Markelle Fultz was already familiar with the United Center. He was accustomed to the lore and greatness surrounding His Airness’ bronze cast statue outside. He’d gawked at the Bulls’ six historic championship banners that waved in the rafters above and the sea of red and black chairs surrounding the light tan hardwood.
Stepping into the Madhouse on Madison as a McDonald’s All American, though, had a whole different vibe.
“I really was just kind of nervous and in awe really of just seeing everything,” Fultz tells SLAM. “Once you step inside the arena, you just realize how big it is and how dope it is just to be on that platform.”
The DMV native always held the dream of dawning the golden arches across his chest as a high school senior. In the middle of January during the famed Hoophall Classic out in Springfield, MA, that goal became reality.
The night before facing off against Jayson Tatum’s Chaminade - led squad, DeMatha Catholic’s former head coach Mike Jones gathered the team in their hotel conference room. The tone was serious, anticipating the battle that would ensue the following afternoon inside Springfield College’s basketball arena. Matchups, tendencies, the usual.
“And next thing you know, he has a plastic bag. Nobody really knows what's in it, but he starts to give this announcement about the McDonald's game and how we had somebody who got selected to be in it,” Fultz says. “And he pulls this hat out of the bag and he ends up saying my name and says that I've been selected.”
Markelle shook his coach's hand as he placed the dark navy blue hat atop his tightly cropped high-top fade.
“That really gave me some extra fire up under me and also just showed that my hard work was paying off,” Fultz adds.
When things got hard, Markelle went harder—he was placed on DeMatha’s JV team as a sophomore before quickly asserting himself within the varsity lineup midway through the season.
While he went through ups and downs during the early years of his high school and collegiate career at the University of Washington, Fultz shot out onto the national scene as a junior like the Dark Knight ejecting out of the Batmobile.
Setting the school’s single - season record for assists with 278 assists, Fultz averaged a more than well - rounded 19.1 points and 8.8 rebounds while leading the Stags to their second - straight Maryland Private Schools tournament championship.
“I was so locked into the work that I put in to get there that it almost just felt like all the work that I was doing was kind of paying off very fast,” Fultz explains. “I could see the results of my work, and it just made me hungrier to stay in the gym, continue to work on my craft, continue to push myself to get better.”
While All American status always remained an objective, the game wasn’t what initially caught Fultz’s eye. Instead, it was watching Grayson Allen, Justise Winslow and Kelly Oubre exchange throw-downs back in the 2014 dunk contest.
“That was probably my first time actually turning on the TV and being like, what is this?” Fultz says. “You know, they say white men can't jump, but he (Grayson) was doing some nice dunks.”
Surrounded by fellow DMV talents including Atlanta Dream guard Kailia Charles, Maryland’s First-Team All-Big 10 selection Melo Trimble and St. Paul VI standout VJ King, the McDonald’s practices proved to be the most fruitful experience for Fultz. He competed against the nation's best in Lonzo Ball, Jarrett Allen, Devin Booker, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox—whom he still remains in contact with.
“The practices were probably one of the best things for me because I got a chance to show case my talents against other big-time players in front of NBA scouts,” Fultz tells SLAM. “It gave a lot of guys a chance to showcase how they are against adversity.”
And when he finally took to the distinguished court in his Three-Stripes jersey, “I was at peace,”Fultz says. “Everything else around me went away. And it was just back to competing and having fun, playing the game I love. That was probably the dopest part. It just felt like I was at the local gym just playing basketball because of the atmosphere of the players that I was around.”
While he may not be downing a soda before every game as he did as a teenager, the 6-4, 24-year-old will always look to his All-American status as a crowning achievement of his career. One of the first moments where he was recognized amongst the nation’s best, just a few years removed from being told he wasn’t quite ready to go up against DeMatha Catholic’s varsity squad.
With the recent announcement of the rosters for the 2023 McDonald’s All American Game, Fultz has one last piece of advice for this year’s participants.
“Be open-minded. Definitely take this as an opportunity to prove yourself as whatever you want to be known as or remembered as. This is an opportunity to be seen not only by scouts, but your peers, and build a legacy,” Fultz says. “I would just go there, ask as many questions as you can, compete, and just appreciate it. This is a blessing to be able to be a McDonald's All American, and don't take it for granted.”