The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Wizards drafted John Wall 10 years ago. Look at how he has grown.

The Wizards selected John Wall with the first pick of the 2010 NBA draft. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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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 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, just six months ago; and as he contributed to the most important fight against racial inequality in his lifetime.

What a crazy time to be alive, especially for a 29-year-old 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 admitted.

A month later, Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. And six weeks after that, the novel 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.”

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As hard as the past year and a half has been, Wall doesn’t complain. Both of his sons have been born during this period, too. 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 month-long 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. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also was 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. During a recent phone conversation, it was clear to me that Wall, who is always a good interview, was even more comfortable making a legitimate connection. That’s a higher level of affability than answering questions in a polite and revealing manner. 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 number one,” 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 assists 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.

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“He’s this huge star on the court, and he’s a star in the community as well,” said Tara Wilson-Jones, the vice president of marketing and communications for Make-A-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 all-star 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 will 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. And think. And strategize. In many ways, you have 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.

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