The Washington Wizards went to great lengths Friday morning to create a crossroads moment. On the Verizon Center practice court, the team scheduled a news conference to discuss its homegrown superstar, John Wall, and his decision to extend his basketball prime in Washington for four more years, on top of the two remaining on his current contract. Around the gym, they set up headless mannequins featuring Wall’s home and road jerseys emblazoned with the new Nike swoosh, and welcomed several of the D.C. area community groups he has partnered with over the past seven years.
The big idea: celebrating the man who began the Ted Leonsis-era rebuild while picturing a future in which Wall remains and retires as a Wizard.
“I’m happy here,” Wall said to the gathering. “I’m happy to see all y’all amazing people supporting me for the next six years. This is the team I want to be with for the rest of my career, so hopefully we can get that done.”
It might have been lost in all his happiness — understandable, given that the extension is worth $170 million — but Wall’s declaration of remaining with the Wizards for “six years” was notable.
Wall’s agent and management team negotiated into the deal a trade kicker, which essentially works as a form of a no-trade clause because few teams likely will have the cap space to absorb his escalated salary beginning in 2019. Also, Wall received the ever-so-important player option in the final year of the extension, meaning he could elect to test free agency following the 2021-22 season, when he will be 31 years old.
However by noting six years, Wall asserted the possibility of being one of professional sports’ rarest birds: a star who plays his entire career with one franchise.
“I think his bond with this community is deep,” said Leonsis, who purchased 44 percent of the Wizards in 1999 and became the majority owner in 2010, the year the team drafted Wall. “My expectation is he will spend his career here, and when his career ends, he’ll be closely associated with this organization. He really wants his jersey retired. He really wants to play a role in the history of the organization, and he knows the way you really do that is to bring a championship to the franchise and the community.”
When the Wizards won the 2010 draft lottery and subsequently selected the point guard out of Kentucky, good fortune was still years away. Wall was hampered by injuries early on — he claims this summer to be the first in his career in which he hasn’t needed physical rehabilitation. Then, the losses mounted season after season and the defeatist hashtags (#SoWizards) continued for just as long.
However during that time, the Wizards believed in Wall: This is the second “max” contract he has been extended. So when it came time to talk the “supermax” — Wall became eligible to make the highest dollar amount possible by earning all-NBA honors after the 2016-17 season— the Wizards once again expressed supreme trust in their own.
“John and I, we’re kind of in it together,” Leonsis said. “And so I didn’t think he’d have a wandering eye. I didn’t think he’d have a view of ‘I’ll play this out.'”
The news of the extension agreement dropped in the late hours July 21, entering a weekend.
“I just surprised people with a good Friday night,” Wall said cheerfully. “I know some people probably went out and had some drinks after.”
Still, the breaking news seemed more like a foregone conclusion because Wall has maintained his allegiance to the city and franchise.
In previous years, when he and former college teammate DeMarcus Cousins tossed around the idea of playing together in the NBA, Wall held firm that any reunion would happen only in Washington. After making the winning shot in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Boston Celtics, he climbed atop the Verizon Center scorers’ table, pointing to the ground beneath him and proclaiming the city to be his. Throughout the offseason, he repeatedly expressed his desire to remain a Wizard long-term.
“John is the only player who’s still with the team when I bought it, and he is the best representative I can imagine for what we’re going to continue to build,” Leonsis said. “He’s a big, fit, strong player. He’s a man now.”
Seven years ago, he was a skinny 19-year-old who came into the league with a dance named in his honor. Now when Wall flexes his muscles, the dance’s signature move, he has the build of a grown man, accompanying the mind-set of a leader ready to carry a franchise. The Wizards are banking that Wall stays that way for a very long time.
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