John Wall knew he would be emotional during his induction into the University of Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame this weekend, so he came up with a plan.
He figured his mother would cry, he told the Wizards "Off the Bench" podcast before the ceremony. That's why he decided not to look at her during his remarks, so that he could stave off his own emotions.
"I told her I wouldn't cry, but it might get a little difficult tonight," he said Friday night, about midway through his induction speech, after he had already thanked coaches and teammates and friends and fans and the Wizards front office and the rest of his relatives.
Then he asked his mother, Frances Pulley, to stand up and be recognized. Immediately his plan went out the window.
"I just want to thank you," he began, looking toward his mother, before breaking down in tears. He rubbed his hand over his head, got on ovation from the crowd, and then spoke through the tears.
"I just wanted to say thank you for being my mom," he continued. "I know it [was] tough growing up with me and my two sisters, seeing my dad go to jail at a young age and you sacrificing everything."
Wall told the crowd that his mother would drive him 45 minutes to kindergarten, and then stay in the parking lot "because I could never stay in school more than 30 minutes; I would always get kicked out." He told the crowd that his mother would sometimes not pay the electricity bill so she would have money for his AAU basketball expenses. He told the crowd how he was a hardheaded teenager. And he told the crowd how she took basketball away from him as a 16-year-old, saying, "either you can go down the same road as your dad and your brothers, or you could be someone very special and change our family's life."
It was speech packed with more than a little emotion, and Wall's delivery reflected that. And it isn't the first time Wall has teared up while talking about his mom. When he signed a then-massive deal with the Wizards in 2013, he thanked his family, saying, "I was blessed to be a great basketball player, but my main thing was to keep striving to be a better person. That's one thing my mom always instilled in me," before getting emotional and eventually pausing.
Wall on Friday night became the first player from the John Calipari era to be inducted to Kentucky's hall of fame and the first one-and-done basketball player so honored. He became a first-team all-American at Kentucky, the National Player of the Year and the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, elevating the Wizards into a consistent playoff team and becoming the only player from the 2010 draft to stay with one team for eight seasons. He thanked Calipari at length, talking about how the coach stuck with him even when he got a breaking and entering charge as a high school senior in Raleigh.
"One of the first people that came down there in 24 hours was Coach Cal, and he said, 'Listen, you're coming to school; we're getting you away from here,' " Wall said. "And a lot of coaches would have ran from that. They wouldn't have believed in me. They would have gave up on me. And to see what I did and what I've accomplished and the person I have became, I couldn't thank nobody else."
He had started his speech with kind words for Calipari and with some thoughts on the unlikeliness of his climb.
"It's crazy. I never thought such an honor would happen to me. I still can't believe this is happening," Wall said. "I was a kid from Raleigh, North Carolina, a kid with many dreams, a kid who lost his dad at the age of 9, a kid with a bad attitude (or at least that's what I was told), a kid with a chip on his skinny shoulders, a kid who many called — and still call — a mama's boy. (But you know, I'm cool with that.) But most importantly, I was a kid that just loved to play basketball."
At the end of his speech, he returned to his mother, and he remained emotional while calling her "a strong, powerful woman, having that gritty attitude" that some people see in his own face.
"And I just want to thank you for being my mom," he concluded. "I wouldn't ask for nobody else in this world to be my mom. I hope whoever I marry, whoever's the mom to my kids, they can be just as strong as you … and just as powerful."
Before wrapping up, still fighting with his emotions, Wall took off his suit jacket, put on a tight Kentucky jersey and did his trademark dance.
He might not have followed his plan, but it didn't seem like anyone minded.