Home court

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011

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 at UNC Greensboro. 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 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.

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