of 2008 and a future NBA lottery pick.

The following summer, during a Las Vegas tournament that featured thousands of players, Jennings walked into a high school gymnasium to watch one player: Wall. Standing next to Chris Rivers, then Reebok's grass-roots director, Jennings was asked to name the one high school player destined to be a star.

Jennings immediately pointed to the court: "Wall," he said. "The kid from Raleigh."

By that point, Edwards' phone had been overloaded for more than a year with text and voice messages from college coaches.

"LeBron has been LeBron since he was 3; Kobe has been Kobe since he was 4; Shaq has been Shaq since he was 5," Moton said. "John Wall has just been John Wall since he was 16. It just clicked one day."

By the time he graduated from high school, Wall was considered a lock to enter the NBA Draft after only one season in college. He followed Coach John Calipari to the University of Kentucky.

He was beloved by rabid Kentucky fans before he even took the court in Lexington, a feeling that only intensified after he made a game-winning jumper over Miami (Ohio) in his first college game last November. He finished the season as a consensus All-American. His mother rented a car and made the nearly 500-mile trip from Raleigh to Lexington for every home game.

Wall thrived under Calipari, whom he views as a father figure, and regularly joined other players for meals at the coach's house, developing a rapport with Calipari's wife and children. "I love him so much," Wall said.

Calipari said Wall finished with the highest grade-point average on the team. Wall called the one year in college the "greatest experience ever."

"If there was not a chance to go to the NBA," Wall said, "I would have loved to stay there four years."

The truth about Dad

After a sweltering workout in the gymnasium of his former high school last week, Wall sat on the first row of bleachers recounting his childhood. He hardly knew anything about his dad's time in jail. He learned just this month that his parents got married in prison, after hearing relatives talking about the dress his mom wore. He still had no idea why his father was locked up.

Wall stretched out his legs, revealing his yet-unnamed personal line of Reebok sneakers, and leaned his elbows back on the second row, seemingly at ease.

"I think it was just for an altercation or something that happened," Wall said, wiping sweat from his face. "I don't really know. It was something that happened."

According to court records, what happened Sept. 30, 1991 — less than a month after his son's first birthday — was John Carroll Wall walked into a convenience store in Raleigh, removed one beer, continued to the checkout where clerk Cecil Ibegbu stood. Wall placed a $1 bill on the counter. He then removed a .22-caliber Ruger from the back of his jeans and pointed it at Ibegbu, demanding all the money in the register. He was convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon.

Sitting in the gym after his workout, Wall was told his father robbed a convenience store. He offered a slight nod and said, "Uh-huh."

Before meeting his mother, Wall's father had served three other sentences, for armed robbery; for possession of a firearm by a felon; and for second-degree murder, after shooting a 26-year-old housewife in the head following an argument.

Sitting on the bleachers, Wall learned for the first time that his father had served prison time before he was born and that the crime was murder. He offered no affirmation and looked away for a moment.

"Ohhhh," he said, dragging the sound for a second. "Oh, I didn't even know. I didn't know."

He paused, but not for long. He took a quick glance at the basketball court before making eye contact again. He was calm, but his speech slowed.

"My mom never told me. I heard he had one robbery thing," he said. "That is all I knew. I never knew anything about that other part. She would never tell me, she would not want to tell me or my sisters."

Was he ever curious?

"I was not curious," Wall said. "I was just happy to see my dad and talk to him."

The gym was almost empty, except for a few of Wall's mentors and friends chatting on the other side of the court after Wall's 80-minute workout. Wall was asked why his dad's past has done little to diminish his opinion of him.

"Well, because, for one thing, that's my dad," Wall answered without hesitation. "He brought me onto this earth and, like everybody, makes mistakes. Everyone is not going to be perfect. Sometimes people do some stuff because of certain situations they are in or the people they are around. Or they might be drunk or something and just do it.

"Like I said, he still was there for me. ... Probably if I were older, you would have been, 'Forget him, he ain't my daddy, he ain't here for me, taking care of me.' At a young age, you don't know, you don't care. You're just happy to have somebody there that you can call your dad. And that's the biggest thing."

Wall has declined to get tattoos because of concerns about his image for marketing reasons, but he is considering getting one on his chest, considering it strongly enough that he has a specific design in mind. It would be of his dad's face, with clouds surrounding, and the words "Forever Living On."

The future awaits

This month, about 100 friends and family members gathered at a Raleigh community center to celebrate Cierra's high school graduation. After a meal of barbecue, Wall addressed the crowd, said some warm words about his sister and then announced that their mom would soon be moving from the apartment on East Davie Street. He is buying her a five-bedroom house on a four-acre lot in a quiet section of Raleigh. The room erupted in cheers.

Frances Pulley is going to need to buy furniture. She recently recounted the days of working two jobs while being essentially a single parent, her only sleep coming "in between" her other responsibilities. Did she ever imagine her life would turn out like this?

"Never," she said, laughing. "Never."

Asked later about how much her and her son's lives are about to change, she broke down: "A lot," she said through the tears. "A lot."

Soon the boxes on the floor will need to be filled with the contents of the apartment. The photos, the awards, the diploma, the drawings — all of it will need to be moved. So will a vase that holds the ashes of John Carroll Wall.

Her son will soon be moving, too, to begin his professional career in Washington, the city where his father was born.

Washington Post staff writer Michael Lee contributed to this report.

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