WASHINGTON — Markelle Fultz appeared to be in pain. The art that was permanently placed on his left calf is amazing, but the skin under the new tattoo was still red and tender.
If he had been asked about any pain, Fultz likely would have downplayed it. After all, like all his other tattoos, this one has special meaning. So the two hours of vibrations on his body Monday were worth it.
Fultz and close friend Kenneth “Tap” Tappin got matching tattoos to display what they’re about. Fultz’s mother, Ebony Fultz, and Keith Williams, his trainer, mentor, and father figure, are expected to get their own variations of the same tattoo soon.
On the outside of Fultz’s calf is “F2G” painted in the colors of Maryland’s state flag — gold and black, red and white. Underneath are Bible excerpts from the Book of James, Chapter 2, Verses 14-17. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? … Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
The F2G stands for Fultz’s motto: Faithful to the grind. Tappin picked out the Scripture. “I was like, ‘You can be faithful. But you still have to work. You can’t just pray about it,’ ” said Fultz, who was picked first overall by the 76ers in the NBA draft June 22.
Fultz wants to be faithful to the grind. That’s why he and Tappin met Williams at the Riggs La Salle Recreation Center Tuesday at noon to work out. It was the first of two hourlong workouts for that day during which Tappin served as a rebounder and defender, friend and motivator for Fultz.
Twenty minutes in, it’s obvious that Fultz’s tattoo truly represents what the 19-year-old is about. His Nike T-shirt is drenched with sweat as he completes high-intensity drill after drill without taking a break. This is five days after the Sixers made him the first player from Prince George County, Md., to be selected first overall in an NBA draft. It was two days before he was scheduled to participate in the Sixers’ summer-league training camp.
But, instead of taking a day to relax, Fultz was inside the gym with Williams, the person closest to him after his mother and sister, Shauntese. He is the coach who has trained Fultz since the player was 7. As with many family members or longtime friends, the relationship between Fultz and Williams hasn’t always been enjoyable.
“I hated” Williams, said Fultz. That’s how tough Williams’ workouts were. And it’s how they still are.
Hand on it
These days, the love between Fultz and Williams is obvious. They act like blood relatives. And no one who knows them would dare to say that they aren’t related. That’s because Williams is the protective father figure to one of the cornerstones of the Sixers franchise.
He was heavily involved in molding Fultz into the person he has become. Raymond Brothers is Fultz’s sports agent, but Williams has the personal influence. The 48-year-old knows the business side of basketball from his past relationships with NBA players and executives. But he’s also the one who finds the gyms and schedules the workouts for Fultz.
Williams and Ebony Fultz, classmates at Crossland High School in Temple Hills, Md., devised the blueprint a year ago that led to Fultz’s becoming the first pick in the draft. It was Williams’ decision to not hire a sports agent until the last couple of weeks leading up to the draft. It was Williams who helped Fultz secure endorsement deals with Nike, Tissot, JBL, and Samsung.
And it is Williams the outside world must contact when trying to connect with Fultz.
“Many years ago, his mom gave me permission — way before all of this — to move on his behalf, to mentor him, to help raise him,” Williams said. “Obviously, a single mom gives you that type of way with her kids, you’ve got to make sure you do the best for them.”
Williams pointed out that some 19-year-old NBA rookies are mature and savvy for their age. Fultz, he said, has focused only on playing basketball.
“In this business, it’s very difficult when you’ve got this type of kid,” Williams said. “So I want to protect him and nurture. In due time, he will be able to do all of this. Until then, I’m going to keep my hand on it.”
Dream was the NBA
Sixers fans may see Williams’ role with Fultz as similar to that of Gary Moore with Allen Iverson. In basketball circles in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, Williams was already known as one of the best players and trainers to come out of the area.
He began his high school career as a standout point guard at Crossland. He transferred to the now-defunct Macklin Catholic, then went back to Crossland. Williams did not excel in the classroom, so a lot of the area’s premier NCAA Division I programs passed him over. But Williams still went on to have a successful career at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. After college, he was one of the final players released by the 1990-91 New Jersey Nets preseason roster.
“That was the year that Kenny Anderson was the No. 1 pick,” Williams said. “Drazen Petrovic was on that team. Mookie Blaylock, Derrick Coleman, and Terry Mills.”
After that, Williams went on to play pro ball in the Philippines. But his dream was always to play in the NBA. So when that dream died,he looked for a way to give back to the community through basketball. Troy Weaver, a friend of Williams’ and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s assistant general manager, was in charge of the D.C. Assault’s AAU program.
“He would ask me how I would work out 30 kids, 20 kids at a time,” Williams said of Weaver. “I’d been at camps, saw it done. So I kind of shared it with him.”
That led to Williams’ working players out. Then Williams started training NBA players Jerrod Mustaf and Tony Massenburg. It grew from there. DeMarcus Cousins is perhaps the most well-known NBA player Williams influenced before Fultz. Cousins actually lived with Williams while preparing for the 2010 draft, and the two have remained close.
Williams has also had a hand in the development of, among others, Kevin Durant, former Villanova standout Dante Cunningham, Jarrett Jack, and Roy Hibbert.
“He had a lot of pros,” said Rick Goings, the head recreation specialist at Riggs. “But Markelle, he had since he was little.
“A lot of guys he worked with once they got to high school or college. But he’s been having Markelle since he was young. He’s masterful with what he does with him.”
A mother’s plan
Ebony Fultz reached out to Williams to train Fultz 12 years ago. The goal wasn’t to groom her son into an NBA player. She just wanted him to be able to do something that he loved. And she knew Williams taught players as young as 5 the fundamentals of basketball.
Ebony and Markelle found out quickly, however, that Williams’ training methods were unusual. There were no water breaks, and Fultz did more body work than basketball drills.
“I just loved it,” Fultz said. “It was hard, but I felt immediately that I wanted to come back for another one.”
So Ebony Fultz sat in the stands and watched her skinny and clumsy son during the workouts. He tripped so much that Williams joked that a sniper must be taking shots at him from the rafters. Despite some miscues, Fultz’s energy level was always at full blast, and he played with a rare passion.
“You knew he loved basketball,” Williams said. “He never would give up.”
As Fultz grew older, Williams incorporated Tappin and others into the workouts. Four years older than Fultz, Tappin had the job of making things rough for him. When they played one-on-one, Fultz remembered, no fouls were called.
Fultz was not allowed to complain. He had to play through all the hassle. To learn how to attack, he was not allowed to use his speed and skill to blow by Tappin and others for uncontested layups. He had to wait for the defender to get back into a defensive stance before he set up.
Things got so intense sometimes that Fultz and Williams did not speak after workouts. There were times, Fultz said, when he “hated” Williams. But he always came back to play again the next day.
“He just saw something in me that a lot of people didn’t see,” Fultz said. “I was nowhere near as good, and he invested in me. So I came to work out.”
Those investments included taking Fultz to all of the hot basketball venues where he would be forced to go head-to-head against elite competition. Those investments also included making sure that he was well-rounded on the court. He made sure that Fultz could score from three-point land, have a solid mid-range game, and go hard to the basket.
Those investments included making Fultz perfect his ballhandling skills and making him equally effective on or off the ball. That enabled him to switch from playing shooting guard to point guard in the 12th grade. He knew that Fultz’s draft stock would rise as a point guard.
Williams, however, wasn’t big on praising Fultz for his many standout performances. He preferred to focus on Fultz’s mistakes and challenge his toughness. That may be why Fultz wasn’t opposed to attempting a certain dunk 20 dunks in a row just to show he could do it.
Now, the challenges will only get tougher.
On Tuesday, Tappin challenged Fultz that he couldn’t put the ball between his own legs twice on his way to a dunk. Fultz did it with ease on the first attempt. Then Tappin teased that Fultz couldn’t put the ball between his own legs twice before a reverse dunk. Fultz did it with even more ease than the first challenge. Tappin chuckled with the knowledge that Fultz would continue to respond as long as Tappen kept challenging.
The days when Tappin got the best of the man he considers his younger brother are long gone. In fact, the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Fultz can jump over the 6-0 Tappin on his way to dunking on an eight-foot rim.
After this workout ends, Fultz, Tappen, and Williams talk about the new tattoos. Williams talks about getting the same one, minus the Bible verses, on one of his shoulders. Around 2 p.m., the three men pack up, head to the parking lot, and meet a fan who wants a photo with Fultz. Fultz complies.
In several hours, they will be back in the gym for a second workout. After that, Fultz will linger in the gym, maybe playing a game of horse or sitting in the stands with friends and listening to music.
“This is what I love to do,” Fultz said. “I’m having fun. This is all that matters. Other people like to go party and stuff. At the end of the day, that’s not fun to me. That’s the stuff that gets in the way of your task.
“My goal is way higher than going out to parties.”
His goal, of course, is to be faithful to the grind.