Wall’s UK legacy lives on in incoming class

The Big Blue Nation remembers it like it was yesterday.

John Calipari was UK’s newly named head coach. John Wall – along with DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe – was has prime recruiting target. With no games on the schedule for another seven months, UK fans got their basketball fix by going to YouTube and doing some scouting of potential future Wildcats.

That’s when they found a mixtape. You know, that mixtape.

Eight years later, the video – published April 12, 2009 – has more than nine million views and is in the conversation for the best basketball mixtape of all time.

To hear the newest generation of Wildcat stars tell it, there’s not even an argument.

“His high-school mixtape?” Jemarl Baker said. “Oh my goodness. To me he has the best mixtape all time. Blocking shots, 360 layups, dunks. It was definitely crazy.”

Current Kentucky Wildcats like Jemarl Baker say John Wall’s high school mixtape is the best ever. (photo by Quinn Foster, UK Athletics)

For UK fans, there was something captivating about the mixtape. It created the possibility that, maybe for the first time ever, Kentucky could have the coolest player in the country. It reinforced their belief that their program was back where it belonged. For the group of freshmen UK fans will cheer on this season, it was captivating for another reason.

Put yourselves in their shoes back in 2009: You’re 9 or 10 years old and basketball is your life. You have dreams of dominating in high school, playing your way into a big-time scholarship and heading to the NBA. Every day you imagine yourself at the park or in the backyard pulling off the craziest moves.

Then there’s John Wall on your computer screen, doing everything you wish you could. It’s no wonder it stuck with them.

“We watched it and we just fell in love,” P.J. Washington said. “We fell in love with him and the program.”

Washington is one of eight members of UK’s freshman class for the 2017-18 season. Coach Cal gets the credit for landing his latest highly touted group, but it’s fitting that his first UK point guard ever gets an assist for making a first impression on nearly all of them.

“That’s the reason I fell in love with UK is John Wall,” Washington said. “When he first came here, when I was in like the fourth grade, he was doing his little dance and everything and I just fell in love with the program after that.”

Seven of UK’s eight freshmen named Wall as their favorite Wildcat of all time, with Anthony Davis getting Nick Richards’ vote and sharing the distinction with Wall for Jarred Vanderbilt. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander says he models his game after Wall. Quade Green first began following the program when he took a picture with Wall at UK .

Kentucky freshman forward PJ Washington fell in love with UK, in part, because of John Wall. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

Washington and Baker, however, were superfans of the 2009-10 team as a whole.

“They were just exciting,” Baker said. “Very exciting. For them to have him, DeMarcus and Bledsoe, all of the great players. Just the way they played. They ran, they threw no-look passes, they threw lobs. They had fun. It was just great to watch.”

Washington says he watched “at least 15 or 20” games that season. And just like the fans who will cheer him on this season, he still thinks about that Elite Eight loss to West Virginia.

“I remember how good Eric Bledsoe was, Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins,” Washington said. “I mean, John Wall just ran by everybody. It was great. I just wanted to be a part of it. I used to fantasize about being a Kentucky player.”

That dream has now come true.

“When I first got a text message from the University of Kentucky I was just shocked,” Washington said. “I was happy. They asked me if I was interested and I said definitely. I wanted to come here. I feel like I was always going to come here. It was a goal of mine. I’m just blessed to be here.”

The newest crop of Wildcats is a few months into their UK journey. So far, reality is matching the dream that started watching Wall wear the Blue and White.

“It’s actually everything I thought it was going to be,” Baker said. “Because I followed Kentucky basketball, like all of the top teams, for a long time. I know how they get treated and stuff like that, as far as fan support and stuff like that. So just for me, it was everything that I wanted.”

Wall, who was inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame in September, said he’s happy to give the new Wildcats advice anytime. (photo by Quinn Foster, UK Athletics)

The one thing Baker and his classmates likely didn’t even think to want was to belong to the same fraternity as Wall. Though Wall’s list of accomplishments is a little longer and now includes being named a UK Athletics Hall of Famer, the freshmen now automatically share a brotherhood with him.

“I have a lot of these guys’ numbers, and I always tell these guys, I’m a regular person just like y’all, I just have an opportunity to be at the highest level where you’re trying to reach; be a franchise guy for an NBA team, or just be an NBA player,” Wall said at his Hall of Fame induction in September. “But any type of advice they need of understanding what college basketball is about, what Coach Cal is all about, I try to tell these guys.”

Wall, you see, remembers more than the highlight-reel plays he made as a Wildcat. He remembers that things weren’t always easy, just as they won’t be for those following in his footsteps.

“I just like to teach these guys and tell them what they’re going to go through,” Wall said. “They’re going to go through adversity. Even though we started off winning so many games. You probably remember the conversation when I was like, ‘I’m not having fun right now.’ Coach Cal was like, ‘How you not having fun?’

“It wasn’t that I was worried about the team’s success, it was like, OK, I’m not playing well right now, was it too much pressure for me to deal with of trying to do this and do that and then try to lead a team at 18 years old, something I never had to deal with. That can get tough on people at times and it’s something that Coach Cal, my family and my friends and teammates I had helped keep me level-headed and keep me under control.”

Wall came to Kentucky a mixtape star and left having built relationships that will last a lifetime. That, more than anything else, is what he wants for these newest Wildcats.

“I think the most important thing is we all come back,” Wall said. “We don’t ever just be like, ‘Forget Kentucky. We just came to do this and leave.’ We come and we build a family here. It’s all a brotherhood.”