John Wall came in through the side door, and no one really noticed. No applause. No cheers. No one yelling his name.
How many times had Wall walked into the J.D. Lewis Multipurpose Center as a kid, when no one knew who he was – yet? Countless times. Too many to fathom. He grew up on these courts, became the most sought-after high-school player in the country, became the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. A banner with his name hangs from the gym ceiling, next to one honoring David West.
“I got all my nicknames here,” Wall said later.
Friday, Wall was back, the Washington Wizards star, and he walked into the gym off Garner Road the same way he once had long ago. Quietly. Without fanfare.
If the hundreds of grade-schoolers waiting in the bleachers on the other side of the curtains had known Wall had arrived, if he had entered on that side of the gym, the reaction would have been different. But although they knew he was coming, they didn’t know he was actually there until they were ushered around the curtain to receive one of the 300 backpacks Wall was giving away.
He was wearing the same “#2SQUAD” T-shirt they quickly pulled over their heads before meeting him, with his personal “JW” logo on the sleeve, and why not, since he once was one of these kids, with one major difference.
Wall was asked: Did anyone do anything like this for you when you were this age?
“No, not at all,” he said. “We didn’t have anything like this.”
Friday’s giveaway, followed by a clinic at Garner High School, was the second time Wall has done it: 300 of his eponymous Adidas backpacks for third- through eighth graders filled with school supplies, two T-shirts and lunch.
“It’s a big honor to have the opportunity to come back to Raleigh – born and raised, and I have a lot of family members and friends and support,” Wall said. “My main goal is not just to be put on this earth to be a basketball player but also help other lives out and the community, and that’s a big key to me.”
He’ll give away 300 more on Saturday in Washington, D.C. He’ll be the NBA star at that one. At this one, he’s still John Wall. There were as many parents who wanted to say hello as kids who could fracture their shyness to muster a conversation. (The littlest ones always got a high five, whether they wanted it or not.)
William Nixon was there with his 5-year-old son, Aydin. Nixon knows Wall through a cousin, enough to say hello. Aydin wasn’t particularly interested.
“Do you know who that is?” Nixon asked his son. “That’s John!”
Aydin eventually offered a palm for a reluctant five. The bookbag looked like a refrigerator on his tiny back.
There were photos with kids and photos with parents and photos with the volunteers who made the entire event run amazingly smoothly. Wall pulled ticket stubs from a box as his sisters gave away autographed shoes and hats and mini-balls to kids wearing their other free T-shirt, from Wall partner Sean John.
“I know they’re all probably excited to see me, but they don’t understand that it makes my day more exciting to see these kids,” Wall said. “It’s an opportunity for me to put a smile on their faces, for me to be a role model, and show the kids that I’m from here and you have the opportunity to do anything you want. All you have to do is dream and put in the hard work and believe in yourself.”
Meanwhile, the black tinted-window Suburban waited outside that same side door he entered so easily, ready to spirit Wall back into his life as basketball celebrity. As long as he was in the Lewis gym, he was merely at home.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947