“Who is your favorite basketball player?” One squirming student asks during the question-and-answer portion. Wall’s response — he has always admired Allen Iverson — draws nods from only the principal and a few teachers on the call.
Ketcham’s fifth-graders, most of whom are 10 or 11 years old, were infants when the Washington Wizards drafted Wall with the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. So young were they during the point guard’s prime years that it isn’t a stretch to imagine they will know Wall’s legacy in D.C. as one based in charity as much as basketball.
In many ways, Wall is okay with that. After Washington traded him for point guard Russell Westbrook in a blockbuster deal in early December, the 30-year-old wanted to invest in a new long-term project in the District. He and his foundation committed to donating $5,000 to all Ketcham fifth-graders’ higher education plans if they graduate from high school with at least a 3.0 GPA.
“That’s the bigger factor than basketball, to me,” Wall said in a recent phone conversation before invoking a phrase his late mother would often repeat. “She would say, ‘It’s great to be known as a great basketball player, but it’s even better to be known as a great person.’ "
Wall takes solace in that, believes it deeply. He still isn’t sure how he will feel Monday when he returns to Capital One Arena for the first time since Dec. 3, when he visited the venue to say his goodbyes the day after the deal was done.
It won’t be his first game against his old team — that was in January, when Wall led the Rockets to a 107-88 win with 24 points and five assists and he and Westbrook were each assessed a technical foul after jawing at each other all game.
But Wall expects Monday to make him more emotional. Almost every milestone in the point guard’s adult life happened while he was playing for Washington, including the births of his two sons and the death of his mother. Every time he imagined his return to basketball during the nearly two years he spent sidelined, recovering from a foot and Achilles’ injury, he saw himself in a Wizards jersey.
“Don’t get me wrong; it was kind of mind-blowing digesting being somewhere new. I’d only been in one place from when I was 19 to 30,” Wall said. “I still think about that day — but, like, once the trade happened, I was [in Houston] going into training camp, preseason, I’d still be like, wow. I can’t believe I’m putting my jersey on for the first time in two years, but it’s a different uniform, in a different city.”
A turning point
On the evening of Nov. 17, Wall, who spends his offseasons in Miami, was getting ready to return to Washington to prepare for the 2020-21 season when the texts from friends and other interested parties began rolling in. There was a tweet that said the Rockets and Wizards had discussed a trade centered on him and Westbrook. Was it real?
Wall wasn't sure, but his initial reaction was that it couldn't be.
“I'm like, there's no way I'm traded, boy!” Wall said. “I haven't played in two years! Who wants to trade for a guy that's injured?”
Wall's first call was to Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard, who told the point guard not to worry. But Wall felt “blindsided” by the rumors, he said.
Three days later, a person with knowledge of the situation confirmed to The Washington Post that Wall had made it clear he wanted out of Washington.
In retrospect, Wall sees the turning point in his decade-long relationship with the Wizards clearly: a 13-second video clip that hit the Internet in the early morning hours of Sept. 13 and went viral. In it, Wall was shirtless, out of sorts, at a crowded party in the middle of a pandemic and apparently flashing gang signs.
“In all reality,” Wall said, “I think they probably never did get past it, but they told me they did.”
Wall issued a vague apology on Twitter hours later, spoke to his teammates and Washington’s front office and, in the following days and weeks, was told that the team had gotten over the incident. Publicly, Sheppard said the Wizards were disappointed but had to move forward.
Privately, the video enraged some within the organization, including owner Ted Leonsis, according to multiple people close to the franchise. Not only did it feel like a slap in the face — Wall had earned more than $57 million in the nearly two seasons he spent away from an NBA court — but many within the organization recognized a pattern of behavior from their 30-year-old star.
It wasn’t the first time he had been caught on tape partying when he perhaps shouldn’t have been. Wall also had been caught flashing gang signs at least once before, on court during a playoff series against Atlanta in 2015, which the league office brought to the team’s attention. (At the time, Washington pushed back against the accusations.)
Even so, multiple people in the league said the Wizards were not actively looking to trade Wall in the immediate aftermath of the September incident.
But by Dec. 2, Houston and Washington had reached a deal that the Wizards felt was too good to leave on the table. In exchange for Westbrook, the Wizards sent Wall and a protected future first-round pick to Houston.
“The video in the summer kind of pushed them to a certain extent, which I understand,” Wall said. “I’m not mad at it. I said my apologies. If they wanted to move going forward from that, then I would’ve respected it. … But you’re feeding me one thing, but on the other end it’s totally different. That’s the most hurtful thing out of all of it.”
Sheppard declined to answer questions about what he shared with Wall and the timeline of trade talks in a recent phone interview.
“I wish John the best. We’ve always wished John the best,” Sheppard said. “He’s a special player and is a special person to this city.”
‘A brother outside of basketball’
In his new city, the one Wall is still getting used to, he felt the Rockets’ embrace straight away. He was reunited with his close friend and college teammate DeMarcus Cousins, and even after early-season drama with James Harden, Wall felt an immediate kinship with Christian Wood and Victor Oladipo.
“I walked into the locker room to be around the guys. They all respected me,” said Wall, a five-time all-star. “They understood what my résumé said. Around the same time, I’m around a lot of guys that’s hungry and have a lot to prove just like I do coming off of injury or had probably been written off and traded multiple times.”
The point guard shows flashes of his pre-injury self more frequently with each passing game — something that wasn’t a certainty for a player coming off of an Achilles’ injury whose trademark is lightning-quick speed. Wall is averaging 19.5 points and 5.9 assists through 17 games with the Rockets and is so comfortable that he recently said he feels like he became the team’s franchise player when Harden was traded to the Nets.
It is the status he’s most familiar with in an organization, the same one he occupied for nearly a decade before the Wizards shifted to build around his former backcourt mate Bradley Beal.
“I’m happy that he’s back. He fought hard, for [two] years, to come back,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said in January. “I hope that he has a healthy year and finishes his career healthy. He’s earned that.”
Wall said he never bristled at the thought of Beal, 27, taking a larger role in the organization, though the pair occasionally clashed while Wall was in Washington and their relationship provided media fodder for years.
The point guard said their friendship has been easy to maintain since he was traded because its strongest thread always has been their off-court bond. The pair grew into adulthood together, became fathers around the same time. Beal sat in the hospital to provide Wall comfort when his mother was dying of cancer in late 2019.
“That was more than anything, that’s a brother outside of basketball,” Wall said. “Nobody thought we was going to shake hands before [the Wizards and the Rockets played in January]. Nobody thought we was going to shake hands and talk after — I’ll take the fine with that, even though we’re supposed to have covid protocols. Because that’s somebody I respect on a high level. Every time that we’re just playing, if I’m not playing, I’m definitely watching him play because he’s a hell of a talent in this league. Who wouldn’t want to watch a guy like that? That’s talent at the highest level, and it’s kind of dope to see him get some all-star nods and get that respect he deserves. So I’m happy for everything he got.”
Not being able to make his comeback with Beal by his side is one of the things that pains Wall most about the trade.
He said the pair spoke about his return throughout the summer as Wall started scrimmaging more seriously, daydreaming about working together to lift the Wizards out of their recent doldrums.
“We were like, we’ll run it back one more year,” Wall said. “See how this goes with Brad. If it don’t work, we know what’s going to happen. I never got that. And that’s one of the things that hurt me more than anything. That and I never got the opportunity to play in front of those fans. Even though we can’t have fans there, they’d still get to see me in that uniform, in that city, in that arena.”