Correction to This Article
The article about former University of Kentucky basketball player John Wall, who is expected to be chosen by the Washington Wizards as the first pick in the NBA draft, incorrectly referred to Tonya Pulley as Wall's stepsister. She is his half sister.
Page 5 of 5   <      

Despite the angst that his father's jail stint and death created, John Wall reveres him

John Wall, likely to become a Washington Wizard with the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NBA draft, has already been on quite a journey. Wall's father was imprisoned for his formative years, and died of cancer when his son was 8, creating the angst that eventually fueled the younger Wall's drive.

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 felt 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 from 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."

'It just clicked one day'

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's 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 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 Kenucky 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 this past 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 his 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."

'He still was there'

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."

The only record of what happened can be found in microfilm archives deep within a courthouse located just a half mile from where Wall lived on East Davie Street: On Sept. 30, 1991 -- less than a month after his son's first birthday -- John Carroll Wall walked into a convenience store in Raleigh, removed one beer and 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 following 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, one for armed robbery, another for possession of a firearm by a felon and a third 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 -- the place that helped him quickly rise to stardom in high school -- 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 following 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 over 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."

Moving on

Last Sunday, 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 life 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.

Staff writer Michael Lee contributed to this report.

<                5

© 2010 The Washington Post Company