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John Wall had to tuck his pride to stay in the NBA

John Wall agreed to a buyout with Houston in June and signed a two-year deal with the Clippers less than two weeks later. (LM Otero/AP)

John Wall lowers his voice midway through answering a question, addressing whoever is taking care of his food order this evening after a loss to the Sacramento Kings.

He’s talking so fast, as usual, that the point guard conveys his needs to this person without interrupting the rhythm of his sentence. “Nah, no whipped cream,” Wall says, and then he’s back to talking about his workout routine.

Wall, after all, is trying to keep himself in game shape these days. Not pickup-games-and-Instagram-reel shape like he did last season, when he earned a smooth $44 million not to play for the Houston Rockets as the team focused on its youth movement, or in the 2020-21 season, when he played just 40 games.

No, Wall returned in earnest this season as one of the few feel-good stories of an otherwise controversy-riddled start to the NBA’s season.

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Traded from the Washington Wizards in December 2020, the former No. 1 overall pick had spent years in a personal and professional wilderness. Achilles’ tendon and foot injuries caused him to miss the entire 2019-20 season with the Wizards, during which his mother, Frances Pulley, died. His grandmother died a year later.

Without basketball, his emotional outlet and soul balm since childhood, Wall struggled with mental health and said he considered suicide. He eventually sought therapy, a decision he detailed in a heart-rending essay in September.

Talking to Wall now as he munches away at his postgame meal, it’s clear the past few years have humbled him but not dimmed his ultrahigh self-confidence. His priorities are different — he lives for his two young sons, who will fly in from Miami, where they live with their mother and where Wall’s permanent base is, to watch him play in front of fans at Capital One Arena on Saturday for the first time since the Wizards traded him.

On court, he shed some of his franchise-player bravado and accepted a role coming off the bench with the Clippers, who have him on a minutes restriction and sitting out half of back-to-back games to manage his return to competition. It’s this part that reveals just how much Wall is straining to grow.

“I definitely wish I was asked to do more!” Wall said during a phone interview, his voice hitting a high pitch. “The way I played in D.C. helped a lot. I knew to get off the ball when guys needed shots, I knew to push the pace — I knew all of that. But the situation I’m in now, that’s not what this team needs.”

Wall returns to that idea a lot, that he’s filling a need and he accepts that. It’s almost as if he’s repeating it to remind himself that what he’s doing now, as a 32-year-old point guard, is adapting to survive in the NBA.

Last season, Wall said he kept a strict daily routine when he was actually in town with the Rockets: rise at 7 a.m., lift, work out, get ready for practice. If the team let him stay, he would stay. If it told him he couldn’t watch, he would go home.

Wall thought about his idol, Allen Iverson, often during that time. After a superstar career in Philadelphia, Iverson saw his playing days essentially end when he was waived by the Grizzlies just two months into his stay in Memphis after he made it extremely clear he was unhappy being a role player.

“Some people have to tuck their pride sometimes. And sometimes if they don’t, it don’t go in your favor,” Wall said. “I think about my favorite player, Allen Iverson. They asked him to come off the bench and do those things in different places, and there’s no way AI shouldn’t have still been in the league, you know what I mean? It’s just that pride didn’t let him go. You look at [Carmelo Anthony]. He accepted his pride. He was back with the Lakers last year. I’m not trying to be one of those guys on the outside looking in. I’m trying to keep it as cool as I can and stay in this position.”

On court, that has worked out well for the Clippers. Wall adds another layer alongside Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two deliberate operators who prefer to do their work in the half court. Wall, who has retained a good amount of his famous speed all these years later, diversifies the team’s pace, pushes in transition and still has all the court vision that made him one of the league’s top passers in his prime.

Wall is just being asked to set the table with the Clippers, not prepare and cook the entire meal. He hasn’t had issue adjusting his game to play in six-minute spurts — he’s shooting 43.3 percent from the field and averaging 12.8 points in 22.1 minutes.

His 5.7 assists rank second in the league only to Russell Westbrook among players who do not start. He’s fifth in the league in assists per 100 possessions after Tyrese Haliburton, Nikola Jokic, Mike Conley and Trae Young.

“If I would have signed with a couple of other teams, I would have been starting or I would have been playing big minutes. It was just me realizing what I want in my career now,” Wall said. “For me, the most important thing is to show people I can stay healthy, I can play, I can accept any role. . . . I’m not satisfied. I am nowhere near satisfied. ‘So determined’ is my favorite quote. Right now I’m playing cool. I think I’m playing okay. I could be playing way better.”

If Wall isn’t satisfied on court, he — and his old teammates in touch with him — say he’s content off it.

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Sitting out some games means he sometimes will have a four-day stretch that allows him to fly to Miami to spend time with his sons, as he did the week leading up to his return to Washington. Wall sat out his team’s game Wednesday, and the Clippers played in Miami on Thursday, meaning the point guard got to wake up and take his son to school this week.

Marcin Gortat, the former center who spent five years with the Wizards, had a close relationship with Wall that ended on a sour note. Gortat, in a gushing interview about Wall, said he and the point guard are exchanging messages again and relate differently now as they’re in a more similar phase of life.

“John was always an open mind. He was able to talk to the guys. You just had to know how to speak to John also. That’s one thing,” Gortat said. “There was a time when his head was on fire, and that probably wasn’t the best time to talk to him. When I was able to hang out with John a little bit more after practice, after games, go out together for dinners, go to the club together, party, whatever, I had a better connection with him. At some point when I was an older guy, I wasn’t able to do all that. And I think this was also one of the reasons I kind of disconnected. We were not on the same page, and things just start falling apart.”

“When I heard the news about all the personal situations that happened to him, I was shocked. I was kind of furious. Because us as teammates, friends, we should be there for him. We should probably [have] know a little bit better. Having him back on court is actually a pleasure for my eyes and also my heart. I’m a fan of John. I want him to destroy every point guard in the league just like back in the day.”

Wall says that’s been a common reaction to his September essay, shock and then gratitude that he publicized his mental health struggles.

Writing the article made him feel lighter, he said — but not as light as joining the Clippers did. Wall agreed to a buyout from Houston in the offseason, reportedly shaving a meager $6.4 million off the $47.4 million he was due, submitting to what many in Wall’s position view as the ultimate shelving of pride because accepting a buyout lowers a player’s value on the market.

After hauling in nearly $150 million in salary to play 72 games between the 2018-19 season and the 2022 offseason, he signed a two-year, $13.2 million deal with the Clippers. It made him immeasurably happy.

“That was a lot of relief on my shoulders; you should’ve seen the smile on my face. And then when that article came out. That got off the rest of the little burden that I did have,” Wall said.

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On Saturday, he is expecting a big crowd to show up early just to get a glimpse of him shooting pregame. He’s excited for his sons to see what he’s anticipating to be a big reception, the completion of a full-circle moment. He played in D.C. with the Rockets in 2021, but no fans were allowed in because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After years of pain and devastation, Wall said he’s looking forward to returning to Washington and having fun.

“A lot of people in my position would have folded,” he said. “But I know how many dreams I have left for myself. I feel like my story wasn’t written. God was just giving me a bump in the road to figure out who I was going to be.”

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