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For Wizards rookie John Wall, growth not limited to the basketball court

by Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 10:22 PM

John Wall and his friend Ty Williams studied the instructions on the back of the package, but they didn't trust them. Ten minutes couldn't be enough time to bake a whole batch of chocolate chip cookies, they thought; it has to be at least 20 or 25. So, they plopped them into the oven, went back to playing video games and waited.

Eventually, the odor from the kitchen became overwhelming and when they opened the oven door, a collection of crispy, black, inedible mounds awaited them. Wall didn't need it, but he got official confirmation: He cannot cook.

"They came out black - too black. We had to open up that door back there to get some air in here," Wall said with a laugh while playing video games with Williams one recent afternoon in his luxury three-bedroom apartment, blocks from Verizon Center. "One day I'm going to learn how to cook."

Williams shook his head and said, "That'll be a long time from now."

Baking cookies ranks pretty low on the list of priorities for Wall as he experiences his first real taste of independence in a city that's much different from his previous residences in North Carolina and Kentucky. Barely 20 years old, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's NBA draft is adjusting to his new life as the face of the Washington Wizards. He is dealing with the pressures of being the foundation of a team rebuilding project, of being a team captain while still trying to learn the NBA game, and going through the physical challenge of playing back-to-back games and fighting through injuries.

The problems posed by chasing the likes of NBA veterans Derrick Rose and Steve Nash around the court are unavoidable. But Wall has made every effort to simplify his life off the court.

When he hops into his SUV after practices or games and drives the short distance to his apartment, Wall can unwind. Here, the showman who announced his arrival to the NBA with flashy dance moves and electrifying play can settle into simply being "Jimmy," the nickname he's called by those closest to him. As he plays video games or watches movies on the flat-screen television in his bedroom, Wall is free of the weight of expectations and can take his mind away from worries over his sore left foot or aching knees.

Wall has gone from being a self-described "ashy" kid with cornrows who sold candy from his backpack in middle school to living the sweet life. He's in the first year of a rookie deal that is paying him $5.14 million this season and has a five-year, $25 million shoe contract with Reebok.

Yet, Wall still talks about remaining "humble and hungry." Attempting to avert the pitfalls that have sidetracked other NBA rookies, he has put together a tight support team that includes his agent, Dan Fegan, and his advisers, brothers Brian and Dwon Clifton.

He leans most heavily on his longtime friend and unofficial personal assistant, Williams, to help him through most of his day-to-day activities including getting to practice, games and the airport on time. His mother, Frances Pulley, drives to Washington about twice a month from her new home in Raleigh, N.C. - which Wall purchased a few weeks after the Wizards drafted him - to cook for him, do his laundry and provide some emotional support.

Wall initially asked his mother to live with him, but she felt it was best if he made the transition without her, realizing that Williams - Wall's "brother" since the two met in seventh grade - would likely be along for the ride.

"She wanted me to grow up and be a man, try to learn how to do things on my own," said Wall, who was just 9 when he lost his father, John Carroll Wall Sr., to liver cancer. "It's tough. She's trying to let me get my space, but I talk to her every day."

Pulley wanted to stay in North Carolina to be near her youngest daughter, Cierra, who is attending college there. But Pulley has been a regular presence at Verizon Center. She has also joined her son for road games in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Charlotte, among other places.

"I want her to be a part of it, because she had two to three jobs, sacrificing a lot," Wall said. "I always wanted the top-notch shoes, the Jordans, and she would always find a way to get it for me. Everything I basically do, I do for her. I got her a house, got her a car and she's satisfied. She never would ask for anything, but she did everything for me. I don't want to tour the White House until my mom can."

Wall spent a year away from home during his freshman year at Kentucky, but it was a much more sheltered and structured environment, with classes and practices dominating his schedule and most of his meals provided by the university. There, his teammates were heading back to the same athletic dormitories, rather than going their separate ways after practice, as it is now with the Wizards.

His mother drove 14 hours to Lexington to see a few games, but she is thankful that her son is now close enough that she can make the four-hour drive whenever she's needed. "That was a blessing right there," she said.

'I got to work on my diet'

On a recent afternoon, Pulley prepared some of Wall's favorite foods, which included shrimp, spaghetti, corn and sweet tea. To make sure he doesn't ingest a strictly junk food or fast food diet, Pulley usually cooks two or three meals when she visits.

The problem comes when mom's cooking runs out.

Wall opened his pantry door to display bags of Doritos and Funyuns and boxes of oatmeal cream pies, Honey Buns and Cinnamon Toast Crunch bars, which he sometimes packs with him on road trips. "I got all the snacks. All I do is eat snacks," Wall said, before revealing more junk food options in his freezer and refrigerator. "I don't eat vegetables. My mom got to make those."

Wall rubbed his stomach, "I weigh a lot more than when I got here. I got to work on my diet."

Wall said he has considered hiring a personal chef but for now, his mother has assumed that role. When she is not around, Wall and Williams can be spotted eating at Legal Seafood or getting takeout from P.F. Chang's.

Wall hasn't had much time to explore the sights of the nation's capital. He and Williams walked from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument when he was preparing for summer league, but he admittedly hasn't gotten too familiar with the area. When asked if he had visited Dupont Circle, Wall responded, "What's that?"

He essentially heads to Verizon Center for practice and back home, where he spends most afternoons playing Madden NFL 11 and NBA 2K11 with Williams. A few teammates have stopped by to play him, and his former Kentucky teammate DeMarcus Cousins came over when the Sacramento Kings visited last month. He sometimes plays friends, such as Los Angeles Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe, online.

As Wall and Williams played Madden recently they also had two computers resting in front of them, alternating their attention between the big-screen television and the laptops to check their Twitter accounts.

Wall considered moving into an apartment in Arlington, but he found a more convenient option close to Verizon Center, which allows him to get a few extra minutes of sleep. "I got to get there by 9 a.m. for treatment.," he explained. "I may get up at 8:40, 8:30, brush my teeth, wash my face all that, then I'll have five minutes to get to the gym and I'll be there. I don't have to deal with all the traffic. I didn't want to live too far."

He resides in a secure building; guests are required to sign in before being allowed to enter. Teammates Yi Jianlian, Al Thornton and Kevin Seraphin live in the same complex, where Wall said he has the largest apartment on the premises, feeling that he needed more space for when his mother visits.

"A house is better, in the future, down the road. Right now, I'm satisfied with this," Wall said as he showed off two walk-in closets and his personal bathroom, which has two showers, and another hallway closet filled with boxes of Reebok apparel.

The walls of his apartment are mostly barren, with the exception of a few framed pictures and magazine covers. Two paintings of Wall in his Wizards jersey flank the television in his living room.

Wall finds significance in the fact that he gets to play professionally in the birthplace of his late father. Pulley said she brought Wall to the District to visit his paternal grandmother at least twice before she died. Wall was an infant and has no recollection.

"I'm still always going to love Raleigh," he said. "But I like it here, because I can leave a great statement here, doing everything I can do and developing, somewhere where my dad was born and raised. God do it all for a reason."

Wall had never been to an NBA game before attending the Western Conference finals between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers last May. Now he can get to an NBA gym whenever he pleases.

"I never thought I'd be two minutes away from an NBA gym, so that's a great experience," he said. "Even if you take the money away, I'll play this sport until I can't play no more. But this is a great opportunity to have a chance to take care of my family and hopefully my kids down the road."

The company he keeps

Pulley said she is pleased that her son is a homebody. "He's not old enough to go out a lot, so that's a good thing," she said. "He don't do nothing but go to the arena and back home. I'm happy. I hope he don't get 21 and go crazy. Maybe he'll stay the same."

"I may go out once in a blue moon and have some fun with my teammates, but I try to keep aware of my surroundings, see who I'm interacting with," Wall said.

Wall did attend a party on New Year's Eve at Love nightclub and competed in a dance contest with R&B singer Chris Brown that became an Internet hit. But Wall said he has always been cautious of the people he allows around him, learning as a senior in high school - when he was charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering (a charge that was later dismissed) - that he has to be careful about the company he keeps.

He brought Williams along because the two clicked from the moment they met, after Williams moved to North Carolina from Connecticut.

"Having my brother around really helps me out, keeps me on track," Wall said.

Wall has a cleaning service come in once a week, and his mother is teaching him how to separate his whites from his darks so that he can start doing his own laundry.

"When we was back home, she did everything, every little thing," Williams said of Pulley. "Basically, because we're mamas' boys, so we didn't have to really do nothing back home. Here we got to do everything. We got to try to keep the house clean, do our laundry and all that stuff. . . . It's hard living by ourselves right now, because we're so young, but we're adapting to it. We're getting used to it."

Pulley is pleased with her son's progress.

.

"I feel he's doing a good job so far," she said. "He's got a lot more to learn."

Wall understands that he needs to become more responsible, which is why he purchased a puppy about two weeks ago. Williams named the boxer Jigga, and Wall could only chuckle as he described having a pet for the first time since he was a child.

"He's doing good, just running around the house, eat all the time, using the bathroom everywhere," Wall said. "It's a whole lot to deal with. I think I'm doing a good job."

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