John Wall can pinpoint that epiphany, the very galvanizing moment in his life that wiped away the past, and made the future seem possible. Curled up and cramped in a two-door Mercedes on an 18-hour round trip trek to Chicago, Wall wore a tag he was trying desperately to shed as a rising high school junior for Word of God High School in Raleigh, N.C.
Wall was considered petulant. An all-world talent with a quick temper trigger that often got in the way of his potential.
Not too many coaches wanted to deal with him. Deep down to those that knew him, trusted him, believed in him, they knew Wall was a good kid encased by anger. But it caused him to stumble more often than succeed.
Something had to change, and the change was going to happen beginning with the Chicago car ride for a tryout to the Reebok All-American Camp the summer of 2007. He left Raleigh a skinny, wiry kid and returned as John Wall — budding basketball superstar.
That launched the 6-foot-4 point guard into being chosen first overall in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards after playing a year at the University of Kentucky. But it all started on the road to Chicago after Wall was bypassed by other camps and was looking for a place to forge his name.
"I won't forget it," recalled Wall, as he prepared to help possible future John Walls as a special guest of the Reebok Breakout Challenge at Philadelphia University in early July. "I remember going to Chicago that summer with a mindset to prove people wrong. I was considered the best player in North Carolina with an AAU team that didn't travel. But you can say I also came with some anger.
"My father died of cancer when I was 9 and I had a bad attitude. I'll admit it. I didn't trust no men. I'd talk back to coaches, people in authority. I got labeled an attitude problem, that's what I was. I got in the way of myself. I snapped on people in a flash. But the people in my life stuck by me, and this here, the Reebok Breakout Challenge changed it all for me."
Brian Clifton was one of those who stuck by him. Clifton, 36, ran the D-One Sports AAU team and was willing to venture into a zone where many tried to change Wall and failed. Clifton had known Wall since he played in middle school. He had known all of the stories whirling around Wall, how he was cut his sophomore year from the Broughton High School over attitude issues before transferring to Word of God.
"People don't realize how much John overcame," said Clifton, now Wall's business manager. "John overcame a tremendous amount of personal hardships. His talent was always undeniable, but John did get in his own way. He had a lot of anger when he was younger that he carried around. Through time, it's something he had to learn to channel. And with John, it was everything. When we got him, we tried to focus the negativity into positive things. Plus, John had to build trust in myself and my staff."
Brian Lee, head of Reebok Global Basketball, recalls seeing Wall perform at Philadelphia University in that 2007 summer. He recalls thinking "Wow"
and the smile that formed on his face, "because it's about giving kids like John Wall, those kids that fly under the radar, a chance to show what they can do. John had to drive 18 hours round-trip to even get an invitation to this camp. He took his week at this camp very seriously, and he was discovered here.
"John's really an example of what determination can do, especially with what John had been through at an early age, and all of the things he endured. That adds to John's story. It's why John has come here, because the next John Wall is out there. We're just looking to give him a chance."
A large factor in Wall's turnaround is his mother, Frances Pulley, who stuck with her son through many trials and tribulations. It was Pulley who opted to place Wall at Word of God, feeling a school with a religious foundation could fortify Wall's spiritual well being and begin to create character.
By the summer of 2007, after his sophomore year of high school, Wall was invited to the 2007 Reebok All-American Camp in Philadelphia. Wall distinguished himself from everyone else, scoring 28 points against a team that featured future lottery pick Brandon Jennings.
Wall started seeing the world much differently. The three jobs his mother juggled to keep a roof over his head and food on the table each night began to resonate with him. The times she'd pick him from school during lunch from one of her jobs is something he'll always remember.
"Seeing where I was just four years ago, and where I was going, and where I am makes me shake my head," Wall said. "Knowing and remembering what I've been through has always kept me hungry and working for all the things I have today. It's the reason why I'm here, talking to these kids. My message to them is never give up on your dreams, because I didn't give up on mine. Focus on what parents tell you and listen to them.
"I want to give these kids the same opportunity that I received. I plan on getting my college degree, too. It's a promise I gave my father that I plan on keeping."