Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Eric Prisbell’s story on John Wall – he did his job, and did it very well

There’s a fascinating story in Sunday’s Washington Post on John Wall, the Kentucky freshman guard who will be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft tomorrow night. Eric Prisbell, who does an excellent job covering college hoops for The Post, spent a week in Raleigh interviewing Wall, his mom, his old coaches and some of his friends. Since Wall is about to become the face of The Washington Wizards it was a natural story to do.

The story Eric wrote paints a shattering picture of Wall’s early life: his father was in jail almost from the time he was born until he died of cancer just prior to John’s ninth birthday. The only time John Wall saw his father outside of jail was the last month of his life when he was released from prison because his cancer was terminal.

After his father’s death, Wall became—by his own description—a very angry kid, constantly in trouble, thrown off basketball teams in spite of his talent, often benched, moving from school to school while his mother, raising three kids as a single parent worked multiple jobs.

Then came the intervention of a high school coach, an understanding of his own potential and, now, superstardom. It is a well-reported, well-written story. In return for a job well done, Prisbell is being criticized by a number of people for the story. Here’s why: During his research, Prisbell learned that John Wall Sr. had been to jail more than once and not just on the armed robbery charge that his son knew about. He had been convicted prior to his son’s birth of second degree murder for shooting a woman in the head. (Click here for Eric Prisbell's column)

John Wall Jr. was apparently unaware of this. His mother had never told him. He had never asked for more details about his dad’s incarceration—certainly understandable, especially given how young he was at the time. Prisbell and his editors had a choice to make: leave the detail about his dad committing murder out of the story completely or tell Wall about it before writing the story. Simply writing it without telling him wasn’t an option. Imagine how Wall might have felt picking up the newspaper or, worse, having someone say to him, “hey I read in The Washington Post your dad committed murder.”

I know there will be some people who see the notion of telling someone their father committed murder as cruel and un-necessary. But Wall’s father and his relationship with him and the way he behaved after his death were all a crucial part of the story. Leaving out the fact that he had been convicted of murder would be hiding a crucial—and once you know something and don’t reveal it you are hiding it—fact. What’s more, it was going to come out at some point. Prisbell may have been the first person to check the legal records, he would not have been the last. As Wall’s star continues to rise, there will be other long pieces written about him and his past and his father’s past will be part of those stories.

John Wall was going to find out about his father whether Prisbell told him or not. What’s more he did it as delicately as possible and, if you read the story, the revelation is near the bottom of a very long piece and is dealt with in about three paragraphs. It’s not as if there was a blaring headline that said, “No. 1 Pick’s Dad a Murderer.” If you think some outlets on the internet or among newspaper wouldn’t have handled it that way, think again.

Prisbell is uncomfortable being part of the story, which is understandable. There are also some dopes out there who are somehow connecting the reporting he did here to the reporting he and Steve Yanda did 16 months ago on the Maryland basketball program. Then, with all sorts of (accurate) rumors floating that Athletic Director Debbie Yow was trying to find a way to ease Gary Williams out of his job after 20 years, Prisbell and Yanda did a three part series on Maryland basketball. The single most important thing that they reported in detail was this: Gary Williams had steadfastly refused to get down in the mud with coaches in the slimy world of AAU basketball and that had cost him some superstar players. He had also refused to be blackmailed into giving one star player’s “trainer,” a job and had decided, after wrestling with it for a long time, not to recruit a star player who had a criminal record.

Although Gary got bent out of shape about the series and Maryland fans tried to make Prisbell and Yanda into the bad guys in the scenario, the fact is that the series HELPED Maryland by giving a clear picture of why the program had slid from its peak in 2001 and 2002 when it reached back-to-back Final Fours. Some fool called a local radio show yesterday claiming The Post had to run a ‘correction,’ after the series ran which was simply wrong. Prisbell is a very good reporter who I’ve been fortunate to work with for nine years now. He was dealing with a very tough story once he found out about Wall’s dad and he handled it as well as it could be handled. The notion that he could have just walked away from what he found is ludicrous.

I’ve become part of the story myself on more than one occasion. The two that were most significant were entirely different. One was on a series I wrote along with another Post reporter, Gene Meyer, while I was covering cops and courts. It involved a group of police officers in Prince George’s County who had set-up black teen-agers in the 1960s to be killed. They became known as, “The Death Squad,” and when Gene and I got a number of people—including one of the cops involved—on the record we had to go to the other cops involved, one of whom had risen to No. 2 in the police department, to hear their side of the story.

Since I had been the initiator of the story—having stumbled into the phrase, ‘Death Squad,’ while working on another story—the cops involved HATED me for asking the questions we were asking. One threatened to kill me—on tape—in the middle of an interview. Was I shaken up? No, not a bit. And if you believe that you believe in The Easter Bunny too.

The other time was quite different: When ‘A Season on the Brink,’ came out Bob Knight insisted I had promised him I’d leave his profanity out of the book. At first I thought he was joking when he said it because who in the world didn’t know Knight used profanity? But he was serious and I had to spend a lot of time explaining that I had told Knight that writing a book about him without profanity would be like writing a book about him without the word basketball. I loved the way the book sold; I hated having my integrity questioned knowing that some people would automatically believe Knight.

No one should question Eric Prisbell on this story. He did his job. And he did it very well.


John recently appeared on The Jim Rome Show ( to discuss 'Moment of Glory.' Click here to download, or listen in the player below:

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases


Anonymous said...

Good column - it has to be a tough call sometimes for the media when they uncover some damning news, and they weren't even really looking for it. There was no good reason not to go with the revelation, and seems to be the honorable thing to discuss with Wall before it went national.

I hadn't read about this - may have to go back to see what the others have said.

Tim said...

Hopefully Wall is as good as advertised......DC needs another great team. Now, only if we could get Arenas out of here?

Mr. X said...

Mahut/Isner 55 all in the 5th set. This is insane. I say make 'em switch to wooden rackets at this point.

Rick Krebs said...

Definitely a Pulitzer for Eric Prisbell. Been a while for the sports department at the Post ? I read blogs and columns for opinions and you have never failed to deliver.

Anonymous said...

Yanda and Prisbell did a 3-piecer bashing Gary and his program that had the tone of a freakin eulogy. I know Eric and he's a nice guy but what he and his sidekick did amounts to "incomplete" reporting.

The most glaring example was picking out isolated examples (Deron Williams, etc.) of Gary's recruiting/evaluation misses and magnifying them. Taking that approach is a joke and reflects a lack of understanding of the world of college basketball/college basketball evaluating.

Every single coach at every single level "misses" on dozens every period. Eric and the sidekick were playing Monday Morning QB and disguising it as an expose.