On the eve of his greatest career triumph, Washington Wizards guard John Wall also must confront one of his greatest fears.
Wall can’t completely revel in his first NBA all-star game appearance because his mother, Frances Pulley, has been hospitalized with fluid buildup in her lungs that kept her from traveling to be with her son on his special weekend.
Wall sent a text message to wish Pulley well on Valentine’s Day and went about fulfilling his professional obligations for the Wizards and the NBA without publicly displaying the slightest bit of angst. But behind the smiles, Wall said there also is pain.
“I’m dealing with a lot of stuff, but she wants me to enjoy myself. She wants me to be happy,” Wall said before practice at the New Orleans Convention Center. “Whenever I get the opportunity, I try to call her and check on her, make sure she’s all right and try to enjoy myself. At the same time, that’s also at the back of your mind.”
Wall has not made a secret of the love that he feels for the woman who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet after his father, John Carroll Wall Sr., died of liver cancer in 1999; the woman whose frank words forced Wall to channel the rage and rebellion from losing his father into making basketball his means toward a better life for his family; and the woman whose tearful joy caused Wall to break down during his news conference last August announcing his five-year, $80 million maximum contract extension with the Wizards.
Pulley also was the first person Wall called after receiving the official word that he made the Eastern Conference all-star team. “We made it,” he told her.
But for most of the best season of his career, Wall has played with a heavy heart over concerns about his mother’s health. He has kept that internal struggle mostly to himself while leading the Wizards back into postseason picture. When he joins the NBA’s best players at Smoothie King Arena on Sunday night, Wall will have more incentive to shine in the crowning moment of his career so far.
The first time Wall acknowledged this season that his mother wasn’t doing well, he went out and scored a season-high 37 points in Toronto in late November — the first in a string of three straight 30-point games that propelled him to his second career Eastern Conference player of the week honor. Pulley’s health gradually improved after Wall said she started taking her medication. She was able to travel from Raleigh, N.C., to attend a few regular season games, bringing Wall some comfort. But for Wall, the burden of worrying about his mother has consumed him at times.
“I was getting frustrated, because you never want to get a phone call at halftime or at the end of the game, and something bad happened. I already lost my dad. You don’t want to lose your other parent,” Wall said recently. “She always tells me: ‘Don’t worry about what’s going on. Things happen in life. Just focus on going out and playing the game you love and know I support you.’ . . . It’s not easy, but I think the season I’m having is making it exciting and easy for her, taking some of the pressure off her. Let her have the excitement of coming to watch me play and watch me have a good year.”
Wall rarely has had to search for motivation in his basketball career, developing a sizable chip that manifests in angry scowls, guttural howls and theatrical chest bumps after big plays on the court.
“My love for the game and how I want to work to get here and what I still got ahead of myself and what I want to be in this league when my career is over. That’s where all that comes from – what my family been through, the tough times I had to see, that adds a lot more fire to it and makes me even more passionate,” Wall said.
“When I had the opportunity to be on the scene, everybody thought it was a fluke when I first got on. And I had to keep playing that way. So that was edge of always wanted to be like that,” Wall said. “And also, certain things I felt I should’ve won, or should’ve been invited to, I didn’t get the opportunity to. Those things are more motivation for me and that’s why I have a chip on my shoulder.”
Levelle Moton didn’t see a potential NBA player, let alone a future all-star when he first crossed paths with a short, skinny 11-year-old at the basketball camp he ran in Raleigh. Moton let Wall attend for free — until he became too much of a headache. If Wall got an unfavorable call, he’d toss the ball across the court or disrupt the instructional portion of camp to leave and shoot on his own. After Wall’s behavior got worse and a sit-down conversation went nowhere, Moton kicked him out.
Wall admits that he was a “bad kid” but understands the reason for his outbursts back then. “It was kind of around the time that I was still trying to adjust to losing my dad,” he said. “It made me become a man faster than I wanted to. Seeing how my mom had to raise us, and working so many jobs.”
Pulley came back the next summer and asked Moton to let Wall back into the camp. Wall apologized and Moton obliged, then noticed a slightly different Wall, one who better handled adversity. Wall earned most valuable player honors during the camp, but Moton’s decision had more to do with his improved behavior than his performance.
“Now that I know him better, it wasn’t really the attitude, it was just he was crying out. He was crying out for attention. He was crying out for love,” said Moton, now head coach at North Carolina Central in Durham, N.C. “He changed his attitude, he fixed that and then his abilities just caught up with him. You got to credit his mom and the better you get, the more you realize what’s potentially at stake if you lose it. That’s the evolution every man goes through. That’s what he had to learn, but the road that he was on, he was going to be a mess.”
Wall still had some occasional lapses in high school, forcing his mother to sit him down. Wall’s father spent most of the second half of his 52 years in prison and Pulley was worried that her son would follow. “She said if I didn’t change my attitude, I was going to wind up just like my dad,” Wall said. “My mom said you can try to do something with my life. Or you can turn your life around. That’s when I started to changing.”
Watching his mother have an emotional response while attending his high school games pushed Wall to keep improving. “That’s when I really wanted to make the NBA, because I saw my mom cry. That was the first time I seen her take basketball that serious. Because she really didn’t understand it at first,” Wall said.
Pulley developed a brain aneurysm during Wall’s senior year of high school, which nearly forced him to stay close to home during college. She got better and he attended Kentucky, where Coach John Calipari helped Wall become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft.
“Every game he comes in, he’s not just out there playing, he’s got a little chip on his shoulder,” Calipari said. “His background. What he’s been through. How some of his anger or rage was based on that, but no one really got deep enough to know. So now, he rebelled a little bit and it created this, ‘Okay, you’re not with me?’ But he’s a great kid.”
Calipari then noted how Wall donated $1 million to charity the moment he inked his new contract. “C’mon now. That made me more proud than him getting a contract,” he said.
Pulley doesn’t like doing interviews, but spoke briefly at his news conference last August. “He came a hell of a long way. A long way. The journey is good, because I never thought . . . He always talked about being in the NBA, but he surprised me. That attitude was the worst thing he had,” she said then.
But Pulley’s presence helped him change for the better. “Her being in my corner through thick and thin, somebody I can call and talk to at any time,” Wall said. “I want to win for her. I’ll definitely play the game for her.”