BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — Bradley Beal is searching his phone to show video of the moment. It’s his son, Bradley II, who’s affectionately nicknamed “Deuce,” saying dada clear as day. And just look at his mouth, Beal says, turning the phone to his audience. He’s not even 7 months old, and he has four — four! — teeth already.
Now Beal really starts to brag. Deuce goes to sleep by 7:30 every night, and he isn’t fussy like other babies. When you place him on his belly, he starts to crawl. The doctor says he’s in the 100th percentile in height, so he should be taller than his all-star dad.
“He has something to look up to and beat one day,” Beal says.
In a boutique hotel north of Detroit, Beal sits among a lunchtime crowd of business travelers in his gray Washington Wizards warmups, and he’s happy. It’s not just because he thinks his son is dominating other infants in motor-skills milestones. Deuce’s dad is surging past his peers, too.
He has averaged 25.1 points, 5.4 assists and 5.1 rebounds through 58 games this season, making him one of only six players in the NBA to reach 25-5-5 a night. No other guard in the Eastern Conference has more 20-plus-point games this season. He recently topped 1,000 career three-pointers, becoming the youngest player (25 years 223 days) to do so in NBA history.
During Sunday night’s NBA All-Star Game, Beal missed his first five shot attempts in the first half. After halftime, he shed his headband and made a trio of three-pointers, all in the third quarter, and dunked after getting away with a travel. He finished with 11 points on 4 of 11 shooting, and his Team LeBron prevailed over Team Giannis, 178-164.
Yet that isn’t what defines Beal’s second consecutive all-star season. His greatest achievement may be keeping perspective and hunting for every silver lining possible in this train wreck of a Wizards season.
“I feel like this year I’ve had way more fun just enjoying the game,” he says.
Beal’s word choice might be perplexing to most. What’s so fun about falling 10 games below .500 before the all-star break and striving for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference as though the fate of the city depends on it? And Beal’s basketball purgatory may continue because his all-star backcourt teammate, John Wall, is expected to be sidelined for the next 12 months, and possibly longer.
Even in the months before Wall’s injury — team officials said he slipped in the bathroom at home, rupturing his left Achilles’ tendon, after having surgery to remove bone spurs in his left heel — this Wizards season had splattered all over the cold, hard tile.
The team had been remade in the hopes of bringing peace to the locker room. During the summer, center Marcin Gortat, who had been at odds with Wall, was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Austin Rivers. The Wizards also added Dwight Howard and Jeff Green for veteran help. But the new roster, with six rotational players on expiring deals, had chemistry issues. During a mid-November practice, tempers flared. Beal and Rivers verbally sparred, Wall and Green got into it, and Wall hurled an expletive at Coach Scott Brooks. By the end, when the players gathered for an impromptu, clear-the-air session, Beal blew up.
According to several people familiar with the incident, Beal yelled something along the lines of, “I’m sick of this s---.” Beal indicated that he had been dealing with drama for all seven of his years in the NBA, then gestured toward Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, who was sitting on the far baseline, and said, “It starts at the top.”
Private frustration became fodder for the public, and months later, Beal regrets that the story leaked. He doesn’t want anyone to take his words as a direct shot at Grunfeld — “It wasn’t to embarrass him in front of everybody,” he says — and he thinks he could have worded some things a bit better. Still, Beal doesn’t take back the intent of his message.
“We have to start winning. Whatever that looks like, whether that be top-down, whether that be just guys in the locker room, whether that be Coach getting on us more, whatever it may be, we need to do it and win,” Beal says, months later. “What we’re in here arguing about or mad about it, it’s irrelevant if we don’t win. I feel like that was my whole point in saying what I said. I’m not a loser. I hate losing. I hate losing more than I like winning.”
Teammates have heard Beal loud and clear this season.
“When he speaks up, he’s usually right. It’s definitely needed when he speaks up,” Chasson Randle says. “He is our leader, mostly by example, but when he speaks up it’s like, ‘All right, we’ve got to respond.’ ”
“If he ever gets to the point where he’s really, really talking,” Jordan McRae says, “most of the guys are listening.”
“He’s not really a yeller or a screamer,” Trevor Ariza says. “He’s more like: ‘This is what we need to do. Let’s get it done. No questions asked. I don’t know how we’re going to do it or what we have to do. We got to get it done.' "
But the season hasn’t been all blowups and bluntness. More so than at any other time in his career, Beal has embraced a leadership role.
He has quizzed other players around the league on how to handle situations. He has collected reading material: “Quarterback” by John Feinstein and a book published by Harvard Business Review on authentic leadership. He also has tried new ways to pump up his teammates.
During a Feb. 2 game against the best team in the East, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Wizards trailed by 11, and Beal knew he had to do something. So, when MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo launched a three-pointer that flopped way short of the rim, Beal mocked the air ball and pretended he was dodging an incoming missile.
“Yeah, he didn’t like that,” Beal says, smiling about his fellow all-star’s reaction.
Beal didn’t care. He just wanted to keep things light for his guys. He’s trying to find the fun whenever possible.
“Just enjoying the ups and downs that we went through and enjoying everything that we’ve been through and trying to find a positive out of everything and not being negative all the time,” Beal explains. “Not being so quick to just quit. With everything that we’ve been through throughout the year, it’s easy for a team to do that or a player to do that.”
For a moment Feb. 4, the fun stopped. The Wizards were hours away from playing the Atlanta Hawks when a staffer told Beal the news that was spreading like a dark cloud over Capital One Arena: Wall had ruptured his left Achilles’ tendon.
All Beal could do was shake his head and say “damn.” He hurt for Wall. Then his mind raced: Will the front office wave the white flag? Is it time to start over? Am I getting traded now?
Even the unimaginable crossed his mind: Do I want to be here?
“Uh, yeah. I did . . . think about it,” Beal admits.
Here’s a man who hates change, abhors having to adapt to new things. Only under special circumstances, such as having to turn his mansion into “a baby house” and sell two of his fast cars after Deuce’s birth, will Beal tolerate such discomfort. That explains why Beal wants to remain with the Wizards. He is settled here with this franchise and considers Washington home. And home is where he puts his allegiance.
“For me, I always say, ‘Loyalty, you can’t beat it.’ Now, granted, everybody says the league isn’t loyal. Teams will trade you in a heartbeat. Players will just up and leave now,” Beal says. “It’s all of that, but I feel like in a way, loyalty still speaks volumes. I think it still exists in our league. I feel like I’m just going to give it all here until I can’t no more, until they don’t want me anymore.”
Beal is old school and knows he needs to find a different way to say this, but he can’t shake the feeling that if he demands a trade, he would be labeled "a quitter.” When he hears about public drama swirling around a superstar who wants off his team, Beal wonders how that player can go back in the locker room and face his teammates.
“That doesn’t sit right with me in a lot of ways,” he says. “Basically almost quitting in a way, but I think . . . obviously you won’t care about what other people have to say. But those are things that people are going to judge you by: Do you care? Are you a quitter?”
Still, there may come a day when Beal’s opposing personality traits go to war. He despises change, but he also hates losing. If the Wizards struggle down the road, will there come a point when Beal has to pick one side over the other?
“I don’t know, but I can see myself thinking like that,” Beal says. “If we aren’t [trying] to win anything and have losing seasons, I’ll probably think about that, yeah.
“At the end of the day, everybody wants to win. Everybody has one common goal coming into every year — that’s to win the championship,” he continues. “If I feel like we aren’t going in the right direction, if we aren’t doing what we’re supposed to do, possibly. But that’s never my first instinct to do. I actually find it, for me, difficult to do.”
As Beal accepted the news about Wall, he buckled in and played that night as Washington’s last all-star standing. The Wizards lost to the lowly Hawks, and then Beal went home to his sleeping son. Before the sun came up the next day, Beal had settled his mind.
He remembered the mountain-size chip on Wall’s shoulder and how, if anyone can come back as the same player after such a devastating injury, it would be him. And Beal thought about the team — his team. For the near future, the Wizards will be his to lead, and it’s a responsibility he accepts because somebody has to find joy in the gloom.
“I feel like this year has been a challenge in many ways,” Beal says, but then he adds, “I feel like my role in being a father and embracing who I am and embracing every situation I’m in, it’s helped me and propelled me through it all.”