It is hard to fathom that it was just over two years ago on a Wednesday night December 2, 2020, that John Wall was traded away after 10 memorable seasons as the Washington Wizards point guard. Fast forward to December 10, 2022, it was the first time Wall returned to play in Washington, D.C. in front of his die-hard fans because of the pandemic and the Houston Rockets asking him to sit out last season. A contract buyout this past summer cleared the way for him to sign with the NBA championship-contending Los Angeles Clippers. Since the ugly divorce, Washington has won just one playoff game in two seasons and in the midst of a 10-game losing streak in the third, while Wall is healthy and surrounded by easily the best roster talent in his career.
Whether it was during the away team’s starters introductions where Clippers coach Ty Lue purposely gave Wall his first start of the season, the showing of an unfortunately recycled and lacking 75-second tribute video, or the response from the crowd when Wall let them know DC is ‘still my city’, the fans in Capital One Arena provided the former No. 1 overall pick his deserved flowers with passionate standing ovations.
“I’m glad I got the opportunity to appreciate it and be here and get the love I think that I deserve and I feel like I got my flowers,” Wall said following his December 10 homecoming victory.
John Wall on ‘Still My City’
“In that moment and electrifying the crowd. That’s what I’ve been doing for a lot of years in my career when I was here…. To see the crowd stand up, I’m like, ‘damn I might feel like I’m still in a Wizards jersey now.’ It was a dope moment for me.” pic.twitter.com/GuAcxqEURk
— Hoop District (@Hoop_District) December 11, 2022
“Yeah, a thousand,” Wall immediately responded a week later in the tunnels of Crypto.com Arena when asked if his first game back in DC with fans lived up to expectations. “It was still so surreal for me, too surreal, super amazing. Couldn’t ask for nothing better from a place that I called home. Just happy to be back home, just see all the love, all the appreciation I got. All the stuff I did for so many years. Even seeing your post on Twitter, even when you first came in as a young guy. Me just trying to be respectful and I think everything I did is still surreal for me to even be in that moment, to see the fans and definitely most important thing for me was get a win.”
Wall’s return to the only place he knew as home during his professional career was also a reminder that his biggest supporter was not going to be in her usual seat. Wall’s hero, best friend, and mother Ms. Frances Pulley passed away three years ago on December 12, 2019, which started a downward spiral for Wall that he courageously wrote about in The Player’s Tribune in September. “I’ve been in a place that was so dark that suicide felt like the only option,” Wall wrote candidly.
It was Wall’s mother that always reminded her son that as incredible as it is to be known as a great basketball player, it is so much more important to be known as a better person off the court. I’ve witnessed more charitable acts of kindness from Wall to the community over the decade he spent in DC than I can remember so regardless of the nasty business decision split, that is how the 5-time All-Star should be remembered first. Wall’s dedication to the DC community will continue to be felt for years to come. In an age where most NBA players scribble their autograph for fans in a few seconds, Wall spent over 10 minutes signing every autograph request he could see from the several dozens if not hundreds of fans crowding around both sides of the Clippers tunnel following his pre-game warm-up routine.
John Wall probably signed over 100 autographs for nearly 10 minutes after his pre-game warmups 👏🏽 pic.twitter.com/DxHY1r75EP
— Hoop District (@Hoop_District) December 10, 2022
“That’s me though, ever since the years I’ve been in DC. I just try to give respect to those people. It might be the one and only time chance they come to an NBA game and get to meet one of their favorite players, meet an NBA guy, get autographs. I never had the opportunity growing up and I knew how much love I had in DC, how much love I got for DC. So I wanted to sign as many autographs as I could. If I missed somebody, I’m sorry, I wish I could go back and sign them. I was trying to get to every single body on both sides. Just live in the moment, it’s still surreal to me even to be playing y’all a week later. People still talking about, ‘you brought everybody out in DC that night.’ That’s all I ever wanted,” Wall explained his patient gesture back to fans.
At the age of 32 and 13 years after being drafted, Wall has maturely accepted a role off the bench behind none other than Reggie Jackson for the Clippers who went through an extensive vetting process with those they already had within the organization that were previously close with Wall in DC. One can certainly tell Wall has continued to mature on and off the court some of which can be attributed to raising his sons, Ace and Amir. Wall’s boys, unfortunately, could not attend the DC homecoming as initially planned because Amir fell under the weather, but Wall says he looks forward to sharing lots of videos with them.
“They watched it from home [in Miami]. They was excited, cheering crazy, and I got a lot of video from it so hopefully one day I can show it to them and explain to them like this is where y’all was born and a little bit raised. That’s where your dad was special, that’s where he became who he was. Build a name up in this league, getting a lot of respect from around these guys,” Wall said with a smile on his face as if envisioning teaching his sons about his glory years.
After the Wizards got off to a quick 10-0 start triggering a timeout just two minutes into Wall’s homecoming, the point guard reminded his teammates that they do not need to press for him to have a big night eventually ending in a Clippers 114-107 victory. Ty Lue credited Wall for his team-first mindset and humility in his pre-game media availability prior to the Wizards at Clippers rematch a week later. Sacrifice is one of the biggest keys to championship-level success in the NBA and Wall is all for it.
“I told my team, I don’t care about nothing, don’t make it about me, I know it’s all about me, but just let me live in the moment,” Wall recalled the message to his team after a bad start. “Just play the game the right way and try to play the right way, that’s all I try to do is play the right way and win. Most guys in that situation probably want to shoot a lot of times. Me, I just play in the flow of the game and just living in the moment, it was amazing.”
“For a guy who’s been a perennial All-Star, led a franchise for a long time and come here and want to sacrifice and come off the bench, just says a lot about him wanting to win,” Lue began heartfeltly. “He’s been great for us all year long. We’re a team that the last three years I’ve been here, we don’t usually get easy baskets, but with him on the floor like if you miss, we have a chance to get out in transition get to the basket, get to the free throw line and make plays for other guys. He’s brought a really big different dimension to our offense. Having him has been great. When guys go down, you have a guy that’s been a starter his whole life just steps right in, it’s been really good for us.”
Not by Wall’s choosing, but the Rockets requesting Wall to sit out the 2021-22 season meant the Kentucky product has played just 40 games over the previous three seasons, which has the Clippers cautious with a rigid minutes restriction and avoiding back-to-back games. Wall says he feels great and is hungry to play more, but understands the big picture to ensure he is healthy for a playoff run. A large variable in the strained relationship between Wall and Washington that boiled over prior to the trade was arguably the lack of caution and competence the Wizards exerted with Wall’s prior ailments that snowballed uncontrollably.
“Yeah, I could’ve done things differently,” Wall admittedly reflected on possible what-ifs with the Wizards. “I was in a moment where I was in a dark place, trying to find myself and just looking for fun and looking for any type of love and just having fun and excitement. I don’t think me having a vibe in my room would get to the biggest world news but that’s what happens [referring to a September 2022 video of using gang signs at a birthday party that he then apologized for] and they had to do what they felt was best for the organization and moving forward so I can’t hold them for that. There’s a couple of things I wish I could’ve done differently, but there’s also some things I wish I didn’t play through in my career that got me to the point where I had to deal with injuries. God has this whole life mapped out for us, we’re just living in the moment and going through every obstacle that he throws at us. I feel like he gives his toughest battles to his strongest people and I think that’s why I was able to get through that obstacle.”
Despite the laundry list of grievances each side has, Wall did not close the door on possibly returning to play in DC should the opportunity present itself. Current owner Ted Leonsis may share a different perspective as he was notably not present for Wall’s homecoming, same as Gilbert Arenas’s the month before, but it is another sign of Wall’s maturity now distanced from the then raw emotion of betrayal when general manager Tommy Sheppard had assured there were no plans to trade Wall with training camp approaching in 2020. Wall’s relationship with his new team owner Steve Ballmer, in contrast, leaves much to be desired for Wizards fans.
“For sure, where I started my career, you definitely want to end it there,” Wall reiterated his comments a week later prior to the Clippers’ second and final matchup against the Wizards on the season. “Hopefully that can happen, maybe it doesn’t. I can’t control that narrative, but that’s why I said the chapter is never closed. You never know what can happen in the future. I just live in the moment, I’m happy to be playing basketball again. If I have the opportunity to go there at the end of my career, maybe might sign for a day just to say you retired there, I’m all for it. I have no grudges to hold with anybody. I understand it’s a business and you have to move on and life goes on.”
Wall has a $6.8 million Clippers team option next season before scheduled free agency in 2024, but even if he did not play another game for the Wizards in the coming years, an honorary one-day retirement contract should be at a minimum forthcoming (but hopefully not for a while). Beyond that, I won’t hold my breath on anything imminent with how long it took for Phil Chenier to get the honor, but count John Wall as one of many Washingtonians wanting to see his No. 2 jersey get retired in the future as arguably the best Washington Wizard in the team’s 25-year history since the name change in 1997 from the Washington Bullets.
“I hope so, I think I did enough to get my jersey retired and I feel like I’m one of the greatest Wizards of all time,” Wall assessed. “The only thing I didn’t accomplish was winning a championship, which was my ultimate goal for the city. Everything else was just being me.”