Raphael Chillious was there to watch the varsity game.
The Washington Huskies assistant was in Maryland, his home state, to evaluate a recruit at a different school. But when he goes home, he tries to watch the best teams from the area, and powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School certainly qualified.
But since Chillious arrived at DeMatha’s gym in time for the junior varsity game, he figured he’d watch that one, too. Typically, Chillious arrives early to hang out and listen — “get my ear hustle on,” he says — but on this night, a player in the JV game demanded his attention.
The 5-foot-9 sophomore was guarding every position on the floor. He had huge hands. Huge feet. Long, gangly arms. The kind of body that Chillious, considering his many years as an evaluator, knew would grow taller in the coming years. And the kid’s instincts, he said, “were off the charts.”
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Chillious bugged out. He told his buddies with him at the game that if the kid continued to grow, he had the potential to be an NBA All-Star. They laughed at him.
At halftime, Chillious pulled out his phone and dialed UW coach Lorenzo Romar. He told him the same thing. Romar was a bit more receptive.
“When he is really excited about something he is usually right on,” Romar said. “He had a lot of conviction in his voice.”
The conviction only strengthened the following February, when a buddy phoned Chillious to tell him that 5-foot-9 kid was now 6-foot-4.
So it was that Washington began in earnest its pursuit of Markelle Fultz, the five-star McDonald’s All-American, the most coveted recruit to ever sign with the Huskies, the primary topic of any conversation concerning the 2016-17 UW basketball team.
He had offers from everyone: Kentucky, Louisville, Arizona, you name it. But the Upper Marlboro, Maryland, native made the decision to travel across the country to play for the Huskies, an unprecedented UW recruiting coup for a prospect of his caliber.
UW coaches were told by outsiders that it wouldn’t happen. Fultz had folks ask him why he would spurn college basketball’s bluebloods in favor of a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2011.
But to understand why the Huskies were able to sign this basketball prodigy, it must be understood that Fultz was never a prodigy at all. He was just a kid who wanted to play ball, and the Huskies had everything he ever wanted.
A young daredevil
Despite his growing profile as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Fultz rarely smiles. Not in photos, anyway. Polite, outgoing and approachable as he is, Fultz didn’t like his teeth when he was younger, so he got used to hiding them in front of cameras and during interviews.
But there is a broad grin as he motions to the scars covering his long, sinewy arms.
“I was a daredevil when I was younger,” the 18-year-old says. “I used to do crazy things, try to do backflips off monkey bars and stuff like that.”
The kid didn’t grow up playing video games. He had to be outside, had to be active. So he tells you about the alcohol bath his older sister, Shauntese, helped administer after a car backed into him as he rode his bike through their Maryland neighborhood. He had to crawl home. Got all cut up. Banged his head on the curb. Didn’t want to call his mom. Knew she’d freak out.
Ebony Fultz knew her son was fearless. It’s why she didn’t want him to play football (he did until seventh grade, when he quit to focus on basketball). It’s why she scolded him when he came tearing down the hill on his bicycle, standing up on the handlebars like his last name was Knievel. It’s why she had to take him to get stitches on his head three times in one year, first for a backyard football injury, then again when a classmate threw an action figure at his head.
“That third time,” Ebony says with a laugh, “they were about ready to call Child Protective Services on me.”
In other words: He was a boy. A normal boy, and not one who grew up being told he was the Lord’s gift to the sport of basketball.
A single mother, Ebony sometimes worked two jobs to support Markelle and Shauntese. She works full-time for the federal government, and picked up part-time work when she had to, always ensuring her kids had what they needed, and maybe “a little bit of what they wanted, too.”
They are a tight-knit family. Markelle considers his mom and sister to be his best friends. Each has a tattoo with the names of the other two within a symbol meaning “infinite love.” Ebony has already visited Seattle several times since her son moved here in the summer.
“I don’t know what I would do without her,” Markelle said. “I know that one day, she’s not going to be here, but I just try to take advantage of every time I get to see her, every time I get to talk to her.”
He has never met his father. He might like to some day, he said, but is unconcerned about it currently. Ebony, her own mother and Shauntese were the biggest influences in Markelle’s life as a child. As such, he seems to respect and revere women more than the average young man his age. He prefers gospel and R&B music, and names Beyoncé and Chrisette Michele as two of his favorite artists.
The most influential man in his life is his longtime trainer, Keith Williams, who is one of the reasons Fultz wound up at Washington.
Intangibles and savvy
Williams and Chillious go way back. They’ve known each other since they were teenagers. Williams played for Chillious’ cousin at Maryland-Eastern Shore. So it certainly did not hurt the Huskies that Williams, whom Markelle Fultz refers to as a father figure, had been training the kid since he was 7.
At first, Fultz would go home from Williams’ workouts and cry. He wasn’t good enough at basketball yet to enjoy them. But by the time he was 9 or 10, Fultz was asking Williams if he could work out twice in the same day, something that Williams had never seen before.
“That was a big turning point in how I saw him,” Williams said.
By the time he was 14, Williams said, he thought Fultz could be an NBA player. Both were disappointed when he only made the JV team as a sophomore — Williams more than Fultz, whose mother reminded him that everything happens for a reason — but Fultz said he approached that decision with a mind to “kill everybody that’s on that level, and prove that I can be on varsity.”
He did, and his recruitment took off. High Point was the first school to offer him a scholarship. A few other mid-majors followed. But Romar and Chillious, who made sure they were in attendance at every single one of Fultz’s AAU games, were the first coaches from a high-major program to tell him they wanted him.
They saw the way he moved on the basketball court, unorthodox but under control, the way he saw passing lanes that others didn’t, the kind of intangibles and savvy that can’t be taught. Chillious recalls watching an opponent taunt Fultz after a made basket, then watching Fultz ball his fists in a quiet rage before driving to the rim, packing a dunk on the dude’s head and glaring at him on his way back up the floor.
“People can ask, ‘What is he like?’ ” Chillious said. “I can name 20 people, or one person — him. Other than that, it’s hard to put him in a box, because he’s such a good basketball player. He’s a point guard who doesn’t need the ball to be effective.”
Williams was in UW’s corner. He told Ebony that Romar was a man of character, that he could look after Fultz the way she wanted. He told Fultz about Romar’s reputation for putting guards in the NBA. And Romar took a leap of faith, deciding not to recruit any other point guard in the 2016 class. The Huskies wanted Fultz to know they were all-in on him.
“He was never going to pull up a website and see that we’d offered four or five other point guards in that class,” Chillious said. “He was our priority.”
Such loyalty resonated with Fultz, who announced his commitment to Washington on live television in August 2015. He stopped answering phone calls from other schools a week prior.
His close friends, he said, didn’t need to ask why. They knew he was never drawn to flash or brand names. Others, though, had to wonder.
So he told them. He felt Romar cared about him on a personal level. UW’s coaches were loyal. They were there early. They never missed one of his games. He loved Seattle when he visited — they had dinner at Salty’s on Alki — and his mom felt she was sending her son to a program that would care for him.
Fultz says he isn’t worried about speculation regarding Romar’s job status. He isn’t worried, either, that UW might miss the NCAA Tournament for the sixth consecutive season. Humble as he is, Fultz burns with a confidence found only in the most competitive of athletes. He once told Chillious, as they watched a video of Kobe Bryant, that he would be better than him some day, then followed by saying that his goal is to be the best player of all time.
“And it wasn’t a cocky thing,” Chillious said. “He wants to do it in a humble way, not so he can walk around puffing his chest out, saying ‘I am the greatest.’ He wants to be the greatest. There’s a big difference there.”