For Wall, Wizards roll out a red carpet
WASHINGTON -- John Wall was driven in an SUV-size limo to the Verizon Center, where he stepped onto a red carpet surrounded by scores of fans who cheered, craned their necks and did their best to snap photos of the Washington Wizards' No. 1 overall draft pick.
Once inside the arena, he learned that the mayor had proclaimed Friday as "John Wall Day" -- an honor Alex Ovechkin didn't get until winning a league MVP. Wall also watched a video that welcomed him to the nation's capital, with greetings from local sports stars Donovan McNabb, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman and Ovechkin, who spoke in Russian and did his own fist-rotating imitation of the John Wall Dance.
There were also posters and a massive banner outside the arena proclaiming Wall as a "game changer" -- complete with information for ordering tickets.
The Wizards, a team that needs all the positive vibes it can get, went about as over-the-top as they could to celebrate their new face of the franchise.
"To be on the red carpet, I felt like I was big time," Wall said. "I've never been on a red carpet before."
The hero's treatment came one day after Wall was chosen at the top of the NBA draft, instantly making him the great hope for a team that in recent months defined the word embarrassment. He's only 19 years old, but the Wizards made clear they're pinning more than a world's worth of expectations on the point guard from Kentucky.
"This city's different," coach Flip Saunders said. "This is an event city. Events are big here. And John Wall today, this is an event. And what we're hoping to have happen is that every time we play in this place it's an event."
But was it all a bit too much, especially for someone yet to put on an NBA uniform?
Wall, Saunders and team president Ernie Grunfeld all had essentially the same answer: It's nothing compared to Kentucky.
"We had a lot of people here," Saunders said. "At Kentucky, they would have opened up Rupp Arena and they would have had 20,000, so he's used to this type of situation. He's been through it so much it's not going to affect him at all."
The same arena used to be awash in Gilbert Arenas memorabilia, but nearly all of it was taken down when the three-time All Star pleaded guilty in court to bringing guns to the locker room and was suspended 50 games by the NBA last season. Arenas is still with the team -- under contract for four more years with a contract too rich to trade -- but the Wizards are rebuilding their team and reputation around the new kid.
"Point guards are not made -- they're delivered from heaven," Saunders said. "And I believe he was delivered from heaven."
One piece of memorabilia in the building caused a dilemma for Hall. Hanging above the practice court where he held his news conference was a replica of the retired No. 11 jersey worn by Elvin Hayes. Wall wore that number at Kentucky and wanted to keep it, but he needs to pick a new one because the Wizards aren't going to take Hayes down from the rafters.
"I'm going to decide on that today or maybe later on tomorrow," Wall said.
Otherwise, it was all sweetness and light. Grunfeld gushed about Wall as a player who will be with the team for "10 or 12 years," but added: "We're not going to put too much pressure on him." It hasn't even been 10 years since the Wizards last had a No. 1 overall pick, but Kwame Brown (2001) lasted only four seasons in Washington and didn't have anything close to this kind of welcoming party.
Amid all the manufactured hoopla of the day was a genuine heartfelt moment when Wall began talking about his mother, Frances Pulley, who was sitting on the front row. Hall's father died 11 years ago, and Pulley wiped away tears as Wall recited how she helped get her troubled son's act together.
"Sometimes she'd take me to school -- and this when I was getting into trouble -- she'd sit in the parking lot for an hour. There was no point in leaving because she knew I was going to be kicked out," Wall said. "She told me I was going to have to change my attitude. I could be a person that went down the wrong path, that could be dead today or in jail."
For Pulley, Friday's experience was more than she ever could have imagined.
"Very emotional," she said. "I'm so happy. I'm shocked. I didn't think it would be like this. It's overwhelming to see all this."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
MORE NBA HEADLINES
- Sources: Celtics, Mavs talking Rondo trade
- Gasol, Griz overcome Spurs in 3OT thriller
- Hawks send Cavaliers to 'embarrassing' loss
- Sources: Wolves put Brewer back on block