The elevator outside the Acela Club at Verizon Center was full with family, almost a dozen relatives descending two floors for their front-row seats at the news conference they had driven five hours from Raleigh, N.C., to attend. Mom, grandma, aunties, sisters, cousins — all the kin who formed a protective cocoon around John Wall over his first 22 years.
All the kin, really, who plan to protect him for another 22 years or more, to make sure what happened to some of the men they loved never happens to him.
“He’s come a hell of a long way,” Frances Pulley said of her son. She looked at Tammy and Sharon, her sisters and John’s aunts, and Tonya, her eldest daughter whom Frances gave birth to at 18. “Hasn’t he come a long way since dealing with the time his father died?”
The women nodded. Yes, John had come a long way.
After several of the questions about basketball had been answered, what signing the third-largest contract in Washington Wizards history — at least $80 million over five years — meant for the team and its floor leader, Wall was asked about the support system that sat several feet away.
“Losing my dad at 9, it made my mom become something I don’t think a lot women could be,” he said. “Working three or four jobs. Just, I had to become a man quicker than I wanted to.
“My whole thing is I was put on this earth to be something, and 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, it doesn’t matter what nobody thinks about you as a basketball player, God is going to look at you as a person first. Aunts. Sisters. Grandmother. I’m pushing my younger . . . Words can’t even explain what . . . um . . .”
He tried to speak but couldn’t. The magnitude of the moment hit him. The tears came and wouldn’t stop. He bowed his head and cried some more as Ted Leonsis, the owner who began his latest Wizards rebuilding project with Wall and has yet to regret it, stepped in with a dignified comment about how genuine Wall’s relationship with his family is.
I could tell you Wall is one of just four players in NBA history alongside Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Chris Paul to average 16.9 points, 8.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals over his career, and I could make a case that there really is no open market in NBA free agency, just two dozen or so players whose value to their specific team happens to be enough to warrant an $80 million investment, and that this was a good one, long-term, for the Wizards.
But it wouldn’t explain how Wall ended up as a starting point guard in the NBA, whose future children — and their children — now will hopefully have to never worry about getting a good education; who pledged $1 million of his new deal to children’s charities in Washington, with Mayor Vincent Gray in attendance at the news conference.
His father, John Carroll Wall, was born in Washington. He died in 1999 of liver cancer on a family trip to White Lake, N.C., at the age of 52. The horror of his father hemorrhaging to death in the hotel bathtub still haunts him. The only time John Carroll was able to spend with his son between the ages of 2 and 8 were weekends because he had spent the majority of his final 30 years behind bars for robbery and second-degree murder.
Angry at the world for much of his childhood, Wall was raised by women who prayed he would find something other than violence to channel his aggression.
“Proud?” Frances Keith, his grandmother of 74 asks rhetorically after the news conference. From her wheelchair, the woman who called him “Jump-Jump” as a boy stares for a moment. Her looks tell you “proud” doesn’t begin to cover it.
She lost her husband young, too. Hillerd Keith, John’s grandfather, was just 35 when he was slain. “Man killed him over 10 dollars. He said Hillerd took it from him. After he shot him, he found the 10 dollars in his own pocket. He died for nothin’, right on my front porch.”
It’s part of the reason they all made sure John Wall lives for something. They cleaned homes and hotels to make ends meet. His mother drove a school bus and worked full time at a Days Inn as a maid, often forced to clean up the foulest stench imaginable.
She stopped working four years ago because of a brain aneurysm. But the rest of the family kept their jobs or stayed in school, ensuring they didn’t just wait for handouts from their millionaire NBA relative.
Wall recently made his first big purchase since becoming the Wizards’ No. 1 pick in 2010. He’s about to close on an eight-bedroom spread in Potomac, where several rooms already have been claimed.
“I got the nanny’s quarters,” Frances Pulley says, chuckling. “It’s got a refrigerator, stove, bathroom, everything. I won’t even have to leave.”
“It’s hers,” John says, nodding.
Asked if her son had a girlfriend or planned to marry at some point, Frances adds, protectively, “I’m the only wife he’s going to need for a while.”
The room began to clear out except for Wall’s family and a few reporters. He began to shadowbox with his sisters and then took pictures with his aunts, his mom and his siblings in front of the Wizards logo. He was asked what brought on the emotional moment on the dais.
“Trying not to look at my mom,” he began, “because she’s the most emotional person.
“It was like a breathtaking moment, seeing my mom and seeing everything she worked for. I mean, I do this because I love the game of basketball and I love playing it, but you also do it for her, as a single parent and what she had to do to raise us. And I feel I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity, especially to take care of her for the rest of her life and do other things in the community, like I said, and do other things for other people.”
You didn’t have to look at the numbers, or forecast a postseason in the Wizards’ future, to know the right decision was made in paying Wall to stay as long as he wants. No, the tears and the words were enough.
For more by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.