Merlene Davis: There are a lot of John Walls out there worth saving

Herald-Leader columnistJune 24, 2010 

  • Resources

    Amachi Central Kentucky is a mentoring program for the children of incarcerated parents. If you would like to become a mentor, call (859) 389-8279 or go to

    Hospice of the Bluegrass Center for Grief & Education offers support free of charge for anyone suffering the loss of a loved one. Call (859) 277-2700.

The Washington Post story about the early years of former University of Kentucky basketball star — and soon-to-be NBA star — John Wall showed just how thin the line is between success and failure.

According to the report, after Wall's father died, Wall was filled with anger and disdained authority. Wall, who was 8 when his father died, said he came to his senses and changed his attitude when he was about 13. But his reputation for being a malcontent was hard to erase from the minds of those around him.

When you're watching the NBA Draft Thursday night, remember that there are thousands of John Walls in Kentucky, hundreds in the Bluegrass. They might not be as gifted on the basketball court, but they are still worthy of being saved.

I could identify with his mother; the story said she would sit in the school parking lot waiting for her son to be sent home yet again. My older son spent various parts of a year under my desk at work contemplating what he had done to again get kicked out of preschool. Usually, it was because of fighting.

Coaches talked to Wall, cajoled him or kicked him off teams. Others avoided him, fearing the disruption that accompanied him.

Fortunately, something clicked, and Wall realized he was his own worst enemy. He changed and now has the population of at least two states — Kentucky and North Carolina — and maybe even a whole country rooting for him to succeed.

It is not often adults get to see the investment they put into punk kids pay off.

After Wall's father died, his first coach didn't see anything to indicate that his efforts took root in Wall. Neither did the second, third or fourth coaches, or even his mother, who feared he was heading to a life behind bars like his father.

There are teachers in North Carolina who tried. Principals, neighbors, family all seemed to fail individually to get Wall to see he was headed for serious problems.

But I think together, cumulatively, they won.

Each of them, armed with an ice pick, chipped away at the icy exterior Wall had built to protect himself from the pain of living a life he didn't want, a life without the father he loved.

To fend off each of those blows, Wall was forced to loosen his grip on his anger, on his ability to hide his vulnerability behind the Wall he had created. It finally just wasn't worth the effort. He decided to live life as himself and not as an angry, tough, invulnerable guy.

David Cozart of the Lexington-Fayette County Urban League and an advocate of fathers, noticed that Wall's turning point came when he decided to honor his father, the same man Wall enjoyed visiting in prison. The same man who made him feel special despite not being with him every day.

"He did not look at jail or the penal system with resentment," Cozart said of Wall. "He could work through a compromising situation as long as 'I can see Daddy.' "

Acting out was the way Wall grieved, the way he mourned his father's death, Cozart said.

"There is an inextricable tie between a father and son, and daughters as well," Cozart said. "I try to continuously impress on fathers that their influence is there whether they are there or not."

Fortunately, Wall transferred the grief and the anger of that grief into accentuating the gift God gave him. That gift was his ability to play basketball.

All children have a gift. We adults are charged with finding that gift, nurturing it and helping children use it as an outlet for the pain they have experienced.

And while he had the stable influence of his mother all the time, Wall needed others to step in and guide, as well.

For children in the Bluegrass who have a parent or family member incarcerated, there is an organization trying to help. Amachi Central Kentucky, a program of Lexington Leadership Foundation, matches mentors with children 4 to 18 years old whose parents are incarcerated.

"Mentors meet with them for about an hour a week," said Eric Geary, chief executive officer of the foundation.

The program was started by Wilson Goode, two-time African-American mayor of Philadelphia whose father was incarcerated when Goode was 14.

Amachi maintains about 53 matches, with 30 boys waiting to be matched, Geary said.

"We need 30 men in a bad way," he said. "We find women easily, but men have been a struggle."

The mentors undergo a screening and reference check, and they attend a training session before being matched.

That's when they get to use their ice picks.

"Amachi means, 'Who knows what God has brought us through this child,' " Geary said. "We believe it is the consistent relationship that has the biggest impact."

It is only with consistent pressure over time that coal is transformed into diamonds. It took about seven years for John Wall, but look how he's sparkling now.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or

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