UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: It's not hard to root for John Wall

Even with its regal men's basketball history, the University of Kentucky has never had a player enter college with the level of hype that accompanied Johnathan Hildred Wall.

So the most impressive epitaph one can apply to the brief UK career of Wall is this: He was better than his massive build-up.

Decked out in a black pin-stripe suit and a natty purple tie, Wall Thursday morning made, perhaps, the least surprising announcement of all time: The Kentucky freshman is keeping his name in the 2010 NBA Draft. Most mock drafts project the 6-foot-4 point guard to be the overall No. 1 pick.

After UK was upset by West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, Wall said his heart was tugging at him to stay in Lexington to make another run at an NCAA title.

"I sat back for about a week and a half and just realized, if we came back, we could win it," Wall said of the five Kentucky underclassmen who have put their names in the draft. "But there's no guarantee, you never know what could happen for next year.

"So I just felt like this was my opportunity to go (pro). After I talked to my family and my coaching staff, they said it was time to go."

The Raleigh, N.C., product said he will finish this academic semester at UK. Wall said he has yet to formally hire an agent. He also has not yet entered into a much-discussed marketing agreement with a company owned by LeBron James, Wall said.

"Nothing new on that," Wall said. "Me and my family are sitting back waiting to finalize anything about business or signing with anyone. When I make decisions, I'll let everyone know."

Because basketball at the level at which Wall occupies the game is such big business, it's easy to view the players as commodities. Wall being in position to turn pro and reap a payday in the millions is a very poignant human narrative.

The future basketball star was 9 when his father, also named John, died from liver cancer. As Wall pointed out Thursday, things were not easy for his family after that, especially for his mother, Frances Pulley.

"All the work she put in after my Dad passed, having two or three jobs and me not really seeing her as much," Wall said.

In those years, Wall struggled to channel the anger he felt over the loss of his father. There were three high schools in five years. Wall was cut from one school team largely because of a bad attitude and benched at another school for second-guessing the coach during games.

Every bit as impressive as the way Wall grew into his prodigious basketball talent is the way he has developed as a person.

The John Wall who spent this year in Lexington was a person that "regular UK students" with whom I had reason to talk almost always used the same description: "A really nice guy."

The John Wall who was, arguably, the most publicized college athlete in the country (non-Tim Tebow division) in the current school year was a person who, during the NCAA Tournament, happened to walk past an elderly security official in the New Orleans Arena.

"John Wall! John Wall! John Wall!" the man yelled. "I saw you play in high school in Raleigh."

Hearing that, Wall stopped on his way back to the UK locker room.

"What part of Raleigh are you from?" the basketball star asked.

By the time a brief exchange was over, the elderly man was beaming.

The John Wall who wore No. 11 at Kentucky for one year was a class act.

Which is why it was not surprising Thursday to hear him thank every member of John Calipari's coaching staff by name. Or to hear him say that he hopes to maintain relationships with all his Kentucky teammates for the rest of his life.

Heck, Wall even expressed gratitude to UK's student managers. When's the last time you heard an NBA-bound star do that?

As a ballplayer, Wall was not afraid to put his reputation on the line when games hung in the balance.

From the game-winning basket in his first college game against Miami (Ohio) through his domination of UConn down the stretch in Madison Square Garden to blocking the go-ahead three-point shot in UK's key win at Vandy, Wall was stone-cold clutch.

Then there was the crescendo of crowd noise that would build in Rupp Arena any time Wall got the ball in the open court. That scenario meant there was a very good chance of seeing something you had never seen before.

One-and-done point guard for Calipari has replaced quarterback at Southern Cal as the most buzz-producing position in college sports. Just as Derrick Rose begat Tyreke Evans who begat Wall, lavishly praised recruits Brandon Knight (Class of 2010) and Marquis Teague (2011) have already pledged to play for Kentucky.

If UK fans are counting on future points guards being at the level of Wall, well ... we'll see.

Having done his one well, Wall is now off to collect greenbacks in the play-for-pay.

"People ask me what I'm going to do with my money," Wall said. "I'm just worried about getting my Mom a house and a car, just to let her relax and show her I love her so much for all she's done for me."

As he spoke, it was real easy to feel good for the guy who brought the massive hype to UK — and exceeded it.

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