The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From No. 1 draft pick to basketball’s biggest enigma: No one knows what’s up with Markelle Fultz

Markelle Fultz is out indefinitely with thoracic outlet syndrome. But is there something larger going on? (Winslow Townson/Associated Press)

PHILADELPHIA — About an hour had passed after Markelle Fultz’s last appearance on an NBA court, and he had something to say.

It was Nov. 19, and Fultz had played just seven minutes. Several games earlier he had lost his spot in the Philadelphia 76ers' starting lineup, and during this victory over the Phoenix Suns, Fultz split the backup point guard minutes. For more than a year, his jump shot had been the subject of scrutiny: The gift that had lifted him to the top of the NBA draft mysteriously had developed a strange hitch, precipitating his tumble down the Sixers' playing rotation. His free throw shooting form was soon to be mocked by a Dallas Cowboys player during a Thanksgiving Day game. So that night at 10:40, Fultz blasted a message to the world.

“God got Me!” Fultz assured his 228,000 followers in a tweet with a praying hands emoji.

The message provided a brief window into a young man whose life has been cloaked in secrecy over the years since he rose from playing for the DC Blue Devils and DeMatha Catholic to the 2017 No. 1 overall NBA draft pick. Back in his D.C. days, fans called him “the silent assassin” for his steely and unflappable demeanor, but Fultz has struggled in his transition to the pros. On this night, the search for what’s troubling the once-pure shooter was taking yet another turn in a year full of them.

From the archives: Markelle Fultz never forgets

A day following the tweet, Fultz’s representative, Raymond Brothers, announced that the player would not participate in games or practices ahead of an appointment with a shoulder specialist. According to one person in the NBA, the news didn’t spread through the Sixers organization until after it hit Twitter. Last week, Fultz and his small inner circle were told his physical problem is thoracic outlet syndrome, a compression in the area separating the neck and chest.

With the support of the organization and his teammates, Fultz has started rehabilitation in Los Angeles with physical therapist Judy Seto. He is expected to miss at least a month.

“This is hard,” teammate Wilson Chandler said. “We’ve seen this a few times when players have injuries and you can’t find out what it is and you’ve got people saying it’s not an injury, it’s mental and it’s all these other things. But you know, everybody knows their own body. I’m glad he finally found something. Now he can be at peace with that at least and work to get back on the court.”

But some close to Fultz believe the problem is more than physical. In interviews, those who know Fultz — current and former teammates, NBA people and Washington-area supporters — describe a life burdened by a number of factors, from a restrictive inner circle to lost allies to outside criticism. Those who have peeked inside this world tell stories of those closest to Fultz going to extreme efforts to keep personal details confidential.

At the center is a 20-year-old who seems to be struggling to exert control over his own life and career.

A tight — maybe too tight? — circle

Keith Williams feels vindicated by Fultz’s diagnosis, but that doesn’t bring him any joy.

Williams, a prominent basketball trainer based in Maryland, mentored Fultz before anyone thought the lanky and clumsy kid could be an NBA player, much less a No. 1 overall pick. Fultz was once so ungraceful, Williams nicknamed him “Bambi.” The moniker was Fultz’s contact in Williams’s cellphone until the protege, who didn’t find it funny, made his coach come up with another one.

Williams taught Fultz the jump shot with which DeMatha, the University of Washington and eventually the 76ers fell in love. And Williams noticed a change in that jumper during the summer before Fultz reported to his first NBA minicamp. According to Williams, Fultz’s release point started at his chest, not above his head as usual. When Williams asked about the funky release, he said, Fultz told him, “It feels like somebody’s holding my arms down.”

As others started to dissect Fultz’s suddenly ugly shooting motion, a common narrative blamed Williams for altering the technique. Williams said he made only small efforts to dispute the claim because he didn’t want to expose Fultz to further scrutiny. Although the thoracic outlet syndrome diagnosis suggests the changes to Fultz’s shot resulted from a physical malady, Williams doesn’t celebrate the revelation. He feels for Fultz.

“He’s a sensitive young kid, and I think emotionally he went through so much,” Williams said.

Williams has been more than a coach, knowing Fultz since he was 7 years old via a relationship with the family and treating him like a son or nephew. In the lead-up to the draft, Williams served as Fultz’s representation, connecting him with sponsorships from such brands as Nike, Tissot and JBL. But as things started to derail, Fultz’s mother, Ebony, and Brothers took control of the player’s off-court life. Williams said he backed off to avoid conflict, but he believes the forced separation might have affected Fultz.

“Everybody mishandled all of his relationships,” said Williams, who still makes an effort to maintain contact with Markelle but no longer speaks to Ebony, once a close friend.

Williams did not wish to comment on Ebony’s role, but people with knowledge of the situation describe the mother as an imposing figure in her son’s life.

“My focus right now is on my son and him getting healthy,” Ebony said, not wishing to elaborate on the situation.

Ebony has long been known as an involved mother. A single parent, she did her best to provide for and protect Fultz and his older sister. Ebony attended some practices for his AAU teams and served as team mom. During one summer game with the under-15 DC Blue Devils, a bag belonging to one of Fultz’s teammates was stolen; by the next tournament, Ebony had purchased a bike lock with the intention of securing all the players' bags. But when Blue Devils coaches did not properly secure players' bags with the lock, a witness said, Ebony confronted the staff in the middle of a game.

The summer before Fultz’s senior year at DeMatha, Ebony did not take kindly to former AAU coach Corey McCrae chastising her son after McCrae had to drag Fultz out of bed ahead of a tournament game in Atlanta. According to a person familiar with the incident, Ebony cursed out McCrae, which several people believe caused the coach to return to Washington and quit the program. McCrae declined to comment for this story.

Fultz is now a professional on a four-year contract worth $33 million, but close associates said Ebony still goes to great lengths to shield him. During Fultz’s first season in Philadelphia, Ebony had cameras installed inside his New Jersey home, according to several people familiar with the setup who described the indoor surveillance as unusual. The cameras have since been removed. Multiple people said Ebony has asked some who have dealt with Fultz to sign nondisclosure agreements for reasons that are unclear to them.

“There’s definitely crazy [expletive] going on with the mom and how involved she is and how overprotective she is,” said a person with a close connection to Fultz. “The best possible situation is if the mom just backs off for a period of time and gives him a chance to breathe.”

Sixers front office officials declined to comment publicly for this story, as did Brothers. Ebony Fultz did not wish to address other people’s claims about her alleged over-involvement in her son’s life.

“I’m not concerned about what other people are saying. I’m concerned about my son’s health right now. That’s my No. 1 priority,” she said. “At this time, I don’t have a comment. We just found out what’s going on with my son, and I want to put all of my energy on him and what he needs, the support he needs right now to get healthy.”

’I know what it feels like'

A few hours before a recent Sixers game against the Washington Wizards, someone placed a scouting report on Fultz’s chair inside the Wells Fargo Arena home locker room. A gray, special edition 76ers jersey with his name stitched on the back hung in his stall. Two pairs of fresh-out-of-the-box Nikes were stacked neatly atop each other, and on the shelf sat a bottle of Degree spray deodorant. Fultz was nowhere to be found.

Instead of preparing to take on his hometown Wizards, he was heading to St. Louis in search of a specialist. The problem soon had a name, and Fultz will remain away as he tries to heal. Joel Embiid, who missed his first two NBA seasons because of injury before developing into an all-star and one of the league’s most dominant players, can relate to his young teammate.

“I went through the same thing, and I know what it feels like,” Embiid said. “I can see myself, and I know he’s going to put in the work and come back and prove them wrong — just like I did.”

Embiid, much like his teammate Chandler, did not want to comment deeply on Fultz’s personal life.

“I don’t talk about it. That’s none of my business,” the center said. “I just know that he’s a great person. He comes in every day, does his job and tries to make the team better. He’s a great guy. Everybody around loves him. I love him personally, but that’s his business. I don’t want to get into the whole family thing.”

While the Sixers pledge to support their player in his recovery process and are believed to have a relationship with Brothers and Fultz’s inner circle, the organization has been protective in its own way. According to people in the league, the Sixers have rejected multiple trade offers for Fultz. It’s not just that Philadelphia remains hopeful of getting Fultz on track to be a star in Philadelphia — much like prior top picks Ben Simmons and Embiid, who both missed their rookie seasons because of injuries. The Sixers have not received trade offers with what they believe to be equal value, a telling sign that indicates how other teams in the league view Fultz and the rocky start to his career.

After sending his Nov. 19 spiritual tweet, Fultz shared the responses from friends and former teammates. On Thanksgiving, Fultz also retweeted video of Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper imitating the peculiar method with which Fultz had begun shooting free throws. Since leaving the team, Fultz has interacted with followers mostly with retweets or single emoji. On Nov. 23, however, Fultz constructed an original tweet and shared a biblical scripture.

“A psalm of David,” the message read. “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit in the place of honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet.’ "

It was, as Fultz disappears from public view and even the discussion about his own career, the last time he spoke for himself.

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