HYATTSVILLE, Md. — Shortly after 7:35 p.m. Thursday, Markelle Fultz stood up after NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that the 76ers had taken the Washington point guard first in the NBA draft.
Fultz then embraced his mother, Ebony; older sister, Shauntese; his trainer/mentor/former AAU coach Keith Williams, and others seated at his table. Folks saw his grey suit with a purple and white plaid shirt and a purple, gold and white bow tie to signify his stint with the Huskies.
However, he could have easily acknowledged his experience at DeMatha Catholic High School.
On the surface, DeMatha is an athletically renowned, all-boys college-prep private school located on a 10-acre campus in Prince George’s County, Maryland. But to Fultz, the experiences he encountered at the school with the $16,995 tuition has helped him to become the first pick of the NBA draft.
“It’s almost like a college, really,” Fultz said. “You have to be accountable for everything you do in the classroom and on the court.
“So I’m just thankful for everything, the good and the bad that happened, because that taught me how to get through adversity.”
Looking back at it, he believes the adversity was one of the best things that happened to him.
Academic struggles as a freshman led to his continuing, often times, seven-days-a-week 6 a.m. tutoring sessions long after he needed them. His being cut from the Stags’ varsity basketball team as a sophomore gave him an edge and work ethic that propelled him to this moment.
This moment is actually bigger than what many people may realize.
In addition to becoming DeMatha’s 23rd graduate to be selected in the NBA draft, Fultz became the first player with ties to the county to go first overall. And he became the first Washington, D.C., area player to go first overall since Austin Carr in 1971.
Six other players — Victor Oladipo (2013), Michael Beasley (2008), Kevin Durant (2007), Danny Ferry (1989), Len Bias (1986) — from the county were taken second. Like Fultz, Oladipo and Ferry are DeMatha graduates.
“My goal was always to be the best to come out of the area,” Fultz said. “A lot of people doubted me when I was younger. Growing up I wasn’t always the best.
“To come out No.1 and be the first one to do it, I hope it’s a lot of motivation to people. I’m not going back to say, I proved you wrong. I hope it motivates people and younger kids that you can do anything that you put your mind to it.”
Fultz returned to DeMatha’s campus on Sunday, the day after working out for the Sixers. Spectators were inside the Morgan and Kathy Wootten Gymnasium to watch summer-league games. While in attendance, Fultz posed for pictures and shook hands from the moment he arrived.
The attention wasn’t just because he’s the headliner of the NBA draft. They adore him, for the most part, because he’s a walking inspiration to all of them. Fultz is an example to youth that hard work actually does get rewarded.
He didn’t have the basketball background typical of a DeMatha star player. DeMatha coach Mike Jones remembers meeting Fultz when he was a 7-year-old participating in the school’s annual summer camp.
“I can’t say that Markelle was dominating or anything like that when he was little,” Jones said. “But the one thing I do remember about him was that he loved basketball.”
Back then, Ebony had to basically drag her son out of the gym when it was time to go home. He would also ask her to drop him off at camp as early as possible in order to get in a certain number of shots before the other campers arrived. Then Fultz would rush through lunch in order to get more gym time.
“You could tell that he just loved to play,” Jones said. “He would come to as many sessions as he possibly could and that never wavered. He was never tired of doing it.”
Fultz enrolled at DeMatha as a freshman, although he wasn’t recruited as many star players are. And he wasn’t identified early on as someone who had a chance to add to the Stags’ legacy.
DeMatha’s rich basketball history dates back to the 1950s. The Stags were recognized by media polling as the nation’s best team in 1962, 1965, 1968, 1978, 1984 and 2006.
The team has also produced Basketball Hall of Famers in Adrian Dantley, who went on to an illustrious college and pro career, and coach Morgan Wootten, who compiled a 1,274-192 record and was coach for five of those top DeMatha teams. Dantley was the national high school player of the year in 1973. After starring at Notre Dame, Dantley went to become a six-time NBA all-star. He and Kenny Carr, another DeMatha product, were members of the 1976 Olympic gold medal team.
Ferry, a 1985 graduate, also was named the national high school player during his senior year.
The team’s laundry list of other notable alumni include former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook (a point guard on the basketball team), former Sixer and current Oklahoma City Thunder point forward Jerami Grant, Chicago Bulls point guard Jerian Grant, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, Washington Wizards assistant coach Sidney Lowe, and former 11-year NBA veteran Keith Bogans. In all, there have been 13 McDonald’s All-Americans to come through DeMatha.
Things looked bleak
As a ninth-grader, Fultz did not get a chance to try out for DeMatha’s varsity team. He did get the opportunity a year later but was cut. He was just 5-foot-9 and hadn’t grown yet into his big hands and feet.
“I was an idiot,” Jones says of cutting him. “I tell the story and I want to make sure everybody understands. If I had 10 coaches on my staff, eight of them agreed that Markelle should make the varsity team. One of them was the fence. And I was the one on the island by myself.”
After the disappointment, some in Fultz’s inner circle wanted him to transfer to another school. But he opted to stay, and Jones is still grateful for that.
“Through the grace of God, he didn’t leave,” said Jones, who has won 80 percent of his games through 15 seasons. “Whether it was him or his mom, whoever made that decision, I’m not totally clear on who said, ‘No we are going to stick it out,’ but I’m very happy that he did because my coaching career has gone a lot better.”
Fultz destroyed opponents on the junior varsity level, so the Stags had no choice but to bring him to varsity by the end of his sophomore year. And in that sophomore year, he caught the eye of Connecticut assistant coach Raphael Chillious, who had the same post at the University of Washington until three months ago when coach Lorenzo Romar and his staff were let go.
Chillious was in the area recruiting. So one day, he decided to scout talent in a DeMatha varsity game. As he often does, Chillious arrived at the gym an hour early to check things out and talk to people. The DeMatha junior varsity team was on the court playing.
“So I’m watching this 5-foot-9 kid with gigantic hands and long arms and big feet,” he said of Fultz.
He played every position that game. Fultz guarded the center, and scored in the post. He was making plays on the perimeter.
Chillious’ eyes widened. At halftime, he called Romar.
“I said, ‘Coach, you are going to call me crazy,’ ” he said, “ ‘but I’m watching a 5-foot-9 kid, and if he grows into his body, he will not be an NBA player. He will be an NBA All-Star.’ He was like, ‘What?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, Coach. I’m serious.’ ”
Later that season, one of Chillious’ close friends who was at the game with him called to ask if he remembered Fultz.
“I was like ‘Yeah,’ ” Chillious said. “He said, ‘He’s 6-4 now.’ I told Lorenzo, ‘Coach, I don’t care where else you plan on going. You’ve got to go to one of his games.’ ”
Chillious, who knew Keith Williams, talked to the trainer at the initial game about his interest in Fultz. He informed Williams that under NCAA rules they couldn’t call Fultz until June 15 of that year. But that didn’t stop Chillious from calling Williams and Jones to keep up with the young man.
“When that spring hit, we never missed a game of his,” he said.
Determination in the classroom
By that time, Joan Phelan, the co-director of DeMatha’s academic support staff, knew there was something unique about Fultz.
He was just as determined to improve his grades and he was to become an elite basketball player. Fultz would meet her for tutoring at DeMatha, usually at 6 a.m. almost every day, even on Saturdays and Sundays.
“It’s incredibly rare,” Phelan said of Fultz’s seven-day-a-week worth ethic. “It all kind of came from him. You know I would sometimes think that I had a weekend free. And I’d get a text from Markelle in the morning saying, ‘You got any time this afternoon? I really want to go over that math one more time.’ ”
And Fultz never thought about ending those tutoring sessions once his grades improved.
“What got me there was going to her,” said Fultz, who graduated with a 3.0 grade-point average. “She was faithful to me. It’s just something I like doing. Once you do it a lot, it becomes a routine.”
As a result, he saw himself getting more talented, academically. That was a thrill for him. It’s obvious that he didn’t just want to improve his grades to get a basketball scholarship. Fultz kept doing it because he was motivated to improve in the classroom.
“Actually, he was a pretty strong student even going into his senior year,” Phelan said of Fultz. “And he didn’t pull back from it at all. He wanted the Bs to B-pluses. He wanted those B-pluses to become A-minuses. He wanted the A-minuses to become As.”
For Fultz, those early-morning sessions were part of a routine and work ethic that his mother instilled. Often times, he would wake up at 5 a.m. Then Shauntese would drive him to meet Phelan at DeMatha on her way to Catholic University, where she was on her way to receiving a master’s degree in social work. After the study session, he would work on his game before the start of school.
“Even though you get an achievement in life, you still have to do what got you there,” Fultz said. “Something that got me there was the routine that I was on. So growing up, I stayed to the grind.”
When he wasn’t studying, Fultz was most likely somewhere working on his game with Williams.
While Chillious recognized his hard work ethic earlier than most, Fultz was elevated to national prospect thanks in large part to two games during his junior season.
The first one came against St. Louis-based Chaminade on Dec. 13, 2014 in the National High School Hoops Festival at DeMatha. Chaminade featured Jayson Tatum, who was selected third overall by Boston in Thursday’s draft.
But back during that Saturday night more than three years ago, there was a lot of excitement in the Stags gym. Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal was seated at midcourt to watch his alma mater take on DeMatha. Beal got an up-close view of Fultz taking over the game and sending his school back to Missouri with a loss. Fultz finished with 16 points and scored what turned out to be the game-winning points on two foul shots with 26.1 seconds remaining. Then his tough defense led to Tatum missing a shot at the buzzer.
A month later, DeMatha rolled to a 69-45 win over North Jersey’s Roselle Catholic in the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. Fultz finished with a game-high 25 points, 12 rebounds and close to 10 assists while outperforming Roselle’s Isaiah Briscoe. At the time, Briscoe was a 2015 McDonald’s All-American and regarded as the top point guard in his class. (The ex-Kentucky star will play in the summer league for the Sixers after signing as a free agent.)
“After that game and I won MVP, I felt different,” Fultz said. “I felt like I was doing stuff that other players couldn’t do. It just boosted my confidence up. I didn’t get cocky. It wasn’t about that.
“It was just a confidence booster. I kept working because I knew the results [were there], and I wanted the results to be way bigger.”
Shortly afterward, Fultz was being recruited by top college programs. However, Washington set itself apart from the other programs. It was the only school that hadn’t missed a single one of Fultz’s AAU or high school games since the spring of his sophomore year. Kentucky’s John Calipari pushed hard, but Fultz committed to Washington on Aug. 21, 2015.
But before he enrolled at Washington, Fultz became DeMatha’s most recent McDonald’s All-American. He was also regarded as the nation’s third-best college prospect in the Class of 2016 by Scout.com.
The young man that was cut as a sophomore also led the Stags to the national rankings and Maryland Private School state champions as a junior and senior.
“His brain, his imagination, is his best attribute,” Jones said. “Basketball is changing so much. Pick and roll is so important.
“Markelle can see things and do things with the basketball that a lot of people can’t even imagine doing.”
Folks at DeMatha will add that his will to win is his second-biggest asset. That’s why they take offense to those questioning Fultz’s desire and leadership qualities based on Washington’s 9-22 record last season. He missed six of the final eight games due to a sore right knee.
It was the sixth straight season that the Huskies failed to reach the NCAA tournament. However, a lot of this past season’s struggles had to do with losing two members of Washington’s 2015 freshman class in the 2016 NBA draft. Marquese Chriss was selected eighth overall to the Sacramento Kings and traded to the Phoenix Suns. Meanwhile, Dejounte Murray went 29th to the San Antonio Spurs.
They were expected to remain at Washington for at least another season to play with Fultz. Without those two, the Huskies were overmatched in just about every game.
“I consider [ESPN analyst] Seth Greenberg a friend of mine,” Jones said, “and I heard his criticism about Markelle and whether or not he’s a winner. I just think that’s crazy.”
Jones points out that Fultz has won at DeMatha, with his D.C. Blue Devils AAU team, and was MVP in leading the United States’ Under-18 squad to the FIBA Americas World Championships gold medal last summer in Chile.
“Are you kidding me? He is a winner,” Jones said. “You can’t take the six months he was at Washington and totally discredit the other how many years of what he did.
“So I just think that’s foolish.”
Great fit for the Sixers
Jones’ coaching obligations might make it hard for him to attend Sixers games at Wells Fargo Center next season.
But Phelan will surely catch a few. Over their three-plus years of tutoring sessions, they developed a close bond. She even traveled to Seattle this past season to watch two games. The Boston native and Celtics fan had mixed reactions to her team trading away the first pick to the Sixers instead of drafting him.
“Although Philly is not much better, Boston is a great place to play, but is a hard place to play,” she said. “I’m sure Philly’s the same way. We have great fans and they can be brutal fans.
“But Markelle is not someone they won’t fall in love with. They will fall in love with him.”
Fultz is a grinder. He’s a blue-collar type of person who happens to be a very good basketball player. Jones is confident young Sixers fans are going to look up to him because of the way he carries himself.
“He’ll have a choice on Friday or Saturday nights, will I go out and hang in a club or do I go work on my game?” Jones said. “I could never see Markelle choosing to hang out. He wants to go get in the gym.
“The hours that he puts in, those things aren’t going to change. So he’s going to be somebody the entire Philadelphia community will first of all be proud of and somebody they can embrace as one of their own.”