In the odd, familiar, 12-year-old American motif known as the “one and done,” here’s a novelty: a potential “one and done” who went all the way across the land to a program outside of basketball royalty. He found a season that skidded to 9-20 on Wednesday night with an 11-game losing streak. He got a sore knee that has kept him out of four of the past six games and leaves him doubtful to play in Saturday’s regular season finale at Southern California.
And Markelle Fultz still might wind up looking back at the whole thing and calling it valuable.
He left last summer for a basketball trip and then for college all the way from Washington (the metropolitan area) to Washington (the state), hugged his mother and sister, passed through airport security, sat down, began sobbing, and did what any self-respecting 18-year-old would do: FaceTimed with his mother and sister as they began their fraught drive home.
He texted his mother from Chile during an under-18 basketball event soon thereafter, and told of looking out a bus window and understanding his rare fortune to have a chance at riches in a pursuit he loves — basketball — and that, too, made his mother cry as she noticed the fresh strand of maturity.
When he got a tattoo a few months ago, he got a doozy that took three hours to finish, a 27-word Martin Luther King Jr. passage that fit on his flat belly in seven lines and had to make a brief pause to account for his navel before resuming: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
The navel remains between “of” and “challenge.”
Fultz is that rare individual who did go all the way across the world’s third-largest country for college — from DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., to the University of Washington, that pretty corner of pretty Seattle. He is that rarer one whose prowess as a 6-foot-4, 195-pound point guard is both beautiful to see and happening amid a team that has won only twice since New Year’s. He is that still-rarer one sitting atop many of the umpteen 2017 NBA mock drafts as the favorite to become the second straight No. 1 pick (after LSU’s Ben Simmons) to play for a college basketball team that missed the NCAA tournament.
But, as quaint as it sounds, Fultz is also a stoic college student who has cooked chicken and waffles for his teammates and thinks seriously about, among other things, accounting. “Even if I’m not doing my own” accounting, he said, “I’ll be able to keep track just to make sure nobody’s ripping me off or robbing me or my family. That’s a big thing.” Per his mother’s entrenched instructions, whenever he spends money, he jots it down in a notebook or types it into his phone.
Per his mother’s further instructions, he tries to walk the world wisely. “I think knowing my surroundings, that’s a big thing,” he said. “Just wherever I go, if it doesn’t feel right, I need to get out of there. No matter if it’s food, or I go out to a party, or I’m doing something with someone, [maybe] going to a football game, she’s taught me to always pay attention to little things, how people are walking and looking at me and just how people look, period. I think I’ve done a good job of that.”
Lives move fast, and this one seems faster than fast, even given Fultz’s notable lack of bombast. Back in Maryland, Ebony Fultz feels as if she just got finished with helping Markelle prepare for the prom, or with leaving his bedroom door closed for three weeks after he left because mothers do that sometimes. Now this single mother has almost finished a season of occasional flights across the big country for games, a distance of which she said, “I think going away from home helps a person grow, but I don’t factor distance in,” except that, “I can’t run to the rescue. I can’t just hop in my car and go. … By the same token, he can’t just run home.”
Yet suddenly, after Washington’s 76-68 loss to Arizona on Feb. 18, a reporter in Seattle pointed out to Coach Lorenzo Romar that they all might have seen Fultz’s final home game (of 16).
“He is a guy that has taken school seriously all year and is still taking school seriously,” Romar said. “He is a guy that, as I’ve said many times, has not come in with a sense of entitlement, ‘You owe me.’ He has not come in with the attitude of, ‘I’m going to rent out your program for a little bit.’ He’s been totally invested. He’s been all in. And it was very, very disappointing for comments that I heard, that he was just going to lay down for the rest of the season because he’s worried about the NBA draft.”
Romar called Fultz “a servant to his teammates.” Associate head coach Raphael Chillious found him “almost like a kid from Seattle because of his level of being committed to this.”
As Romar has thudded through his 15th Washington season, his critics do not include the mother of his best player. “So many coaches treat these student-athletes like a product,” she said, still grateful that Romar insisted that Markelle return home when his great-grandmother died Dec. 22, and that he asked Ebony, “Do you want to set up grief counseling for him?”
These sentiments trace back to a fetching recruiting story. When the charismatic Chillious, a native of Olney, Md., arrived early for a DeMatha game three years ago, he spotted in the junior-varsity tilt a player with a rare basketball brain. “And just the way he moooooved,” Chillious said. “He looks like his knees are going one way, his feet are going the other, but it’s all connected, like watching a slow symphony.” Chillious phoned Romar from the stands. It went from there even as Fultz added both height and suitors, while a mother from one Washington began accumulating items with the purple-and-gold logo of another — even, as Chillious remembered, on napkins.
All the while, Ebony Fultz told her son, “You can go anywhere you want to go, but the thing I want you to think about is when you’re not on the court, who’s going to be there to support you?” Of those disgruntled with the team’s record, she said: “Those are people who only care about wins. They only care about wins so they can stand around the water cooler and brag. They only care about wins so they can go to Las Vegas and bet.”
The only college season her son might ever have has featured a team ranked 330th nationally in scoring defense and 290th in field goal defense, even as her son ranks sixth in points per game (23.2), 18th in assists (5.9) and has also contributed 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. It has been the kind of season in which people are left to say, as Fultz did after the loss to Arizona: “We’re right there. I think we’re getting ready for something big.”
Yet Fultz has not plunged into grimness, as if here could be a case of one season sputtering, but with meaning.
Some of it is there on Fultz’s gut. “I always wondered what a man meant,” he said of the tattoo, and the King quotation “was just one of those quotes that my Mom would speak to me about. I used to listen to Martin Luther King a lot, and I just live by that.”