When the news broke that John Wall would be inducted into the University of Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame this year—the first of Coach Cal’s Cats to earn that honor—we were reminded of his poignant contribution to Wildcat Memories: Inside Stories from Kentucky Basketball Greats. For this book, author Doug Brunk interviewed some of the program’s greatest coaches and players and asked them reflect on the people who served as their mentors during their tenure as Wildcats.
The following is excerpted from Wall’s chapter in the book:
My mom, Frances Pulley, has always played an important role in my life. After my dad passed away when I was nine years old, she worked three or four jobs to make ends meet and to make sure that my sisters and I had a good life. She provided us with opportunities to reach our goals. There were times when Mom didn’t pay an electric bill so that I could compete in an Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament. She’s been one of the biggest influential figures in my life.
Kentucky is a special place to be and a special place to play basketball. The Wildcat fans are amazing, twenty-four thousand strong at all the home games. What sets the state apart from others is that the people there love basketball so much. There are no NBA teams, NFL teams, or Major League Baseball teams in the state, so there’s nothing bigger than UK basketball from a sports standpoint.
I had always liked UK, and I made a couple of recruiting visits to the campus when I was in high school. I was impressed by the fans and how they treated me as a recruit, but the biggest reason I signed with UK had to do with Coach John Calipari being hired as the head basketball coach. My goal was to be in a program where I felt comfortable and was able to have fun. When I first met Coach Cal he seemed more interested in me as a person than as a player. We spent most of our time talking about life, not basketball. That impressed me, because when you’re being recruited you don’t want to hear a coach beg you to death and talk to you only about basketball, because there’s more to life. Choosing the college program you want to play for is a big decision, and once you sign the letter of intent, you’ve given your commitment. Coach Cal made the decision to sign with UK easy for me. My mom trusted him right away, and he became a father figure to me.
The people who were most influential to me during my year at UK were the basketball coaching staff, my teammates, and Randall Cobb,¹ who played on the UK football team. I looked up to Randall as a star on the football field and for how he played multiple positions. He was real competitive and a class-act guy. I watched every game I could to see how he performed. Every time he touched the ball he was trying to make a fundamental play, not a heroic play. That impressed me.
My coaches at UK taught me ways to become a better leader not only to lead the team but to go out on the basketball court, have fun, and enjoy myself. I could talk to them about anything. If I was having a bad day or if I was down about something, they’d pick me up. They didn’t babysit me and my teammates, but they wanted to make sure we were doing the right things on and off the court. I related to Rod Strickland² in particular because he was a point guard during his college and NBA career. He taught me some moves and ways I could improve my game. In my book he was one of the best NBA point guards of his era, so it wasn’t hard for me to learn from a guy like that.
Another person influential to me was Reese Kemp,³ a boy from Nicholasville, Kentucky, who has cystic fibrosis and diabetes. I had the opportunity to meet Reese at Kentucky Children’s Hospital in 2009, and he’s been in my life ever since. He’s attended some Washington Wizards home games, and today I’m kind of like a big brother to him.
When I was given an opportunity to become the starting point guard for the Washington Wizards, I knew what would be expected of me thanks to the leadership lessons I learned at UK. That certainly helped me in my current role. I’m grateful that fans of the Big Blue Nation support me because I sure support them. Whenever I have the opportunity to see a game in Rupp Arena I travel back for that. I no longer wear a Kentucky uniform, but in September 2013 I returned to Rupp Arena with the Washington Wizards to compete against former Wildcats Anthony Davis and Darius Miller and the rest of the New Orleans Pelicans in an NBA preseason game. To be able to play on that court again was big-time special.
1. Randall Cobb was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft. He will also be inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017.
2. Rod Strickland was a member of John Calipari’s coaching staff from 2009 through the 2013–2014 campaign.
3. Reese Kemp is the founder of Reese’s Resources, Inc., a foundation aimed at raising awareness of cystic fibrosis.
Read more personal essays from Kentucky basketball legends including Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones, Dan Issel, Joe B. Hall, Kyle Macy, Darius Miller, and Tubby Smith in Wildcat Memories.