The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’re seeing John Wall at his strongest. He still has some heavy lifting.

In discussing the past few years, John Wall said he was in the “darkest place I’ve ever been in.” (Mark Mulligan/AP)

The video of John Wall has gone viral. He’s at home, where he’s most comfortable. He looks good, healthy — powerful, even. Maybe the most powerful we have seen him in about two years. In the clip, he’s being so raw, so direct, and he has our attention.

“I’m back, mother----ers!”

“I’m him!”

“I’m too nice! I still got that s---!”

No, this is not about that video, the one with the edited highlights of Wall making every single shot in a game of pickup basketball and playing in a busy gymnasium alongside new Los Angeles Clippers teammate Paul George. The video this week in which Wall swaggers after every bucket, the model of machismo, shouting and swearing — possibly at the hapless defender but more likely for the benefit of the crowd and, of course, the cameras.

Rather, this is about that other video. The one in which Wall is sitting down in front of a Salvation Army backdrop and opening up about his mental health. He’s having a one-on-one interview and talks about his art collection, supporting the Black community, and mothers. Particularly, the one Wall calls his “Superwoman,” the late Frances Pulley.

Then the conversation takes an unexpectedly deep turn. Wall casually brings up the dark days he experienced over the past few years. And as he listens to a follow-up question about that time, Wall squints his eyes and shakes his head.

“Darkest place I’ve ever been in. I mean, at one point in time, I thought about committing suicide,” Wall said. “There was a time I had to go find a therapist. A lot of people think: ‘I don’t need help. I can get through it at any time.’ But you got to be true to yourself and find out what’s best for you, and I did that.”

Those particular words crash-land like cinder blocks tossed from a skyscraper. Even though the admission rushes out in Wall’s normal rat-a-tat cadence, it makes the interviewer, Donal Ware, sit back and mouth a single word that speaks for all of us: “Wow.”

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Wall — a multimillionaire NBA player, a five-time all-star, the career assists leader in Washington Wizards history but also a grieving son, a 30-something trying to find his way, a Black man — shattered the stigma.

There is a significance in this confession. He is not the first public figure to speak openly about his mental health. The topic has become paramount in the mainstream as celebrities and athletes alike have prioritized their wholeness. Last season, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley announced on Twitter that he would be stepping away from football to focus on his mental wellness. Also recently, Terry McLaurin, the Washington Commanders’ top wideout, talked about the benefits he found in seeking out therapy.

Still, Wall’s admission is striking. He sat there on camera, his voice steady, no tremors of shame. He didn’t just speak in vague terms about “tough times” or “needing a break.” He said out loud how he once contemplated suicide.

That’s a taboo word in a certain branch of Black culture steeped in tradition. Especially among males, some who grew up as broken Black boys and were schooled, by other broken role models, that only a punk would cry. They may have learned to express themselves through displays of physical strength. And that a real man is defined by the status he has earned and the respect he receives.

“I’m him!”

In his honest moment, Wall broke through the facade of being hard and admitted he needed help. Such a change from a young Black man who has projected only the opposite.

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As an NBA star, Wall behaved like a man who knew his worth — and wanted everyone else to know it, too. There was no problem the Rosebar couldn’t solve. He oozed the confidence — and the lack of self-awareness — of someone who refused to believe he would be anything other than No. 1.

Peak John Wall happened during a moment at an August 2017 news conference heralding his five-year, maximum contract with the Wizards. NBC Sports Washington reporter Chase Hughes asked what turned out to be the most relevant question of the day, inquiring whether Wall had thought how his high-octane game may have to develop as he gets older. Wall slowly shook his head and simply uttered: “Nah.”

The whole room laughed. Majority owner Ted Leonsis and then-general manager Ernie Grunfeld chuckled along, too. Fast-forward six months later, and Wall was recovering from a knee injury that would be a prelude to the 2019 Achilles’ surgery that changed the trajectory of his career, and he was asked what he had learned over the past eight weeks away from the game. Unfazed by the pain, he responded nonchalantly.

“What I learned? Nothing,” Wall said. “Nothing. Just chillin'.”

But things were never the same for Wall. His body failed him. The game left him behind. His precious Superwoman got cancer.

On Nov. 20, 2020, I was texting with someone close to Wall. It happened just after rumors began to circulate that Wall wanted out of Washington. By that time, the Wizards had started searching for a trade partner. His days as one of the most beloved and cocksure athletes to grace the District appeared to be coming to an end.

Wall had that foolish incident in New York City with the birthday video, where he was captured on camera, shirtless and eyes glazed, making elaborate gestures with his hands that were interpreted to be gang signs and then displaying a red bandanna. He was down, but there seemed to be more going on. More than a superstar’s fragile ego being fractured by trade rumors. More than just a 30-year-old cutting loose and acting tipsy on his birthday. So I sent the individual close to Wall a blunt message.

“Is John … okay? I really mean that as a question. Seems like he’s been down for a while”

None of us outside of Wall’s circle could have known the depth of what he was dealing with at that time. He wasn’t okay.

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In his recent interview, Wall ticked off a checklist of trauma, shedding a sliver of light of what happened these past two years.

“Tearing my Achilles'. My mom being sick. My mom passing. My grandma passing a year later, all this in the midst of covid at the same time. Me going to the chemotherapy and sitting there. Me seeing my mom take her last breath. Wearing the same clothes for three days, laying on the couch beside her,” Wall said.

All of this brought him to a dark place. But Wall — a young Black man from Raleigh, N.C., who fortifies himself as one of God’s “strongest soldiers” — sought therapy.

This is not the part where we applaud Wall, shower him with sympathy and stamp his story with and he lived happily ever after. An ellipsis belongs here, not an empathic period, because Wall stands at the starting line in his journey for wholeness.

Wall — and others like him who have struggled with depression — are not magically cured of their pain by seeking out help once. Therapy is a commitment that takes time and plenty of personal work. But we can celebrate Wall for his openness. And, yes, for being a strong Black man who had suicidal thoughts but then recognized he needed to talk to someone.

So let’s always remember that viral video of John Wall.

He’s at home, in Raleigh, N.C., where he always has been his most comfortable. He looks good. Healthy. Happy, even. Maybe the happiest we have seen him in about two years. In the clip, he’s being so honest, so open, and he commands our full attention.

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