Wall, grown up

Wiz­ards’ star is not com­pla­cent with be­ing merely the face of his team. His city is next.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - STORY BY JERRY BREWER | PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY TONI L. SANDYS

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.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Af­ter sign­ing a max con­tract, Wash­ing­ton Wiz­ards point guard John Wall re­solved to do­nate $1 mil­lion to lo­cal char­i­ties.

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