John Wall and The Washington Post

I’ve been getting a lot of email asking me what I thought of Eric Prisbell’s piece about John Wall in The Washington Post. You can read it here (free registration to The Washington Post site required).

The story was written by Eric Prisbell, an award-winning sportswriter for The Post, and you can probably safely assume that this profile of Wall will probably add to that.

Here’s the problem some people who have written to me have with the story. Near the end, after discussing the profound impact Wall believes his experience with his father (who spent much of his life in prison) had on his own life, Prisbell questions Wall on how much he knew about his father’s life.

The passage:

After a sweltering workout in the gymnasium of his former high school last week, Wall sat on the first row of bleachers recounting his childhood. He hardly knew anything about his dad’s time in jail. He learned just this month that his parents got married in prison, after hearing relatives talking about the dress his mom wore. He still had no idea why his father was locked up.

Wall stretched out his legs, revealing his yet-unnamed personal line of Reebok sneakers, and leaned his elbows back on the second row, seemingly at ease.

“I think it was just for an altercation or something that happened,” Wall said, wiping sweat from his face. “I don’t really know. It was something that happened.”

The only record of what happened can be found in microfilm archives deep within a courthouse located just a half mile from where Wall lived on East Davie Street: On Sept. 30, 1991 — less than a month after his son’s first birthday — John Carroll Wall walked into a convenience store in Raleigh, removed one beer and continued to the checkout where clerk Cecil Ibegbu stood. Wall placed a $1 bill on the counter. He then removed a .22-caliber Ruger from the back of his jeans and pointed it at Ibegbu, demanding all the money in the register. He was convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon.

Sitting in the gym following his workout, Wall was told his father robbed a convenience store. He offered a slight nod and said, “Uh-huh.”

Before meeting his mother, Wall’s father had served three other sentences, one for armed robbery, another for possession of a firearm by a felon and a third for second-degree murder, after shooting a 26-year-old housewife in the head following an argument.

Sitting on the bleachers, Wall learned for the first time that his father had served prison time before he was born and that the crime was murder. He offered no affirmation and looked away for a moment.

“Ohhhh,” he said, dragging the sound for a second. “Oh, I didn’t even know. I didn’t know.”

He paused, but not for long. He took a quick glance at the basketball court — the place that helped him quickly rise to stardom in high school — before making eye contact again. He was calm, but his speech slowed.

“My mom never told me. I heard he had one robbery thing,” he said. “That is all I knew. I never knew anything about that other part. She would never tell me, she would not want to tell me or my sisters.”

Was he ever curious?

“I was not curious,” Wall said. “I was just happy to see my dad and talk to him.”

The gym was almost empty, except for a few of Wall’s mentors and friends chatting on the other side of the court following Wall’s 80-minute workout. Wall was asked why his dad’s past has done little to diminish his opinion of him.

“Well, because, for one thing, that’s my dad,” Wall answered without hesitation. “He brought me onto this earth and, like everybody, makes mistakes. Everyone is not going to be perfect. Sometimes people do some stuff because of certain situations they are in, or the people they are around. Or they might be drunk or something and just do it.

“Like I said, he still was there for me. . . . Probably if I were older, you would have been, ‘Forget him, he ain’t my daddy, he ain’t here for me, taking care of me.’ At a young age, you don’t know, you don’t care. You’re just happy to have somebody there that you can call your dad. And that’s the biggest thing.”

Wall has declined to get tattoos because of concerns over his image for marketing reasons, but he is considering getting one on his chest, considering it strongly enough that he has a specific design in mind. It would be of his dad’s face, with clouds surrounding, and the words “Forever Living On.”

It is, admittedly, a difficult way to find out the circumstances of your father’s imprisonment. And some UK fans think Prisbell somehow crossed a journalistic line.

Before I get to that, let me give you the circumstances of that interview, according to Prisbell. He had spent a week in Raleigh, getting to know Wall’s family. He had interviewed Wall’s mother in her home and spoken to other family members and acquaintances. He had interviewed Wall for an extended period before this particular interview after the workout. In fact, he had interviewed Wall a couple of times. They had, it would seem, built a bit of a rapport, and Wall certainly was engaging and thoughtful and introspective during those interviews.

Wall knew this was a “big-deal” kind of story. It was to be the most extensive profile of him and his life ever written. It was for The Washington Post, one of the nation’s top newspapers in the town where he is going to play professional basketball. He knew it was going to be a deep look at his life, as his agent did. And Wall, honestly, is the type of person who doesn’t mind to share himself in that way. It’s one of the reasons he’s such a well-liked player.

Here, in an interview with the website Bulletsforever.com, Prisbell gives his impression of Wall. The questions of Prisbell are asked by Mike Prada. Make sure to click on the full interview here. Prisbell also took part in a Q&A with readers of The Post, who were largely appreciative of the story. You can read that Q&A at this link.

John is a good guy. Polite, humble, mature. Those are the words that come to mind. You see him on TV and you see this glitzy persona, this swagger. But he is so much more than that. His recruitment was under scrutiny, but I think that was overblown. He has overcome a lot and deserves the success he has. I am as impressed with him as a person as I am with him as a player. Just has a lot of perspective for a 19-year-old.

MP: How were you able to get him to open up to you about the effect his father had on his life and all the obstacles he’s had to overcome?

EP: Well, we talked. With these stories, I just like to have a good, honest conversation with the individual about their feelings and how they worked through issues in their own mind. I shared some details about my rocky childhood with John because I wanted him to know, while all situations are different, I know what it is like to have a father who is absent and who has done bad things in the past. John was candid and blunt with me. It was a back-and
-forth discussion, never confrontational. I was not there to judge. I was there to understand

So it is against that backdrop that Prisbell’s questioning of Wall on his father came. And here is the thinking that led to it, again the questioning here is by Prada:

MP: I have to ask you the question you’ve probably heard a lot since Sunday: your decision to tell Wall about his father’s full criminal record. How specifically did this come up in your conversation with him? Was it something where he said he wanted to know? How did you try to phrase that part of the conversation so that you could try to be as fair to him and to your job as a journalist as possible?

EP: I wrestled with this issue for some time before I met with John. The first issue was IF I needed to include it and ask John about it. i didn’t know what he knew. If John’s dad didn’t matter to him, I think it’s a non-issue. But this is his driving force, his motivation. The memories of visiting his dad in prison are very strong in John’s mind. Because of that, I felt that the record needed to be included at least in brief. Then the question became HOW to handle it with John. I did not want to mention specifics, but I wanted to see what he knew. About 12 minutes into the conversation, I asked him about what he knew and he mentioned something about an altercation. I then told him that the first sentence was because of a robbery. He did not seem surprised, and nodded a little. There was no tension. He was relaxed. We were fine. I then told him that he was also in prison before John was born and that one was for murder. He seemed surprised, looked away for a second. But what stuck out to me, the important thing, was that this did not change his view of his dad, which speaks to the unconditional love. That’s one of the main points of the story. After that, we talked about whether he will ever be curious to learn more, etc., and then the conversation turned to what effect the death had on John and the fights, etc.

MP: As a follow-up, how did you internally decide to go ahead actually disclose that information to him? Why did you ultimately decide to go forward and tell him? What factors did you weigh in your head?

EP: To be honest, i wanted to write the most comprehensive story ever written on John. I wanted to be fair, thorough and detailed. When you do a 3,500-word profile of someone, and you write about their prime motivation and inspiration, you need to disclose why that person was in jail for most of the final 30 years of their life. I don’t think that is up for debate. If one wants to debate how I handled it, fine. But I do feel comfortable with how I handled it. I did not ambush anyone or blindside anyone. I didn’t mention court records, the victim’s name, any of that. I wanted to be sensitive and delicate and respectful. I was not comfortable with the situation I was in, but I feel I made the right decision.

MP: Finally, this is a bit of a journalist-y kind of question, but why did you and your editors decide to put the anecdote about his father’s criminal history being revealed at the end of the article? Also, looking back, how do you feel about the way that whole thing was presented in the article itself?

EP: I originally had it maybe in the second section or so in my first draft. But they wanted to drop it, and I think that was the wise move. Let’s not make too much of it. But we can’t ignore the fact that it is a powerful section and the reader will need some background, some context before getting to it. I think it was handled in the right way. And detailing the dialogue that took place was the right move, as well, I believe.

Here’s my thought on this. That was a tough way to for Wall to find out, yes. But not as tough as reading it in the pages of The Washington Post without a head’s up. Was it an ambush? Absolutely not. It was a one-on-one setting, not in a media group. It was a continuation of some prior longer conversations. Would I have done it that way? It’s quite possible. To be honest, I may have leaned toward broaching the subject first with Wall’s mother or aunt or somebody in the family, saying, “Look, this has to be part of the story. I have to go here. What’s the best way to do this?” The danger of doing that, of course, is that you might tick them off and never get to talk to Wall again. You hope people realize your situation.

In the end, I think everybody involved here handled the situation about as well as it could be handled.

My bottom line: if you’re a true journalist, sometimes you have to do difficult things. You have to make the phone call to the parent who has lost a child. You have to ask the question that you know the subject doesn’t want to hear. You have to report the thing that is unpopular. Prisbell didn’t walk in that day saying to himself, “I’m going to dump this on him and see how he responds.” He walked in wanting to get at who John Wall really is, and if his father is a huge part of that, then he needed to get at the heart of how Wall feels about his father. It would have been a whole lot easier had Wall already known what Prisbell revealed to him. You don’t want to be in that situation as a reporter. We report news. We don’t like to deliver that kind of news.

The intent of this story on Wall was to get at his humanity, at who he is. And it did its job.

And I think that’s the larger part of this that should not be missed. The story was one of the most moving profiles of a significant athlete I’ve seen in some time. It elevates Wall as a person. Anyone who sees an agenda to hurt or exploit Wall here, frankly, is working overtime to find a slight.

You might not like the method in this. But the final result paints a deep and unquestionably sympathetic picture of the player.

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