Wall, grown up
Wizards’ star is not complacent with being merely the face of his team. His city is next.
Children climbed the 6-foot-4 man’s legs, torso and shoulders as if he were a new playground apparatus. They didn’t really care that the man was a basketball star or that he had just delivered a $400,000 check to this organization teaching homeless youth or that his surprise appearance illustrated the conscientious local icon he had become.
It only mattered to the boys and girls that they mattered. Seldom are really tall grown-ups this available to play with them.
“This is John Wall,” a teacher told her class at the Bright Beginnings child development center in the District’s NoMa neighborhood.
“John Walls?” several replied, wondering why the name sounded familiar. “He plays basketball,” the teacher said. “Who you play for?” one boy asked. Wall grinned a this new found anonymity. He gave an easy answer — the Washington Wizards — but after five NBA seasons, the two-time all-star point guard understands that he represents much more. At a gradual pace, Wall has evolved from a No. 1 overall pick straining to carry weighty expectations into a franchise player embracing every aspect
“I’M A FRANCHISE PLAYER, YOU KNOW. I HAVE TO OWN IT. ALL OF IT.”
of the designation.
He entered the league as a 19year-old with a fast and flashy style that critics rejected as a flippant, callow approach to the game. Now, with a new NBA season set to begin this week, Wall, 25, is an asset for the Wizards and the city, an athlete who makes an impact on and off the court, a star who has acquired purpose and vision.
“I think I’m peaking at the right time,” Wall said. “I’m trying to get to where I want to be in this league. It all comes with time. Some people jump into the NBA and have success right away. Mine came a little bit later, but I’m cool with that because that’s how it was in my high school career, when I didn’t blossom on the scene until my junior year. And I know if you get that success and love early on and you don’t succeed and keep it up, they start to talk bad about you when you’re starting to drop.
“I’m just going to keep rising.”
‘On the right path’
It’s no longer a question of whether Wall can elevate a franchise. It’s about how high he can lift it.
“With the maturity of John, you can see the transformation of the whole organization,” said Wizards guard Gary Neal, who was attracted to the team in free agency largely because of Wall.
Said veteran forward Jared Dudley: “Now it’s just a matter of how good he wants to be. Does he want to be the best? Does he want to stay a top-15 or -20 player in the league? Or does he want to be top five or 10?”
Wall said he wants all he can get. He wants to be so successful that he becomes synonymous with D.C. the same way Kobe Bryant is with Los Angeles, perhaps, or Tim Duncan in San Antonio.
“It’s home now,” said Wall, a native of Raleigh, N.C. “It’s just like being in North Carolina. They treat me like I was born and raised here, and that’s the most important thing to me. I’m like, ‘Oh, wow. I can relate to these people.’ I want to make them proud.”
Wall arrived dancing the Dougie, playing inefficient basketball on bad teams and suffering injuries that caused him to miss considerable time in two of his first three seasons. Two years ago, when the Wizards gave him a maximum five-year, $80 million contract extension, some questioned whether he was worth it.
Since signing the deal, Wall has made both of his all-star game appearances, led Washington to the Eastern Conference semi finals twice and established himself as the best all-around point guard in the East. Money didn’t make Wall complacent, but it did make him secure. It also added to his responsibilities: These things helped him develop the motivation and confidence to take command of his team, his stardom and his community.
“When you get to that superstar level, you’re just so confident in yourself, in your ability,” Wall said. “You step up and do other things that you probably wouldn’t have done your first couple of years in the league when you didn’t have that confidence and stability to be what you want to be.”
Ask Wall for his definition of a superstar — he spent years trying to identify the qualities. He long admired LeBron James and Kevin Durant, taking notes on how they dominated the game and then transcended it. Just as he studied how to streamline his talent and play winning basketball, he studied every aspect of leading a franchise, too. Wall consumed all.
“I think a superstar is somebody who gets it on and off the court,” he said. “A lot of people understand the on-court process of it, but they don’t understand the off-court. Doing everything is very important to me. That’s why I needed to take my time and make sure I was comfortable in the NBA. I just wanted to make sure I was doing the things I wanted to do and make sure I was on the right path.”
Barrier-breaking tennis great Billie Jean King once said, “I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion.”
For most, self-awareness is needed to mask weakness. For the greats, it buoys their reach.
Committed to the work
In late September, on the Friday before training camp began, Wall took his donation to Bright Beginnings. Many players use the weekend before training camp for one last vacation, but Wall was focused.
He made a pledge after receiving his new contract to donate $1 million in total to local organizations that he appreciates. Over the past two years, he had invested about $100,000 to help the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington and the Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation. But the gift to Bright Beginnings would be his largest, and it would take him roughly halfway toward his $1 million philanthropic goal.
Wall dressed casually, wearing a hooded gray Adidas sweat suit. He placed the check in an envelope and tucked it into a front pocket. As he entered the building, he hugged several of the employees, people he had come to know through years of visits. They sat in a conference room and caught up for several minutes. Then Wall stood and pulled out the envelope.
Wall looked at director Betty Jo Gaines and smiled wide. For the next three minutes, he spoke passionately about how much he enjoyed visiting the center, how much he admired the work done here and how much, as someone who had a rough upbringing, he related to the mission.
“So I want to present you with this check,” he said to Gaines.
“I don’t even need to look at how much it is,” she said, hugging Wall. “Thank you. We appreciate everything you do.”
When Gaines opened the envelope, she saw a $400,000 donation, money now earmarked to help build a second, $7.5 million facility that will open in 2017 and serve 100 more children (the current center has about 160 students). The building, which will be located in Ward 8, will feature a “Wall of Achievement,” highlighting the everyday accomplishments of the students. Bright Beginnings also plans to name a classroom after Wall.
The recognition doesn’t matter to Wall as much as the potential impact. He isn’t just a star who marked an item off a checklist by giving money and starting the John Wall Family Foundation. He’s committed to the work. Those around him will tell you that, in this arena, he competes in a manner similar to the high-energy intensity he employs on the basketball court.
He wears his heart on his jersey, and you saw that last season as he succumbed to tears during a postgame interview he used to honor Damiyah Telemaque-Nelson, a girl he had befriended before she died last winter just weeks before her sixth birthday. Miyah fought Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With Coach Randy Wittman’s blessing, Wall skipped a recent preseason game in Milwaukee to participate in a Light the Night Walk with Miyah’s family.
Wall is the man who started crying during the news conference to announce his contract extension as he recalled his mother’s sacrifices. From his youthful exuberance to his mid-20s maturation,
Wall remains genuine. ‘I just needed a plan’
The enduring and flawed national perception of Wall — fostered by radio host Colin Cowherd and others — is that of an immature, dancing, look-at-me player who commits too many turnovers and doesn’t take the game seriously. For all of Wall’s growth, he was branded at 19 and cannot prove to everyone how different he is six years later.
But D.C. has had the opportunity to watch a precocious talent pass through several stages of growth. Wall has figured out how to play in a structured system. He has learned to take better care of his body. He has used his athleticism to become an elite defensive player and molded his court vision and passing ability into a single defining trait: He makes others better.
That’s high praise for a basketball star. In a sport with a dwindling number of pass-first players, Wall joins Chris Paul as the league’s most quintessential point guards. Lights-out Stephen Curry may be the NBA’s reigning MVP, and Russell Westbrook may be an electric triple-double machine, but Wall combines new-school talent with old-school unselfishness.
“He’s so much fun to play with,” Wizards forward Drew Gooden III said. “He’s always doing things to make the game easier for you.”
Before the 2010 NBA draft, Wall was the clear No. 1 talent, but Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld still needed to scrutinize whether he could handle the situation he was about to face. The team was rebuilding, and in the NBA, the best player always receives unfair amounts both of credit and blame. As Wall proved, he was ready to stand out as a player, but could he stand up to criticism while the team was reconstructed?
As the Wizards researched Wall, their hopes were verified. The former Kentucky guard had the character to outlast the bad times. He could keep improving even when people started to believe he had been exposed. He could evolve. He didn’t have the personality to fall prey to the bad habits and low expectations that stunt the growth of so many gifted young players drafted into losing environments.
“Everybody that we spoke to when he was entering the draft said what a good person he was and how competitive he was and that he was a hard worker,” Grunfeld said. “He’s shown that. He’s got a real big heart. He’s respectful. He listens. You always have concerns, but we were confident he would be okay.”
Wall praises the veterans Grunfeld brought in for keeping him from straying amid losing. He mentions Andre Miller, Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington as great influences. And then there’s Paul Pierce, who taught him swagger in addition to leadership.
Now, this is truly Wall’s team. The personnel, with more shooters and versatile athletes to play a pace-and-space style, matches his skill set. Although Bradley Beal is a budding star, Wall is the face of the franchise.
During harder times, Wall used to dream of how he would react to this situation. When a stress injury in his left knee caused him to miss 33 games to start the 2012-13 season, Wall would combat the frustration by imagining how he would take command of the team on and off the court. For a player blessed with the gift of anticipation, he needed to have this vision, glimpses of everything from how winning should look to how he would donate $1 million.
“You can compare it to no longer needing a GPS to get around,” Wall said. “I just needed a plan. I needed to have that view. Just like on the court, it’s a lot of studying film, learning, getting your game better, seeing things from different angles. Then all of a sudden, it becomes clear to you.
“There’s even more I want to do. I’m just taking it step by step.”
On the Verizon Center practice court, Wall watches rookie Kelly Oubre Jr. go through individual drills with an assistant coach. Five years ago, Wall was Oubre: out of college after one year and scrambling to find his place in an intimidating adult world.
Oubre is working on playing through contact and attacking the basket. As he drives and dunks lightly, Wall exclaims, “They’re going to block that weak [junk]! Go hard, or you’re going to get stuffed in a game! These are real men out here now!”
Wall, one of those men now, had to laugh at himself.
“When I was that young, I didn’ t want to come in and make it seem like I was bigger and better than anybody,” Wall said. “So I sat in the back, didn’t say much, just went and played basketball.” He laughed at himself again. “Now you can’t shut me up,” Wall said. “I’m a franchise player, you know. I have to own it. All of it.”
After signing a max contract, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall resolved to donate $1 million to local charities.