LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Wall didn’t need an introduction to elicit an ovation. With 24,000 crammed into legendary Rupp Arena on Friday night for the school’s annual spectacle, Big Blue Madness, Wall walked on to the floor and lifted his hand to acknowledge his adoring fans.
As the first Kentucky player to go No. 1 in the NBA draft, Wall continues to hold a special place among supporters of one of college basketball’s most storied and tradition-rich programs. Nine of Wall’s Washington Wizards teammates trailed behind at the school’s basketball kickoff event, staring up at the raucous crowd and wondering in disbelief how so many people — especially those who camped out for tickets several days in advance — would show up for a practice.
“They really love basketball here, and it’s big to them. It’s very rare you get that anywhere else,” Wall said of Kentucky fans before the Wizards’ 93-89 loss Saturday to the New Orleans Pelicans in the first NBA exhibition game at Rupp since 2000. “I just wanted my teammates and everybody to experience it because they didn’t believe me when I said how it would be. They treat you like an NBA player here. And it prepares you for the NBA lifestyle.”
Four years after he announced his arrival in Lexington with a catchy dance move, Wall returned to the place that launched him to stardom to play what he said would be the most emotional exhibition game of his career. Bradley Beal, an alum of SEC rival Florida, was announced before Wall and was lustily booed. But fans immediately stood to applaud Wall.
“You always get chills walking back here, knowing this is where you played and how the fans treat you and show you a lot of support,” Wall said. “It’s amazing. It’s a dream come true to come to a place like this and see how the fan base is. . . . There are no fans in college basketball like this. I talk about it all the time, being excited if I could’ve stayed all four years, but I’m happy with my situation, that I was blessed to go to the NBA.”
Wall had 16 points and 10 assists but also got to see what winning a championship at Kentucky would’ve done for a legacy in Lexington. Pelicans big man Anthony Davis, who led the Wildcats to a national title before going No. 1 overall in 2012, got the loudest ovation of any player. And when Davis (16 points) blocked Wall’s attempt at a breakaway dunk in the second half, fans cheered, then booed, then sat in silence, unsure of how they should react.
Beal led all scorers with 30 points, but with a chance to tie the game, Davis, fittingly, came from behind to block his driving layup attempt to secure the win - and collect a few more Pelicans fans.
Wall is still waiting to experience a level of success comparable to what he had in his one season at Kentucky, where he helped take the Wildcats to the Elite Eight after being recruited by Coach John Calipari. He has etched the word “playoffs” on his left shoe to remind himself of where he hopes to take the Wizards in his fourth season.
“To be a good point guard in this league, you’ve got to be known for winning,” Wall said. “I haven’t done that in my career yet, so that’s something I’m big on, trying to do and try to reach the playoffs this year. It’s on my shoes, every shoe I have. My main thing is just try to stay humble, keep working as much as I can and just try to be a leader on this team.”
During an 11-minute introductory speech that was part sermon, part pep talk, Calipari paused to acknowledge how Wall is already taking the steps to thrive in other areas of life. The Wizards gave Wall a five-year, $80 million extension in August. Calipari was more impressed by the gesture Wall made immediately after signing.
“I’m proud of John Wall,” Calipari shouted to the crowd, waiting 10 seconds for the cheers to taper. “With his brother, DeMarcus Cousins [of the Sacramento Kings]. Are you ready for this? Tell me if this doesn’t make you proud. The minute those two signed the max deals, they gave $1 million to charity — each. We teach more than just basketball here. We teach character on and off the court. This is a place where our players prepare not only for a career but the rest of their lives.”
When asked what led him to make the donation, Wall spoke of the sacrifices that his mother, Frances Pulley, made by working three or four jobs to support the family in Raleigh, N.C. Wall said he feels an obligation to give back, “just knowing where I came from and how things wasn’t easy growing up and how things was tough. That’s something I’m very big on, that’s giving back to people that’s less fortunate.
“I came a long way. But if I knew then what I know now, when I came to college, I would’ve been a totally different beast,” Wall said. “Nothing has really changed with me. I’m just excited that I have a house now. Other than that, I still do the same things, just relax and be a humble person.”