We knew that John Wall was only going to be in Lexington one year. We knew he would almost certainly be a very good player. What we did not know is that he would find a way to make off with the hearts of every fan in the Big Blue Nation.
Hype. We heard it. We maybe even believed most of it. But for once, and that once comes along very rarely, the hype turned out not to be. Instead, the hype was just a premonition of reality.
When Wall came to Lexington, it was amongst much fanfare. Everyone had heard of him, everyone knew the stories about his breathtaking speed with the ball, his leaping ability, his great passing skills and astonishing ability to finish plays. We had heard the stories that he got into a bit of trouble as he was finishing his fifth year at Word of God Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was cited for trespassing for wandering through the open door of an empty house. Some had doubts about his ability and his character.
"Just another player using college as a temporary stopover to the NBA," the critics said. Just another one-and-done staining the reputation of the amateur game, hurting the academic reputation of whatever college he goes to. We heard all those things as well as the hype. They were all wrong.
The hallmark of true greatness is making the spectacular look ordinary. Tiger Woods, moral turpitude aside, is such a talent. Woods makes golf look so easy a child could do it. John Wall did that, too. He made the wickedest, ankle-breaking crossover look effortless, the one-man fast break look like a normal state of affairs, and the lane penetration and kick out the easiest thing in the world.
Wall made college basketball at its highest level look so easy that we began to take him for granted, some wondering if DeMarcus Cousins was actually better. Few realized it was Wall who contributed mightily to Cousins' rise, as well as the rise of Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton. There is no doubt that without Wall, the rest of UK's "one and dones" would not be as highly thought of after one year as they are now.
Wall made it look easy in the classroom, too. He famously came out of summer school with a 4.0 average, then backed that up with a 3.0 his first semester. Leadership? No problem for Wall. By the end of the year, he had long since taken over the team from junior Patrick Patterson and made it his, an extension of coach John Calipari's will on the floor.
Yesterday, when Wall announced his intention to leave Kentucky and go to the NBA, he did it again. No fumbling, bumbling news conference of three or four words per sentence, no sir. Wall dressed to impress, was eloquent and emotional when he announced his leave-taking, but did not descend into tears or other demonstrations. His feelings were clear on his face, from the touching way he described "crying" when he watched video of the Wildcats after the season to the determined vow to attend school every summer until he achieved his diploma.
John Wall made it clear that he did not want to leave what had become the greatest experience of his life -- college basketball at Kentucky. But he said he had matured a lot this year, and that maturity showed through in his decision to move on. He owes that to his mother and his family, and to himself. Education is extremely important, but in the world of athletics, there are times that formal education must wait a bit.
The legend of John Wall will remember his spectacular 94-foot sprint to a game-winning jump shot in his very first game at Kentucky that counted. It will remember his otherworldly one-man fast break against the North Carolina Tar Heels where he spotted two Heels 15 feet and blew past them like their feet were shod in lead, to finish thunderously with two hands while his would-be defenders looked helplessly on. That play will live forever in Kentucky lore, as it displayed an athletic talent that is hard to imagine, and that may not now exist even in the NBA.
Who can forget the game-winning block versus the Vanderbilt Commodores, a play requiring every element of determination and skill that can be measured in an athletic endeavor, as well as the intelligence and confidence to know he could pull it off without sending John Jenkins, a deadly shooter, to the line. Then, there was the remarkable mid-court steal versus the Connecticut Huskies, all the great passes Wall made to everyone on the team, and the one thing that was always constant -- the winning, happy smile of a young man who was doing what he loves, and living in the moment.
Perhaps no player at Kentucky has ever been less distracted by events surrounding him -- the hype, the reporters, the fans, the rigors of academics -- than John Wall. None of these things seemed to faze him in the least. He attacked every one of them with a quick smile and the single-minded determination that makes them look easy. Even Big Blue Madness was easy for Wall, where he first performed the John Wall Dance that quickly became a part of the Zeitgeist of college basketball.
I can't help but feel a pang of regret for all the future Wildcat fans that will not have been able to experience Wall's single season as it happened. Every game he seemed to do something ever more spectacular, either athletically or as a combination of skill and athleticism. Sure, we will all get to watch him in the NBA, but that is such a different game from college that it will rarely recall what we have witnessed this year.
But no one who saw John Wall play for Kentucky will ever forget him. If Patrick Patterson is the player who brought Kentucky back from irrelevance, Wall is the player who put the swagger back in Kentucky basketball, and he did it in such an unassuming, natural way that nobody ever once accused him of showboating or acting out.
Wall said at his press conference yesterday, "I hope (UK fans) remember me for the rest of my life." That's something, John, I can absolutely guarantee.
I won't let them forget.