Eric Prisbell's Father's Day story on John Wall's relationship with his dad while he was in prison during his formative years was as much of an award-winning piece of journalism as I've ever read. It was a story that took nearly a month of hard work, and that showed in the final result. It was a truly remarkable profile, one that hit me personally for reasons I'll probably discuss at some point this summer. These were all things I wanted to talk about with Eric.
In addition to all that, though, there was one particularly controversial part of the story where Prisbell informed Wall for the first time that his father had previously murdered another man. I've had so many conversations over the past couple days with people about that part of the story, so I can only imagine how many Prisbell himself has had. It's among the most difficult ethical dilemmas a reporter will ever have to face, and I'm honestly not sure how I could have handled it myself. So, in addition to hearing Prisbell's thoughts on the story itself, I wanted to hear how he decided to go ahead and inform Wall about his father's record.
I exchanged some e-mails with Prisbell earlier today, and here's the result of the conversation, printed with permission of course. Thanks again to Eric for being so kind to respond.
Mike Prada: First off, how did this whole story originate, and how long have you and Michael [Lee] been working on getting it published?
Eric Prisbell: I finished an ice cream on the evening of June 6, and I have been working on the story for most of my waking moments ever since. I can't remember when it was assigned to me. But I recall Michael Lee telling me that he spent some time with John in LA and that John almost casually mentioned that his dad was in jail. I knew what his dad meant to him and knew that relationship would be a critical part of the story. I didn't know it would be the whole story. I also didn't know the criminal record at the time or if I could even find it out or if I needed to find it out.
MP: Before this story, it seemed like Wall himself had been painted as someone who was very down to earth for a player who has received as much hype as he's gotten. After now talking to him extensively for this story, how accurate do you think that portrayal is? What are some things you learned about him and his personality that you maybe did not realize before writing the story?
EP: John is a good guy. Polite, humble, mature. Those are the words that come to mind. You see him on TV and you see this glitzy persona, this swagger. But he is so much more than that. His recruitment was under scrutiny, but I think that was overblown. He has overcome a lot and deserves the success he has. I am as impressed with him as a person as I am with him as a player. Just has a lot of perspective for a 19-year-old.
MP: How were you able to get him to open up to you about the effect his father had on his life and all the obstacles he's had to overcome?
EP: Well, we talked. With these stories, I just like to have a good, honest conversation with the individual about their feelings and how they worked through issues in their own mind. I shared some details about my rocky childhood with John because I wanted him to know, while all situations are different, I know what it is like to have a father who is absent and who has done bad things in the past. John was candid and blunt with me. It was a back-and-forth discussion, never confrontational. I was not there to judge. I was there to understand.
MP: You mentioned in the article that it all just "clicked" for Wall before the 2007 Reebok tournament. Why do you think that was the moment where he really shed all the attitude problems and became who he is today?
EP: I asked this a lot, and to a lot of people. Got different answers. But my take, and from what John told me, was that it was a gradual process, but that the Mount Zion game his sophomore year at Word of God really changed things. He talked back to the coach, and he wound up seeing his minutes cut the next two games. That is when he said he learned.
MP: I have to ask you the question you've probably heard a lot since Sunday: your decision to tell Wall about his father's full criminal record. How specifically did this come up in your conversation with him? Was it something where he said he wanted to know? How did you try to phrase that part of the conversation so that you could try to be as fair to him and to your job as a journalist as possible?
EP: I wrestled with this issue for some time before I met with John. The first issue was IF I needed to include it and ask John about it. i didn't know what he knew. If John's dad didn't matter to him, I think it's a non-issue. But this is his driving force, his motivation. The memories of visiting his dad in prison are very strong in John's mind. Because of that, I felt that the record needed to be included at least in brief. Then the question became HOW to handle it with John. I did not want to mention specifics, but I wanted to see what he knew. About 12 minutes into the conversation, I asked him about what he knew and he mentioned something about an altercation. I then told him that the first sentence was because of a robbery. He did not seem surprised, and nodded a little. There was no tension. He was relaxed. We were fine. I then told him that he was also in prison before John was born and that one was for murder. He seemed surprised, looked away for a second. But what stuck out to me, the important thing, was that this did not change his view of his dad, which speaks to the unconditional love. That's one of the main points of the story. After that, we talked about whether he will ever be curious to learn more, etc., and then the conversation turned to what effect the death had on John and the fights, etc.
MP: As a follow-up, how did you internally decide to go ahead actually disclose that information to him? Why did you ultimately decide to go forward and tell him? What factors did you weigh in your head?
EP: To be honest, i wanted to write the most comprehensive story ever written on John. I wanted to be fair, thorough and detailed. When you do a 3,500-word profile of someone, and you write about their prime motivation and inspiration, you need to disclose why that person was in jail for most of the final 30 years of their life. I don't think that is up for debate. If one wants to debate how I handled it, fine. But I do feel comfortable with how I handled it. I did not ambush anyone or blindside anyone. I didn't mention court records, the victim's name, any of that. I wanted to be sensitive and delicate and respectful. I was not comfortable with the situation I was in, but I feel I made the right decision.
MP: What type of feedback have you received, both about the article as a whole and the specific decision to tell John about his father's criminal record?
EP: I've gotten probably about 150 emails and texts from readers and writers. Most are one extreme or the other. I understand that reasonable people can disagree on the decision to bring the murder up with John. I knew that would be an issue.
MP: How surprised were you that he still revers his father even though he was in prison? I ask because it seems a lot of basketball players take the opposite approach with their dads if their dad was in prison. They often resent their father and have very close relationships with their mom. Why do you think Wall took a different approach?
EP: Well, it is unique because of what you said. But while talking with John, I was not surprised because it is very clear that he is so grateful for the chance he had to spend even the weekends with his dad. His dad drew pictures with him, gave him advice, talked to him about lots of things. He will always cherish that. So I am not too surprised, but it is still unique.
MP: Of all the other people you talked to for this story, who struck you as the most compelling?
EP: Good question. John Wall was the most compelling person I talked to because of how mature he is, how much perspective he has at 19. But THE most compelling person to me was John Carroll Wall. Make what you want of him as a man -- and I am not here to judge -- but indications were that he was a good father. And given his criminal record between 1969 and 1999, I found that to be very interesting.
MP: Finally, this is a bit of a journalist-y kind of question, but why did you and your editors decide to put the anecdote about his father's criminal history being revealed at the end of the article? Also, looking back, how do you feel about the way that whole thing was presented in the article itself?
EP: I originally had it maybe in the second section or so in my first draft. But they wanted to drop it, and I think that was the wise move. Let's not make too much of it. But we can't ignore the fact that it is a powerful section and the reader will need some background, some context before getting to it. I think it was handled in the right way. And detailing the dialogue that took place was the right move, as well, I believe.