RALEIGH John Wall grew up 10 seconds down Davie Street from Hunter Elementary School and he remembers running to the school to play when he was a little boy.
He was on the same playground Monday morning as the school welcomed 600 first- through fifth-graders to the first day of school with a field day starring Wall, former neighbor and current NBA star.
Wall later joked that the children had no idea who he was. Few, if any, knew his story. A great player who struggled through adolescence following the death of his father when he was 9 years old, Wall was the top-ranked basketball prospect in the country when he was a senior at Raleigh Word of God Academy and the first player taken in the 2010 NBA draft after one year at Kentucky.
Some of the children may know that Wall bought a new Raleigh home for his mother, but they did not know how hard it still is for him to put into words the love and respect he has for her. A new home and lifestyle are not nearly enough, he said.
He recalled Monday his mother working three and four jobs to keep the family afloat. Some days the only time he saw her was when she drove him to elementary school, first Briarcliff Elementary and later at Aversboro Road Elementary.
But as his athletic skills grew, she got him to every practice and always picked him up, even after the practices when his behavior got him kicked out early.
“There are no words to express what my mother has meant to me,” he said.
Wall’s mother, Frances Pulley, was with him Monday as he played with the children, who celebrated the first day of school with the field day and a new blue or gold T-shirt reading “boks rocks with John Wall.”
“The students might not know who John Wall is, but their parents do,” said Chad Oliver, a physical education teacher at the school who helped organize the various activity stations where Wall interacted with the children.
The playground was filled with children laughing and running. Their new shirts were bright against the grass and balloons added to the color.
At one station, the students shot baskets with Wall, who occasionally rose above them for an effortless dunk on the 9-foot-tall goal. He dribbled a blue rubber ball on a relay through bowling pins.
Throughout, Wall was encouraging, talking to the children, patting them on the head or the back.
Wall said he loves the boks (build our kids’ success) program that brought him to the field day. He says he sees himself in so many of the youngsters and remembers having so much energy that it was tough to sit in a classroom.
Wall, 21, said he regretted not doing better academically during his first two years of high school. He is proud, though, that he did better his junior and senior years and he did well academically at Kentucky.
“I fooled a lot of people,” he said.
Wall said he might be 40 when he does it, but he plans to take classes on the Kentucky campus and to graduate.
Wall had a chance to enter the NBA draft after his senior year at Word of God, but he wanted to go to college to fulfill a promise he made to his father. Wall was the first person in his family to go to college, but his sister Cierra is at UNC-Greensboro.
His NBA career with the Washington Wizards has dominated his past two years and he believes next season will be an important one for him and the team.
But Wall thinks beyond basketball. He wants to establish a foundation that would help people in his hometown and in Washington, D.C., and he is interested in learning more about business.
The kids didn’t know most of those things and maybe they didn’t care. But for one day, they brushed shoulders with one of the best basketball players on the planet.