Washington Wizards welcome John Wall
Saturday, June 26, 2010
John Wall's welcome to the District was like a homecoming for a triumphant hero. The Washington Wizards asked the 19-year-old to resuscitate their moribund franchise by drafting him first overall on Thursday night. And when he arrived at Dulles International Airport, Wall was greeted with a Ford Excursion limousine and a police escort, which guided him directly to Verizon Center, where a black banner read: "WALL: Game Changer."
Several hundred fans, who had been waiting for at least two hours, crowded outside on Abe Pollin Way, and new owner Ted Leonsis was there to greet Wall with an enthusiastic hug. A stunned Wall looked around, amazed at his surroundings. Leonsis hugged Wall's mother, Frances Pulley, walked back to Wall and held up a jersey with Wall's name and "#1" on the back.
"A police escort," Leonsis told Wall as the two posed for a picture. "This is how we roll in D.C."
Wall then walked across a red carpet into the arena, under gold balloons shaped to spell "Wizards," while high-fiving fans wearing T-shirts with his name or image on them. It was an over-the-top welcome, which Pulley said trumped anything she experienced or saw at the basketball-crazed University of Kentucky.
"It was like the BET Awards or something," Wall said, shaking his head. "That was big time. All of that was a surprise to me. I never seen anything like that."
And it had only just begun. Aside from an affinity for shiny diamond earrings, Wall is a relatively simple kid from Raleigh, N.C., who prefers his hamburgers plain, with no mustard or ketchup. But on Friday, the Wizards hosted a celebration for Wall that gushed with praise and overflowed with hyberpole.
"Point guards are not made; they're delivered from heaven," Coach Flip Saunders said. "And I believe he was delivered from heaven."
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty was unable to attend the function because Wall arrived almost an hour later than expected, but he still proclaimed June 25 "John Wall Day." The Wizards showed a "Welcome to D.C." video that featured local celebrities and athletes, such as Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb, Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg and Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin. Strasburg and Ovechkin, who greeted Wall in Russian, both attempted to do Wall's famous jerky, arm-poked out, fist-rotating dance. Leonsis also took a stab at the dance, but Wall said he might need a little assistance. "He tried, but it seemed like he lost a step or two," Wall said.
The ceremony on Friday made it clear that the organization is reconstructing its reputation around Wall, not Gilbert Arenas, whose image once dominated a banner on the side of the arena before the three-time all-star pleaded guilty to a felony gun charge after bringing guns into the locker room.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld stated that they "don't want to put too much pressure on him right away" but also said he expects Wall to be around for the next "10, 12 years." The Wizards' previous No. 1 pick, Kwame Brown, also arrived as a 19-year-old phenom but lasted only four years. Brown certainly wasn't welcomed with such grandeur. In this instance, the Wizards believed such an event was warranted.
"I've had a lot of great point guards, but I think he's going to be the best," said Saunders, having already coached Chauncey Billups, Terrell Brandon, Sam Cassell and Stephon Marbury.
"This is an event city. Events are big here. And John Wall today, this is an event. And what we're hoping to have happen is that every time we play in this place it's an event."
When asked if Wall was being expected to handle too much at his age, Saunders used the example of two former teenage studs he coached in Minnesota, Kevin Garnett and Marbury. "I'll tell you what I told Garnett and I told Marbury. When you step on that court, there are two things no one asks you for, your ID and your paycheck. When you decide to come into the league at 19 or whatever, all the pressure and competitiveness it all comes with that," Saunders said. "And I think if you try to shelter them from that, you do them an injustice and maybe hurt their development."
Grunfeld said Wall has already proven that he can handle the pressure after a stellar freshman campaign at Kentucky. After watching and hearing several people fawning over him, Wall thanked the Wizards for drafting him and the fans for showing up to support him. He also said that he won't allow the hype surrounding him to affect how he approaches the game. "It's tough. You read about yourself a lot. You hear about yourself around the world," Wall said. "But coming from where I came from three years ago, I didn't have nothing. I was just known as a good player in North Carolina. So when I got on the court, I said I can play with anybody and I proved that. I feel you've got to stay humble and hungry because God can take it away from you at any time. If you stay humble and hungry, that's how you keep a level head."
Pulley dabbed her eyes with tissue as Wall praised her for helping him overcome a troubled past and raising him alone after his father died nearly 11 years ago. She said the day the Wizards planned for Wall exceeded her expectations.
When asked what could possibly top the festivities of his first day as a Wizard, Wall smiled and said, "I guess the president is next to say I got a day."