On one of the biggest nights of his life, Markelle Fultz is slouching and sleepy-eyed, his head buried in a hoodie and his mind someplace in the past.
An hour ago, he was in a Midtown Manhattan ballroom with Magic Johnson and Walt Frazier, wearing a bowtie as the Boston Celtics secured the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Now Fultz, a versatile and physically gifted point guard widely projected to be that top selection, is in a dark steakhouse near Rockefeller Center, his face glowing as he reads excited texts from his mother. “YES!” says a Bitmoji of Ebony Fultz in her green Celtics jersey. Across the table, Markelle’s private coach and mentor, Keith Williams, is talking about how Boston might contend for a championship sooner — though a different franchise would have offered the young guard a quicker path to superstardom. “I kind of wanted Philly,” Williams is saying, and indeed a month later, Markelle would visit the 76ers the same day Philadelphia finalized a blockbuster trade with the Celtics to acquire the No. 1 pick.
Surrounded by competing viewpoints, by no means a new phenomenon within the player’s tiny inner circle, he isn’t saying much as he waits on his $35 lobster tail. This is supposed to be a milestone night in Markelle’s young life, a time to take it all in, but instead this 19-year-old from Prince George’s County has a bone to pick. About a year ago, The Washington Post selected Anthony Cowan, not Fultz, as its All-Met Boys' Basketball Player of the Year. Nothing against Cowan, but 13 months later Markelle hasn’t let it go; instead of toasting in the booth overlooking West 48th Street, this is where his mind is.
“I hate to see myself cheated,” the former University of Washington star says. “At the end of the day, it’s politics.”
Markelle Fultz is on the verge of riches and fame; he is perhaps the piece that can finally turn around Philadelphia’s fortunes. And while former UCLA guard Lonzo Ball and his father have dominated headlines and stoked a growing rivalry, it is Markelle’s quiet ambition — the fuel for which can come from unusual places — that has him atop draft boards and on the cusp of becoming the first player from Washington, D.C., to go first overall since Austin Carr in 1971.
So with that in mind, a trivial media honor seems almost irrelevant. Then again …
“I should’ve won it twice in a row,” he is saying, still, as his dinner arrives. “I mean, it happens.”
It does, quite often, in his mind. To Fultz, he has succeeded for two reasons: his small but powerful support system and the many times he has been overlooked, cheated, marginalized, held back and kept in the shadows. Driven less by hubris than insecurity, he remembers coaches who cut him and players who once overshadowed him; when he goes online, he skips the mock drafts, which almost universally list him as the top pick, and instead occasionally searches his name on Twitter to read the barbed ramblings of strangers.
“A lot of people find slights in everything,” says Mike Jones, Fultz’s coach at DeMatha Catholic High School. “Some people are just built that way, and it seems like Markelle is.”
This night of the lottery drawing, a young star sits just after the latest of many crossroads moments. The three most important pieces of his life have, not for the first time, come together — Ebony’s thoughtful caution, Williams’s naked ambition and Markelle’s own reserved insecurity. And so he sits in the low light of the restaurant and joylessly manhandles a piece of shellfish, talking about the one thing he didn’t accomplish.
A dozen years ago, Ebony Fultz called a name from her past, unaware the man would help navigate her family’s future.
She had gone to high school with Keith Williams, a local basketball star who’d reached the outermost circles of the pro game, and now he was a private coach in Maryland. Ebony’s son was skinny and 7, filled with energy and so much passion for basketball it was as if he could never play enough.
Williams told her to bring him to the gym, though he promised only that Markelle could run and play, and at the end of each practice Williams was due $30. Ebony found the coach patient but his methods unusual: no water breaks and more bodywork than basketball drills. Williams saw Markelle as passionate but clumsy; on a toothpick body, his feet grew so fast Ebony bought new shoes every six months. The kid tripped so often Williams would joke to bystanders that a sniper must lurk in the rafters.
“It was a struggle for him,” Williams would say much later. “But in the end it was a struggle he enjoyed. He doesn’t have a problem failing.”
Markelle asked questions, took extra shots, seemed like he couldn’t play enough. Ebony dropped him off sometimes for two practices a day, but after a while those $30 sessions were turning into a hefty bill.
When she could no longer afford it, she called Williams. He said her son’s drive was rare, and he saw Markelle as an example for others. For a while, anyway, he’d do something he rarely did: He’d coach Ebony’s son for free.
Some years earlier, Ebony would see her father around town and smile when he made promises. He’d visit her soon, and when he did, he’d bring those new Timberlands Ebony wanted.
She’d wait, sometimes for weeks, with the wait often ending in heartbreak.
Another time, Ebony’s mother assured her she would be cared for; then there Ebony was, abruptly moving in with her grandmother. Ebony would wind up spending years there, learning to bake pies and roast a turkey. Over time, calluses formed and a guarded nature emerged.
If childhood taught her anything, it was that words weren’t worth much.
“You ain’t gonna do nothing!” Markelle’s older sister, Shauntese, was saying. “Not a doggone thing.”
In Ebony’s car, headed to a basketball tournament, Markelle was 10 and chirping. He hadn’t yet adopted his mother’s preference for actions over words.
The boy was an all-star and feeling good. His coach told him to have fun, so that’s what he’d do. Watch, he told his sister and mother, he’d win most valuable player and make the longest three-pointers either of them had seen.
Shauntese didn’t believe it. Neither, in truth, did Ebony. For the first time, Markelle had someone to prove wrong.
“This was my time,” Markelle would say much later.
He tried shots from the wing and from half-court, recalling lessons Williams had taught him after school. He kept trying absurdly long threes, and Shauntese kept watching them go in. Later she watched him haul his MVP award to the car.
“You remember that day?” Ebony says now.
“I remember,” Shauntese says.
“And they didn’t believe me.”
Markelle was a sophomore at DeMatha when Jones summoned him upstairs.
Varsity tryouts were finished, and Markelle seemed to like his chances. “I killed everybody,” he says now.
But when he reached Jones’s office, he was told he’d been cut. He needed more experience, and the junior varsity squad offered more opportunity.
“What did I do wrong?” Markelle would recall thinking.
More than a year earlier, Ebony told her son she was sending him to DeMatha to play basketball. NBA stars Adrian Dantley and Danny Ferry had played for the Stags, and Markelle believed he belonged. But in the back of her mind, Ebony saw pro basketball as a long shot; the prestigious school in Hyattsville would help him improve his ability to write college essays.
As a ninth grader, the NBA’s future No. 1 prospect was not allowed to try out for the varsity team. A year after that, he was cut. Jones now says Markelle was talented but uncoordinated, his body not yet having grown into those long arms and big feet; he still believes Markelle would’ve been buried behind more senior players.
Ebony blamed other factors.
“He’ll never tell you it was politics, but it was politics,” she says, making clear where Markelle inherited the defiance gene.
Regardless, Jones says his coaching staff argued about whether Markelle belonged on varsity, and it was Jones’s own decision to cut him.
“In hindsight, I’d say I was wrong,” Jones says, though he knows that admission will never be enough for Markelle.
Indeed, that day the young player began taking inventory of who stood on which side of history, the assistants who had sealed his fate and the players who would suit up for the team. Ebony would tell him everything happens for a reason.
As for Jones, Markelle had — and still has — a special place for him. “My goal from then on,” he says, “was to prove him wrong.”
So, then, it was settled: Markelle should transfer to another school. That’s what Williams argued; he wanted to be aggressive. Ebony’s instincts, as always, told her to be careful.
Almost immediately after being cut, Markelle had rededicated himself to on-court skills. At Williams’s instruction, he took 700 shots per day, spent hours swimming or boxing, committed to improving his footwork and vision and stretching the limits of his body.
Williams discovered a player motivated not by scholarships or riches but by revenge. So he used that.
He told Markelle he didn’t believe he could make that shot from halfcourt, lying on his back.
He declared Markelle could never get open on a pick-and-roll; that it was impossible to keep going, drill after drill, for hours. The young man kept trying to prove his coach wrong, and after a while, Williams — whose own forceful determination had been rewarded when he quit jobs selling shoes and delivering packages to coach young players, eventually working with such stars as Steve Francis and DeMarcus Cousins — began seeing not just a passionate athlete but a young star.
“He’s going to be a McDonald’s all-American,” Ebony would recall Williams telling her, though it was hard for her to see. “I’m like, ‘Well, how do you know?’ ”
Ebony liked her son’s progress, but removing him from DeMatha seemed a step too far. She saw a strong school with promising connections; Williams saw a place that was squashing a young man’s potential.
“If you’re a guy on the court, DeMatha is a good place to be,” Williams says. “If you don’t play, it’s one of the worst.”
Before Markelle’s junior year, a decision was looming; at this most important crossroads were the two most influential voices in his life, one of them urging vigor, the other restraint. One day Williams’s phone rang. Markelle was doing the simple thing: listening to his mother. He was staying at DeMatha.
For 20 seconds, Williams was silent.
“You alright with it?” Ebony asked, and Williams most certainly was not. Their $30 practice arrangement had stretched from days to years; he hadn’t accepted a payment from Ebony in more than a decade. Now this.
He calmed his anger, telling Ebony and Markelle he was willing to go with it.
In December 2014, Markelle stood at the foul line with 26.1 seconds to play.
At the National High School Hoops Festival at DeMatha, the marquee contest featured Markelle head-to-head against Jayson Tatum, one of the nation’s top-five recruits and the star of St. Louis-based Chaminade College Prep.
In the months prior, Markelle hadn’t just honed his on-court skills. He had undergone a growth spurt, his body filling out to 6-foot-4 — his arms reaching five inches more — and finally catching up with his unbalanced proportions. After recommitting to DeMatha, he spent a summer on the AAU circuit and emerged with a rare blend of speed, fundamentals and size.
Williams had spent years trying to get his protege on the national radar. With Markelle now a top-40 recruit fielding more than a dozen scholarship offers, Williams prioritized playing on his pupil’s psychology, calling recruiting writers to beg them to push Markelle down their lists.
“A kid like him,” Williams says, “he’s done well chasing. I didn’t know how he might do being the one that’s chased.”
On that chilly evening in Hyattsville, Jones assigned Markelle to guard Tatum. Writers and scouts were in the bleachers, and Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon and Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal, a Chaminade alumnus, sat courtside as Markelle outplayed Tatum and led a comeback that culminated in two free-throw attempts.
He made the first foul shot, then the second. Tatum ran the length of the court, but his game-winning try missed. Fans crowded Markelle on the court, and Turgeon — one of the DeMatha guard’s many suitors — approached with his arms outstretched.
Markelle left that night knowing that, in a little more than 26 seconds, his life had changed.
“Come in here for a minute, man,” Lorenzo Romar, at the time the University of Washington coach, told Markelle as he led him toward a sitting area.
In Seattle on an official recruiting visit, Markelle had joined the Huskies’ team at Romar’s home. As players surrounded the ping-pong table, the coach wanted to talk. Markelle told him it felt like home. But he needed to think, and more than that, he needed to talk with his support system on the other side of the country.
Months earlier, Ebony playfully punished her son by having him unload the mailbox each day, dozens of recruiting letters jammed into the slot. Virginia Tech sent a few dozen orange envelopes bound by a rubber band, each one containing a single word to be arranged into a message. Louisville sent a mock Sports Illustrated cover with Markelle wearing red and, much to his delight, bulging with muscles. Penn State sent a fake tweet in which Markelle was “blessed to announce that I have committed to Penn State University.”
The letters would eventually fill a 70-quart storage bin, basketball programs attempting anything to get Markelle’s attention.
Romar and Huskies assistant Raphael Chillious had broken through with something more basic. They remembered birthdays and special occasions; Romar called Ebony on Mother’s Day, and the coaches flew to Phoenix once just to watch Markelle and wave.
“Coach Romar was very smart,” DeMatha Coach Jones says, “because he knew who to really connect with. He connected with Markelle’s mother on a level that had way more to do with just basketball.”
But he quickly learned that decisions involving Markelle are a three-person operation. Romar talked basketball with Williams, reminding the coach of Washington’s history of elevating guards — Isaiah Thomas and Nate Robinson among them — into stars. Romar didn’t just get his players to the NBA; he prepared them for it.
Beyond gimmicks, the Huskies seemed to see what Williams did: a future pro who needed seasoning.
Markelle returned to Prince George’s County, and though recruiting services predicted he’d sign with a blue-blood program such as Kentucky or Arizona, Markelle’s tiny nucleus of influence decided his next home was a middling Pac-12 team more than 2,700 miles away.
A few days after Markelle’s visit, Romar’s phone rang. The young man on the other end said he’d made a decision.
In the final minutes of the first half of a meaningless February game, UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball caught the ball and drained a three-pointer. A few seconds later, Markelle did the same.
The blow-for-blow moment was meaningful for what it foretold, a glimpse at a rivalry that two months later has already taken root.
Markelle and Ball have plenty in common: both McDonald’s all-Americans, stars in the Pac-12 Conference, NBA-ready after one college season.
Maybe a few differences, too. The Ball family has its Big Baller Brand sneaker company; the closest thing to Fultz branding is Markelle’s basic black hat with “#F2G” — “Faith to the grind” — stitched in white. Ebony, whose son agreed this month to an endorsement deal with Nike, prefers it that way, always favoring actions to words. “I was raised to be respectful, cordial, not loud,” she says.
That seems the polar opposite of Ball’s ostentatious father, LaVar, and a family known as much for bluster as talent. Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN basketball analyst, believes that could be one of the differences in why Markelle is expected to go No. 1 instead of Ball.
“The game just comes easily to him,” Fraschilla says. “But how he’s been raised, who he’s played for — it all kind of fits together for him. He’s got the entire package of physical and mental attributes that make you think he’s going to be an NBA star.”
Markelle says he’s “cool” with Lonzo Ball, and if there’s any lingering criticism of Markelle it is that he is indeed too cool — so laid back and emotionless he can come off robotic.
“People think I’m not happy, but I’m always happy,” he says, pointing out he’s taken expressionless photos since his days with braces. “I’m saving my smile for a big day, and that day is coming up soon. All those people who say he’s not going to smile on draft day, that’s the day I’m going to have the biggest smile on my face.”
Regardless, he acknowledges that, at least to begin their careers, the two young guards will be tethered — a good thing, Markelle says, for the players and the league. Ebony, for her part, thinks LaVar Ball is funny sometimes; other days, he gets under her skin.
Similar as their sons are on the court, she sees them as yin and yang off it. “It’s just an upbringing kind of thing,” she says.
Now here he is in that New York steakhouse, revisiting old stories and important moments, turning finally toward the cities he may soon call home. Wherever that is, Ebony will move with her son.
Boston, Markelle says, has cold winters but not much colder than the Washington, D.C., area. Los Angeles has glitz but too much traffic, he says. Philadelphia is close to home, and as Williams points out it could make him an overnight star, but … “Let me stop him there,” Williams says. “If he went to Philly, he would’ve gotten fat, because all he’d want to do is — what’s the steak and cheese spot?”
“Larry’s,” Markelle says, and now seeing how the run-up to the NBA draft has played out, the coach at his side might have a new kind of weakness to confront. Williams, always the lead-footed driver of Markelle’s basketball career, says on this night that Boston might be, like the University of Washington, the best overall fit. But he can’t keep his mind from thinking about how, in Philadelphia, a humble guard with a blue-collar mentality might become an overnight sensation. “Philly is the quickest opportunity,” Williams says, “to become a star alone on a team.”
As midnight approaches, the bill is paid and the dishes — along with an empty lobster shell — are taken away. They rise and head for the exit.
“Now the real work begins,” Williams says as they push into the chilly New York air, and Markelle agrees. In his mind, this is no finish line or, really, even a time to celebrate. It’s just another crossroads moment — the Celtics a few weeks from becoming the latest group to pass him over — and an impending chance to prove he belongs.
"I’m gonna prove why I’m the No. 1 pick," he says. "I know there’s people out there saying, ‘There’s no way he should be the No. 1 pick. He was just on JV.’ "
He pauses, dwelling on this possibility more than any other.
"They’re saying something.”