Wall grew in time off floor

Wash­ing­ton star used op­por­tu­nity to help oth­ers

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - SPORTS - BY JERRY BREWER The Wash­ing­ton Post John Wall, Wash­ing­ton Wizards guard

More than usual,

John Wall is in a re­flec­tive mood. That tends to hap­pen when life comes flood­ing at you. While mostly iso­lat­ing dur­ing a pan­demic, Wall ar­rived at the 10th an­niver­sary of the Wash­ing­ton Wizards draft­ing him No. 1 over­all on Wed­nes­day as he con­tin­ued to re­cover from the most sig­nif­i­cant in­jury of his ca­reer; as he helped to nur­ture his sec­ond son, Amir Fran­cis Wall, who is about a month old; as he still felt the pain of los­ing his mother, Frances Pul­ley, six months ago; as he con­trib­uted to a fight against racial in­equal­ity.

What a crazy time to be alive, es­pe­cially for a 29-year-old Wizards star who, after can­cer took his mom in De­cem­ber, suc­cumbed briefly to the empti­ness. “I felt like there was no rea­son to be on this Earth,” Wall said.

A month later, Kobe Bryant died in a he­li­copter crash. And six weeks after that, the coro­n­avirus pan­demic halted the NBA sea­son. For many, the past six months have been un­fath­omable, but Wall has been in a tough place for 18 months, since hav­ing surg­eries to re­move bone spurs in his left heel and later to re­pair a rup­tured Achilles’ ten­don after a fall.

“No, I can’t re­ally wrap my head around it all right now,” Wall said. “When the virus hit, we all kind of went into a stand­still, and I went to a place that other peo­ple have, too: If you don’t come out of this a bet­ter per­son, then you wasted time. And then after Ge­orge Floyd and all these sense­less deaths, you think about that ev­ery day, ev­ery night. But God gives his tough­est bat­tles to his strong­est sol­diers. I think I’ve got a lot of liv­ing ahead of me, and I’ve got to do it the best way I know how.”

As hard as the past 18 months have been, Wall doesn’t com­plain. Both of his sons have been born dur­ing this pe­riod. Although he won’t play in a game un­til next sea­son, his body feels bet­ter than it has in a long time. And his time off the court has only in­ten­si­fied his de­sire to help oth­ers.

It was co­in­ci­den­tal but quite sym­bolic of Wall’s greater D.C. im­pact that, on the day of his 10th Wizards an­niver­sary, the John Wall Fam­ily Foun­da­tion an­nounced it had raised more than $550,000 in its month­long 202 As­sist en­deavor, a drive to help pro­vide rent as­sis­tance for Ward 8 fam­i­lies strug­gling be­cause of the pan­demic.

The orig­i­nal goal was $300,000.

Wall started the fund with a $100,000 do­na­tion and worked the phones to so­licit help from fel­low ath­letes such as Kevin Du­rant and Ryan Zim­mer­man, a for­mer Vir­ginia base­ball star. Twit­ter CEO Jack Dorsey was also among the donors.

Wall has a long his­tory of benev­o­lence that in­cludes do­nat­ing $1 mil­lion to local char­i­ties after sign­ing his first max­i­mum con­tract in 2013. But this was dif­fer­ent. In his phil­an­thropic ef­forts, he has al­ways be­lieved mak­ing him­self ac­ces­si­ble and en­gag­ing with the com­mu­nity are as im­por­tant as giv­ing money. This time, he had to use his celebrity to per­suade other in­flu­en­tial peo­ple to sup­port his cause.

It is an awk­ward thing, ask­ing for money. But it was an­other op­por­tu­nity for him to grow. Wall turns 30 in Septem­ber — an­other mile­stone in a strange time — and in his mat­u­ra­tion, it seems he is step­ping fur­ther out of his com­fort zone.

“In ev­ery as­pect of my life, I’ve grown since I went No. 1,” Wall said.

“As a man, I’m to­tally dif­fer­ent than what I was. I look back at my­self as a young per­son and I’m like, ‘I wouldn’t do that now.’

I wouldn’t be so hard­headed, es­pe­cially about play­ing through in­juries. I’m a bet­ter brother, bet­ter team­mate, bet­ter fa­ther.”

This is what hasn’t changed for Wall: his vi­sion and abil­ity to use his tal­ent to make peo­ple bet­ter. The on-court man­i­fes­ta­tion of this is his as­sist to­tal. Four years ago, he passed Wes Unseld as the Wizards’ all-time as­sist leader. He has av­er­aged 9.2 as­sists in his ca­reer.

But Wall also un­der­stands this con­cept as a pub­lic fig­ure. Even as a young pro­fes­sional who spent only one sea­son in col­lege, he en­tered the NBA with clear as­pi­ra­tions of lever­ag­ing his plat­form and be­com­ing a civic as­set.

“He’s this huge star on the court, and he’s a star in the com­mu­nity as well,” said Tara Wil­sonJones, the vice pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions for MakeA-Wish Mid-At­lantic. “I cer­tainly re­mem­ber, as a young ath­lete, watch­ing him im­me­di­ately take to that role. He’s an ab­so­lute icon, al­most a fig­ment of the imag­i­na­tion to some of these kids. But then he talks to them on their level, and their ad­mi­ra­tion grows. This is a decade later, and from the be­gin­ning, even while find­ing his way as a player, his will­ing­ness to take time out and make the ex­pe­ri­ence spe­cial was nat­u­ral and gen­uine for him.”

With Wall and Bradley Beal as a sta­bi­liz­ing all­star duo, the Wizards have ex­ceeded the fran­chise’s nor­mal level of suc­cess. Still, the team has been in­con­sis­tent and a lit­tle snakebit by in­jury. Wall’s Achilles’ re­cov­ery — com­bined with his $170 mil­lion su­per­max con­tract — has turned the past 18 months into a con­stant con­ver­sa­tion about whether he will ever be the same (he swears he’ll be bet­ter) and the chal­lenges the Wizards face in re­build­ing the ros­ter with such a heavy con­tract.

Cer­tainly, there is a salary-cap predica­ment to an­a­lyze. But Wall is more than a con­tract. He’s ea­ger to prove that.

“I feel like, to be hon­est, my best years are ahead of me,” Wall said. “Peo­ple think I’m play­ing. Peo­ple say, ‘You can’t be bet­ter than 2016-17,’ but I never un­der­stood how to take care of my body. So I just can’t wait. I want to play an­other 10 years.”

When healthy, Wall just might be the fastest player in the NBA. But dur­ing this time, he has been forced to pause, think and strate­gize. In many ways, you’ve learned about his heart over the past 10 years. Now, ap­proach­ing 30 and com­ing off a dev­as­tat­ing in­jury, he must play more of a men­tal game.

Con­sid­er­ing all he has been through re­cently, he should be pre­pared.

“I feel like ... my best years are ahead of me . ... So I just can’t wait.

I want to play an­other 10 years.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Com­ing off in­juries to his heel and Achilles ten­don, Wash­ing­ton Wizards star John Wall will have to play more of a men­tal game to ex­tend his ca­reer.

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