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For John Wall, NBA draft night is a perfect balance of past, future

By Sally Jenkins
Friday, June 25, 2010; D01

NEW YORK

An hour before his life changed, John Wall stood on stage in the empty Madison Square Garden theater and rehearsed the impending moment. He and the other projected NBA first-round picks posed for a photo op and received some last instructions. "Big smiles gentlemen," someone said. Wall obliged. He smoothed his palms over the new suit picked out by his mother, hunched his shoulders and straightened his sleeves. Then he checked his wristwatch, big and gleaming as a sundial.

A half hour before his life changed, Wall sat at a circular table in the waiting area, joined hands with his mother and his sisters, and bent his head to pray.

When the moment came, as staged as it was, it still packed an emotional wallop. A silly charade prevented the Washington Wizards from announcing their pick beforehand, and even sillier was the five minutes they spent "on the clock." Nevertheless, when Commissioner David Stern finally declared Wall the overall No. 1 draft choice, the 19-year-old former trouble child leaped to his feet as if electrified. He buttoned the suit-coat that Frances Pulley had chosen for him -- chocolate with pinstripes, and a striped tie of robins egg blue with blue handkerchief -- and leaned over and hugged her. He clapped a Wizards cap on his head and strode on to the big stage, misty-eyed. "You were waiting for this, weren't you?" Stern murmured to him.

That's when it all changed. You could feel the sudden acceleration as Wall power-walked into stardom. A security escort materialized out of nowhere and hustled him behind a velvet rope to the ESPN set. A blinding bank of TV cameras filmed him as he was ushered through the back halls of the Garden to a news conference. Fans stampeded after him, with a gathering intensity. A girl squealed. "Oh, I touched his hand!"

Whatever happens to Wall from now on, he will always have the undiluted joy of this night -- a night when he was perfectly balanced between past and future. The old struggle was over and everything ahead remained unwritten and undone. The longer march of his pro career would not start until tomorrow. There were no disappointments yet, no cynicism, he wasn't yet spoiled by success or embittered by personal failure. There was just a 19-year-old boy, hurrying to a magnificent manhood.

"I can't even -- words can't even explain right now," he said.

Strange as it may sound, there was a sense that Wall's draft night was as much the end of something as the beginning. It was, of course, the triumphant conclusion to a lousy childhood.

It was the compensation for years of growing up with his father doomed in prison, his mother working so many jobs that the only time he saw her was "taking me to school, and picked up in the afternoon, that was it. As a kid, 10 and 11 years old, you want to see your family, spend time, didn't really have it." It was a balm for the mutinous, angry years when no one could control him, until his mother sat him down and told him, "Change your attitude or you'll never be nothing."

If nothing else, the No. 1 pick affirmed Wall's ability to turn negatives into positives. It was final proof that he had channeled all of his old volatility into explosive ambition. It was a personal reversal as surprising as one of those explosive crossover moves of his on the court.

"As soon as somebody says something negative, I want to build off it," he says. "I don't let it get to my head."

That is among Wall's most promising characteristics -- and the thing that Wizards fans may come to appreciate about him. A franchise that won just 26 games can use a point guard and a leader who knows how to reverse fortunes.

But as much as we'd like to think the Wizards have done their due diligence, the fact is that 19-year-olds are inherently unpredictable. No top draft choice is a sure thing; if Wall comes with soaring promise, he also comes with some uncertainties, from his jump shot to his defense to his old demons. There are a lot of unanswered questions. Can he carry a franchise on such slim, young shoulders? Will he eclipse his lousy childhood with a responsible adulthood? Will his sudden wealth, a Reebok deal worth a reported $25 million over five years, his own shoe, and the highlight mix tapes make him self-satisfied and complacent?

Maturity is not a science. The Wizards can't really know how he will develop on the floor. But Wall seems pretty clear about the kind of person and player he would like to become. "I got the will to win," he said earlier this week. "I've got good character. I'm a winner off the court. I'll do anything I can for the team and in the community." He exhibits an interesting fear of failure, and a personal, interior accountability. "My biggest concern? Going there and being a bum. You don't want to be a draft pick that should have did something but never did nothing."

Perhaps most reassuring was the fact that, in the midst of the greatest evening of his young life, even as he stepped beyond the velvet rope and into his future, Wall exhibited gratitude. He kept saying thank you to everybody. "Thank you all for coming here," he said to no one in particular. Someone offered congratulations.

"Thank you for saying congratulations," he said.

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