One morning in Seattle, then-Washington men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar was touring a group of recruits around campus. He brought them to Markelle Fultz’s apartment and heard the smooth sound of Sam Cooke’s voice, singing a song released 34 years before Fultz was even born.
I was born by the river in a little tent …
He stopped and turned to the 18-year-old.
“I’m like, ‘What do you know about that, partner?’” Romar said.
But when he thought about it, the fact that Fultz loved oldies made perfect sense.
“He’s an old soul,” Romar said.
It’s a quality that has served Fultz well as he’s gone through the final stages of NBA draft season, vetted by the top three teams in this year’s draft — the 76ers, the Lakers and the Celtics. Three-and-a-half years ago, Fultz was a JV basketball player at DeMatha Catholic High in Maryland. On Thursday, he’s expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. Philadelphia has the first pick, having traded with the Boston Celtics to move up from third. The Lakers, who also had some interest in Fultz, will pick second.
“I think he’s really seeing his dream come true,” Romar, who was fired in March after 15 seasons at Washington, said of Fultz. “I just think he’s really, really excited. He’s having the time of his life right now. In a good way. Not because he’s out partying or anything. Basketball is everything to him.”
There might be only one person in the world who doesn’t consider it a foregone conclusion that Markelle Fultz will be the first pick in Thursday’s draft. Her name is Ebony Fultz and she is his mother.
She’s always been cautious in her thinking, and she’s always prepared her son to be ready for anything. Not until last year was she even sure that he would be a professional basketball player.
“Nothing’s guaranteed,” she said. “People think when the media comes out and says you’re one and done that’s just it. That’s not the case. You still have to prove something, you still have to work hard.”
Ebony Fultz has worked for the federal government for more than 20 years, and she didn’t raise her son to feel like he was one of the chosen few. Getting cut from varsity tryouts during his sophomore year of high school reinforced that. Fultz was still on the JV team when Washington noticed him.
Ebony urged him to choose a school he liked apart from basketball, just in case. When he chose Washington, she encouraged the cross-country move.
“Every kid says it’s not an issue until you take a flight from the East Coast to the West Coast and you realize how far you are away from mommy,” said Will Conroy, an assistant coach at Washington. “His mom wanted him out of there. She wanted him to grow up a little bit.”
Fultz liked being in college so much, sometimes his mind wandered to the fleeting thought of staying a little longer. He made friends who shared his love of old-school soul music.
He drove his remote-control toy car around his apartment in a UW dorm. He’d play left-handed pickup games against teammate David Crisp, just to prove he could. Conroy remembers him crying at practice when he learned an injury would keep him out of more games.
They reminded him there were bigger things in his future.
While the staff saw Fultz as a talented passer, they didn’t have many scorers on the team and needed that from him. Within the first 10 games of the season he’d scored 25 points or more five times.
“We knew he was special,” teammate Carlos Johnson said. “He took his game to a different level. I think he was more locked in. Obviously he wanted to be better than Lonzo. That made him lock in even more.”
When Lonzo Ball and UCLA visited Washington, Fultz scored 25 points, but the Huskies lost by 41. On the return trip to UCLA, Fultz was injured. Lakers coach Luke Walton was at the game, hoping to see a battle of the top two point guards in the draft.
Both players have piqued the Lakers’ interest leading up to the draft.
They had Fultz in for a workout last Thursday, the day before visiting Ball for a second private workout. At the time the Celtics still had the first overall pick. But all the parties involved knew there was a chance that would change.
Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, had never promised Fultz anything, and left the impression he felt a little more urgency to win now than a 19-year-old guard might afford him. After conversations with both the Lakers and the 76ers, the Celtics traded their pick to Philadelphia for the third pick and a future first-rounder.
All this jockeying for a guy who failed on his first attempt at playing varsity basketball in high school.
“He made a statement that he doesn’t have a problem with failure,” said Keith Williams, who has trained Fultz since he was seven years old. “Without failure you can’t have success. … He hasn’t changed his mind-set. He still looks at himself as an underdog. He’s not really an underdog, I can’t even buy that anymore.”
It’s his old-school mentality that keeps him thinking that way.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli