When you are in the presence of a real star, you know it from the very beginning. I remember the first time I met Barack Obama, in the Fall of 2003, while I worked in Washington DC. The then State Senator was in DC, meeting with potential staff for a United States Senate run in Illinois and he was interested in hiring a friend of mine. When he came to meet her for lunch, I met him and one could tell almost immediately that a star was in the room. The way he worked the room even then, showcased that he was headed for big things. I felt the exact same way the first time I interviewed John Wall in Lexington. From the moment he arrived in Big Blue Country, John Wall was a star. It is almost impossible to point out the exact quality that leads one to rise above the pack, but like Justice Powell with pornography, you know it when you see it. From the moment he came on the scene at Big Blue Madness, did the famous dance (how many people get a dance named after them anyway?) and drew scores of people everywhere he went, you knew Wall would make it big. And just like when Obama made his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and it was clear to the nation that he had arrived, the NBA Summer League made clear to me that Wall is a star unlike anything we have seen in Lexington.
For four days I watched basketball in a sweaty gym in Vegas, ignoring most of the party aspects of town and instead focusing on watching former college stars trying to make an NBA roster. For a basketball dork like me, it was heaven. All four days, I sat next to a guy who lived and breathed the NBA as we debated whether a player like Nik Caner-Medley or Sylven Landesburg could make the league. When the Kentucky guys played, I was glued to the game, watching Patrick Patterson sublty make the right decision on nearly every possession, seeing Eric Bledsoe’s unbelievable explosiveness and cheering as Demarcus Cousins totally dominated the paint every minute on the floor. For me, each game was entertaining and I loved every minute. But it was clear to even this observer, that the Vegas Summer League changed for John Wall.
When John Wall walked on the court, an audible buzz went through the arena and all eyes were focused on one player. His game drew a crowd unlike any other, not only filling the gym but bringing out NBA onlookers like Kevin McHale, Chris Webber, Mark Cuban, John Thompson, Mike D’antoni, Scott Skiles and numerous others. He hit the court and did his ritual (the pre-game windmill dunks) and drew audible oohs and aahs from those in the crowd not fortunate enough to see him do his work every game in Lexington. When his first game began, he was so clearly the best player on the court that he often tried to do too much, creating 8 turnovers in both of his first two efforts. But when he got the ball in the open court, his star power overtook any questions as to his ball handling. When he broke away to the basket with one player between him and the bucket, the entire gym stood up, hoping for the special play. It was a great sight to behold, in part because it was so reminiscent of what we saw so often in Lexington. Wall has a way to hold a crowd in the palm of his hand, and the Vegas experience showcased that he will do it in the NBA as well as he did in college.
When his first game was over and I got a chance to speak with him, Wall was his usual media savvy self. He “yes sir” and “no sir” every question and gave the media a chance to get what it wanted…an opportunity to talk to the future king. It was funny to watch him work a non-Tipton, Cutler, Dawson, Bromley crowd and instead see David Aldridge and the Washington Post beat writer melt with each word as well. Everyone who spoke with him said the same thing…”he is so mature”, “how composed”, “a pleasure to talk to.” Some criticized his games as needing turnover protection (and many blamed Calipari for not instilling it in college….always have to have a scapegoat I guess), but everyone realized his future was bright. The argument was not whether he would be good, but how good will he be, with arguments as to whether his upside was better than Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo the talk of the day.
For his two games I attended, Wall averaged 21 points and 9 assists, but in the long run, no one will remember either statistic. I will remember him thanking me for coming out to watch him and telling me as I left the gym, “tell the Kentucky fans they are the best and I wont forget them.” I was a little surprised that he took the time to say that, but then again I shouldnt have been. That is what stars do. Stars rise above a situation and control the room they are in, and Wall is clearly one of them. In his second game against the LA Clippers, loud fan in the stands named “Clipper Darrell” clearly took to the opportunity to taunt Wall throughout the game. He would chant “overrated” and “Wall cant ball” whenever John got the ball and he consistently made the crowd laugh. During one free throw, he yelled out “U-G-L-Y, You aint Got no Alibi, You Ugly!” to Wall, causing him to laugh and miss the free throw. But as the game wound down, Clipper Darrell stood up and said, “I take it back…you are the real deal.” Wall saluted him and the crowd cheered. For Clipper Darrell, the crowd in Vegas and those of us in the Big Blue Nation know the truth….Wall is the real deal and as was shown in Lexington and now confirmed in Las Vegas, John Wall is a star.