Some mornings, Markelle Fultz would lie in his bed and just think. Think, think, think. He couldn’t help it. The thoughts would swarm his mind as he tried to swat each one away.
Am I ever going to play basketball again?
“I didn’t want to wake up, go to workouts,” Fultz says. “I just wanted to lie there and sleep.”
Sleep would provide a temporary escape from the gnawing reality that he could not lift his arms above his head, he could not shoot jump shots, he could not stop the entire city of Philadelphia from hating him, and he could not for the life of him figure out what was wrong with his shoulder.
Doctors couldn’t, either. Week after week, he’d will himself to think positively as he headed into each appointment. This doctor’s going to tell me what’s wrong. But they didn’t. Not for a while, at least. His mysterious shoulder injury, suffered after being drafted No. 1 overall by the 76ers in 2017, caused a change in his shooting form, a hitch that was dissected and ridiculed in every corner of the NBA universe. From Twitter to TV, people mocked his shaky shot, saying he looked like a child learning how to shoot for the first time.
Nobody understood what was happening, let alone how it happened. Fans questioned his desire, his integrity. Pundits called him a bust. Selfish. Accused him of faking the injury. Friends stopped talking to him. Started talking about him. Avoided him as if he was somehow infected, tainted.
He was only 19 years old.
Is this what my career is going to be?
“That would pop in my head for a short while, but I had to wipe it out,” Fultz says. “I’d try to erase it.”
Kelle, we’re not going to think like that. We’re going to think positive. We’re going to get to where we need to be. We’re going to get there. I know it.
It was as if his entire body of work up to that point was forgotten. How he rose to basketball stardom, becoming one of the top recruits in the country as a senior in high school at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Maryland, after not even making the varsity team as a sophomore. How he rose to stardom, averaging 23.2 points in his one season at the University of Washington. How so many in the NBA viewed him as a can’t-miss prospect, a 6’3″ playmaker with the sneaky athleticism to attack the basket at will and so intelligent on the floor that he could see a play for five seconds and execute it perfectly right after, finding anyone from anywhere
We’re going to get there. I know it.
Fultz takes a seat inside the Orlando Magic locker room on a road trip in Los Angeles about an hour before tipoff against the Lakers in January. He is warm, surprisingly candid, remembering those mornings. Remembering how he continued to believe in himself when few did. When he’d force himself out of bed and into the training room for physical therapy, even when his mind seemed cloudy.
“A lot of people would have quit,” says Fultz, now 21, who was traded to the Magic last February.
Not Fultz. He acted like nothing was wrong, showing up to the Sixers facility every day with a smile on his face. He even brought candysometimes Snickers or Reese’sfor his teammates on road trips to lighten the mood. “The stuff he was dealing with on a daily basis would take a toll on any human being,” says T.J. McConnell, a former Sixers teammate and close friend who is now on the Pacers, “but you would have never known that he was going through it. He lit up a room every time he walked into it.”
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When Fultz speaks, he has a patience to him that makes him seem older, wiser. He has a perspective that can only come from staring down the end of a career before it even really starts. He knows who he is because he knows what he can withstand. “His soul is old, in a good way,” says Kelsey Plum, a close friend who was at Washington with Fultz and is now a guard for the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.
A fresh start with the Magic has revitalized him. He’s averaging 11.8 points and 5.1 assists per game and is shooting 46.5 percent, all career highs, and has emerged as a candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player award. And after playing just 33 games in two seasons for the Sixers, he’s played in 57 of the Magic’s 58, helping lift them into playoff contention.
“I’m never going to give up,” Fultz says. “It doesn’t matter what it is. I can have one arm. I will find a way to play the game I love and do whatever I need to do to compete.”
He smiles, as he would after the Lakers game, where he recorded his second career triple-double, even bodying LeBron James at the basket for an impressive finish.
“He has the chance to show the world how special he can be,” says Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, who has known Fultz since high school. “He has a good opportunity to really be himself.”
That self felt like a child again, playing free, playing without worry, before his first practice for the Magic back in September. He seemed giddy, stepping onto the hardwood, tucking in his practice jersey. “It was like Christmas for him,” says Magic guard D.J. Augustin.
But then that smile disappeared and Fultz locked down in a stance to guard Augustin, smothering him as if it were a playoff game. Fultz looked ready to wash away everything that happened, everything that went wrong.
The first time Lloyd Pierce met Fultz was at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, for Fultz’s player interview. Pierce, who was then an assistant coach for the Sixers and is now the head coach of the Hawks, noticed Fultz’s firm handshake, big smileand his basketball IQ.
“Tie ballgame, down two, what play would you like to draw up, our ball, to finish the game?” Lloyd asked.
“Are we home or on the road?” Fultz replied. “If we’re on the road, I want to go for three and I want to win it. If it’s at home, we’ll just run a play and try to get to overtime.”
Lloyd was impressed. “Just to have the ability to think that through: time, score, situation, location. At home, you can rely on your home court in overtime; on the road, you just wanna get a win and get out of there,” he says. “That’s a pretty sharp thinker.”
Fultz always has been, and he’s obsessed with the details. That’s how he trained. That’s also how he was off the court, even asking Raphael Chillious, a former associate head coach at Washington, about every detail of his prom outfit during his senior year at DeMatha Catholic.
Pierce and the Sixers would make Fultz the first overall pick in 2017, pairing him with 2014 No. 3 overall pick Joel Embiid and 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons for a group that was expected to turn around the franchise, if not turn it into a dynasty.
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But in the months after the draft, Fultz felt pain in his shoulder. The coaching staff noticed that there was a hitch that had not been there before summer league. “You didn’t know what it was. You just knew something was different,” Lloyd says.
There were rumors that Fultz had tinkered with his shot, but he maintains that it was the result of an injury. He says he felt like he was wearing a tight suit jacket, or like someone was holding him down so he couldn’t move as fast as he wanted. “It was a lot of pain. It was weird, because it just happened, and it happened over time, and it slowly got worse and worse.”
He realized how much range of motion he’d lost when he tried to do a trick shot he used to enjoy at Washington. He’d get the ball on the three-point line, face the basket and shoot on the other end. He no longer could summon the strength to pull it off.
He kept trying to make it better, to figure out what was wrong. “Me being the worker I am, I just kept pushing on it, and it just got worse,” Fultz says. “It got to the point where I couldn’t even lift my arms up. It was tough, because part of me is trying to figure out if it’s because I’m overshooting or doing too much on it.”
Meanwhile, many in the local and national press speculated as to whether the hitch was mental, whether he had developed a case of the yips. “There were rumors going on about his mental health. I don’t think that’s fair,” says former Sixers teammate Wilson Chandler, who’s now with the Brooklyn Nets. “How do people know? Nobody’s around him. Nobody’s interacting with him. They aren’t seeing what he’s doing with his teammates or family.”
Lorenzo Romar, Fultz’s former head coach at Washington, is sure that the change in form resulted from Fultz’s injury. Romar called Fultz’s college shooting form “a thing of beauty.” With Washington, Fultz would elevate and shoot the ball at its highest peak, a true jump shot with plenty of backspin. The change to what he was doing with the Sixers, Romar says, was too drastic to have resulted from intentional tinkering. “It wouldn’t look like that,” says Romar, now the coach at Pepperdine. “You don’t tinker your shot to look like that. There has to be something wrong physically.”
Romar remembers Fultz sending him a video of him shooting. He had just undergone medical treatment, the details of which Romar can’t recall, and his shot looked like the form Romar remembered. And Fultz said he didn’t feel as much pain. But the benefit of that treatment wore off, and Fultz was back to feeling pain. Back to his shaky form. “It showed me it really was the injury,” Romar says. “There’s no question to me it was physical.”
Romar also knew Fultz’s pain must be excruciating, because his former star would always play through anything. Knee issues, ankle issues. “He has a high pain tolerance,” Romar says.
It was frustrating for Fultz: his mind telling his body to do something, and his body not able to follow instructions. His will, his determination, was no match. And he had to accept that, even as he kept searching for solutions: lifting his arms up this way, that way. Getting massages. “A long process of trial and error,” Fultz says.
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Meanwhile, he heard everything being said about him by people who have never met him, never shaken his hand. “You can’t tell somebody what they’re feeling and what’s wrong,” Fultz says.
One time, he and former Sixers teammate Justin Anderson were watching TV when the commentator started blasting Fultz. Fultz didn’t flinch. Didn’t want to change the channel.
“Why are you watching this?” Anderson said.
“I just laugh at it,” Fultz said. “I don’t care. These people don’t know me.”
The Fultz they didn’t see was the teammate who was a favorite in the Sixers locker room. “Everybody loved him,” Chandler says. He was always cracking jokes and initiating card games (Exploding Kittens was a favorite) on the team bus, especially with Anderson and Embiid. Once, Fultz bought every Sixers player a customized Xbox with the player’s name and number on them. He forged a friendship with McConnell even though they were competing for minutes during the bursts that Fultz was cleared to be on the court. Fultz would often ask him to go to dinner, and they became good friends.
“I miss him as a teammate,” McConnell says.
Fultz would also watch Anderson’s dog when he wasn’t around and even hosted a party for Anderson’s 24th birthday. “He’ll make sure that you’re good before he’s good,” Anderson says. “He’ll go to the furthest extent to make sure everybody’s happy.”
Fultz has always been that way. In college, even while being projected as the No. 1 pick, he’d fill water cups for his teammates on the side of the court. Coaches sometimes couldn’t find him at team dinners because he’d be in the kitchen helping take out pots and pans and set the table.
He once asked Plum how she was doing after class, and when she told him she was having a bad day, he met her at the court and sat with her for hours, cross-legged in the middle of the court, just talking. Just to show her he was there for her. “He’s sweet to the bone,” Plum says.
Fultz during Junior NBA Day in Chicago in mid-February.NBA Photos/Getty Images
So when he was condemned for not being a team player because he was sitting out, he didn’t show his frustration. “He never said anything. He just knew one day people were going to regret what they were saying,” says former Sixers teammate Trevor Booker.
Fultz put his faith in God and a few close friends and drew inspiration from the mother who showed him how to never stop believing in himself.
Ebony Fultz was never going to give up on Markelle, so he knew he couldn’t give up on himself, either.
He was tough because she was tough. He knew what it meant to struggle because she knew what it meant to struggle, as a single parent in a rough neighborhood in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He never gave less than his full effort because she never gave less than her full effort.
Yet during Fultz’s time in Philadelphia, she was described as being too protective, too present, to the point of suffocating him, reportedly even installing security cameras in his home. Some blamed her for his inability to play. But what people didn’t understand was that she was the reason he maintained a stiff upper lip and a smile, remaining determined yet positive.
She was one of the few people, along with his sister, Shauntese, holding him up when it seemed like the entire country was knocking him down. She never was ashamed of himnever treated him the way some of his friends did, as a commodity to be discarded now that his career was headed in a different direction than originally planned.
To Ebony, he was the same son whose locker at Washington was often messy, with jerseys, socks and bags all over the place. Nothing folded, nothing in order. She once visited and chewed him out in front of all his teammates for it. “If you had a silhouette of them, she had both arms wrapped around him with a foot up his rear end,” Chillious remembers.
So with his career hanging in the balance, Fultz relied on lessons he learned as a teen by watching her work ethic. He’d think to himself: I have no choice but to fight through this.
“My mom kept preaching to me, ‘Control what you can control,'” Fultz says. “She would say, ‘Don’t worry about it. Pray about it. And just work as hard as you can to get back. Just ask for opportunity. When you get the chance, just take advantage of it.'”
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With the Sixers, Fultz rarely spoke publicly about how he was feeling, physically or emotionally. That isn’t the way he operates. Never has been. Once, in college, the Huskies were playing at rival Gonzaga. The fans were heckling him before the game.
No. 1 pick?! No way! You’re not that good! You’re overrated, Fultz!
Romar remembers Fultz walking over to where the hecklers were, standing directly in front of them. He didn’t look at them or say a word. He put his hands out and called for the ball. A ball boy whipped pass after pass to him. He drained 15 straight three-pointers. That was all he needed to say.
By December 2018, his second season with the Sixers, Fultz finally had a name for his condition: thoracic outlet syndrome, a compression of the nerves or blood vessels that can result in pain in both the neck and the shoulder.
“He was doing everything he could to get back to playing, being in the training room, doing therapy,” says Jerryd Bayless, a former Sixers teammate. “As small as that sounds, getting guys to do therapy on a daily basis is not as common as you might think. A lot of guys will try to get out of that.”
Rehab was grueling, though. “It was so tough,” Fultz says. “It’s a grind.” He had to re-train himself to do small movements, like lifting small weights, moving his shoulder and arm in a full range of motion to get back the flexibility he’d lost. That’s what he was focusing on, rather than re-learning how to shoot.
“I didn’t change my shot,” Fultz says. “I wasn’t able to go through a range of motion. The biggest thing was knowing that I knew what I had to do, but my body wouldn’t let me do it until I had a certain strength, so it was training my mind and my body to put everything back together.”
Just being on the court made him feel better. Made him feel like him again. He’d lean on his family, his friends, like Plum, for support. The two would often FaceTime.
“We would always talk about: ‘It’s coming. It’s coming,'” Plum says. “‘Keep doing what you’re doing. Stay the course.’
“The amount of self-belief he had was ridiculous. He’s relentless.”
One day, while rehabbing in Los Angeles in February 2019, Fultz was sitting on top of a table, receiving treatment from his physical therapist, when his phone rang. His agent told him he was getting traded to the Magic.
Fultz was excited for a fresh start. “I was ready to get back to work, to get back and prove myself,” he says. He felt comfort in knowing the Magic had veteran guards like the 32-year-old Augustin, who he is close friends with, and that the team did not want to rush his recovery process.
By the time Fultz felt recovered enough to step on the floor, he didn’t take possessions lightly. “I’m at this stage now in practice where I just like to chill,” Augustin says, laughing. “But with him being on the team now, I gotta bring it every day in practice now. He pushes me.
“The way he plays in the games, that’s how he practices, and that’s not normal in the NBA, especially for a young player.”
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
Fultz is constantly working to improve his weaknesses. “He gets there about two hours early before practice,” says Magic center Mo Bamba. That’s earned him the respect of not just his teammates but his coaches.
“He’s a throwback kind of player,” says head coach Steve Clifford. “He understands that the NBA is about performing, that you’re going to get what you earn. He doesn’t ask for anything, and he works hard every day.”
He’s notched three double-digit assist games, more than he had his first two seasons combined. At his core, he is a pass-first point guard, unselfish with the ball. “He’s going to find you,” says teammate Terrence Ross. “Playing with him makes our jobs easier.”
He is leading with his voice, too. When the Magic found themselves down at halftime in one game early in the season, Fultz rallied everyone in the locker room: “Come on, fellas! We gotta get it together!” Everyone stared at him, taking in the moment. But it felt right. He had earned the right to speak.
“He comes and talks to older guys and tells them where they should be,” says Magic forward Amile Jefferson.
In January, Magic guard B.J. Johnson logged only a few minutes in a game. Fultz was the first person to come up to him to make sure he was OK. “You’re gonna get a chance,” Fultz told him. “When you get in there, just play freely. Don’t be scared to make mistakes. Next play, next play.”
Chillious recently texted Fultz: “Markelle, there are going to be a lot of people jumping back on the Markelle Train, who weren’t there before when you were going through these struggles. Remember those who was there.”
Fultz responded with just three words: “You already know.”
The praise was at its highest after the Lakers game, when he attacked the basket again and again, finding a way, not shying from contact. He let a smile crack through after one spectacular drive. Ebony, sitting in Section 103, grinned as well. She even stood up. “YEAH, KELLE!!!” she screamed. She was elated, vindicated, because no matter how many people doubted her son, she knew her son could do this. Could be this.
What Fultz feels is deeper than vindication. He feels the joy that comes from enduring. The joy that comes from remaining patient. The joy that comes from letting go.
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He never took the game for granted, but he looks at it differently now. “I play harder because I never know when it’s going to be taken away from me,” he says. “I’m just extremely happy to be on the court. I’ve just been having fun. Letting my competitive nature and having fun take control.”
He thinks of that joy every morning now when he wakes up. He opens his eyes, stares at the ceiling and stays a few minutes under the covers. His mind is clear. He feels light. Capable.
Thank you, God, he thinks to himself. Thank you for waking me up. Thank you for giving me the chance to play basketball today.
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She’s written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.
Some mornings, Markelle Fultz would lie in his bed and just think. Think, think, think. He couldn’t help it. The thoughts would swarm his mind as he tried to swat each one away.