The elevator doors open to the 47th floor of the Times Square Sheraton in Midtown Manhattan, where two-time NBA All-Star John Wall steps on wearing a black letterman jacket, a red cap that reads "Wall Star," and large, dark sunglasses that do little to conceal his celebrity (much less his height) among today's basketball fans.
"You have until the second floor, homey," one of his half-dozen handlers says, as he nods his head toward Wall to silently explain that he isn't kidding. "Get to it."
But while many NBA stars will offer lazy platitudes about how they're a team player who always gives 110-percent and won't leave home without their American Express, you can't get to the heart of John Wall in just 45 floors. The NBA assist leader, and star point guard of the ascending Washington Wizards grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the son of a convicted murderer, John Sr., who went back to jail for robbing a convenience store just weeks after Wall's first birthday. He recently told ESPN that a lot of people say he's just like his father, but basketball gave him a different route.
Wall was known as "Crazy J" by his friends at the Raleigh Boys and Girls Club, who saw a talented kid acting out in anger over his father's incarceration, starting fights, swearing at teammates, and doing daredevil feats off the bleachers to get attention from his friends. But after Wall was sent home from basketball camp in the seventh grade due to attitude problems despite his blooming talent, after his own coach explained honestly that top schools wouldn't recruit him because he was an "ass," and after his mom lost power at her apartment so she could pay $200 to send Wall to an AAU tournament, he started to get it.
"The best advice I ever got was from my mom when I was 14 or 15," he says as we pass the 30th floor. "She was like, 'You can either be like your dad or your brother (who went to jail shortly after Wall's father died in 1999), or you can try to do the right thing and try to use basketball as your escape.' And that's what I did."
"Was that the moment you started taking the game seriously?" I ask.
"I was already taking basketball seriously. I knew what I wanted to do," Wall says. "But I think when she said that it just clicked in a little more. I have no idea where I'd be if I weren’t in the NBA – probably in jail or on the streets. I was just a bad kid growing up. I did everything you could think of."
"So do you count yourself lucky? Or was it hard work that got you here?" I question as we step off the elevator and start navigating a maze of flashing smartphones and young boys holding basketballs out for autographs.
"I wouldn't say I'm lucky," Wall finishes. "I think God has a plan. I think me dedicating myself to a goal and having a mom that talked to me and was honest with me helped me get to where I wanted to be. If people only know one thing about me, I want it to be that I'm a hardworking person. 'Never satisfied. So determined' is one of my favorite quotes I always use."
"And what does that mean to you?” But before Wall can answer, I'm stiff-armed by a man with a radio in his ear. I nod a silent request to follow Wall past the black rope, but get a silent no in the form of head shake. "I feel like I'm starring in a movie," Wall says to a friend as he disappears into the crowd. Nah, if you put that story on screen, no one would believe it.