John Wall returns to Washington, where he deserved a better ending
After a messy split with the Wizards, the city’s favorite basketball son is back
[ jen-truh-fi-kay-shuhn ]
the process of conforming to an upper- or middle-class lifestyle, or of making a product, activity, etc., appealing to those with more affluent tastes.
There’s a thing in Washington known as The Plan. It’s a popular conspiracy theory that once the city was granted home rule, the rich white people in the suburbs would reclaim the blocks they once unfairly owned to begin with. Slowly but surely, after icing out Black neighborhoods from basic city services, they could move back and take over, and in doing so price out the people who kept the place viable to begin with.
Slap a fancy term or two on it, like “urban renewal” (aka Negro Removal) or say “mixed-use development” and bang, suddenly a city is hip and upcoming, and bang, you get a fancy word to argue about and define ourselves.
Now, in simpler terms, white folks moving Black people out the paint in their own spaces is what we call gentrification. Home rule was granted to Washington by Congress in 1973, the same year that the future Monumental Sports owner Ted Leonsis landed on campus at Georgetown University in Northwest Washington. In 2020, John Wall got gentrified straight out of the nation’s capital, and it was Theodore who made the call.
Johnathan Hildred Wall Jr.’s arrival in the District was not without fanfare in 2010. He was the No. 1 pick overall, and the first pick of the Leonsis era with the franchise. Reebok made him the face of its basketball campaign. He was given the key to the city the day after he was drafted, before he’d played a minute in the league. He was named MVP of summer league. During his NBA debut, even his opening night dance – The Dougie Heard Round the World – was overly scrutinized.
The hype was real. As importantly, it was really all Washington had. Washington, a basketball city, hadn’t had a star who felt remotely homegrown since Allen Iverson left the Hoyas in the ’90s. Alex Ovechkin was a star in town, but Robert Griffin III had yet to arrive.
Not to mention, the Michael Jordan era in Washington was a complete joke all-around and Gilbert Arenas, once the darling of Washington, decided he wanted to bring guns into his own locker room, becoming an abject disaster. Things were bad. People getting killed in the streets left and right while rich hoopsters were pulling guns on each other over card game debts on a private plane? No thanks.
But here comes Wall, a breath of fresh air into a franchise that desperately needed it. You have to understand, Barack Obama had just been elected president the year before. And the hope that comes with a new administration locally in Washington is more than just one of political aspirations. People still have to live their everyday lives on the ground with citizens who may or may not want to get along. Even a moribund professional basketball franchise can play a role in that.
But then again, Washington isn’t just any old basketball town. It’s one of the most influential basketball cities in America. While the NFL’s team might have a grip on fans of a certain age, from an operational standpoint, basketball is the lifeblood of the city.
Washington is where the game took its first steps back in the early 1900s after James Naismith invented the game. Fast-forward 70 years and John Thompson is creating a national brand at Georgetown University, motivating multiple generations of young players. Twenty years after that, Prince George’s County outside Washington is turning out pro players left and right. For years, the Capital Classic, a showcase where the nation’s biggest high school all-stars came to play against the Washington area’s all-stars, was held at the Capital Centre, home of the Bullets. The locals won, routinely.
Point being, appreciation for basketball is inherent to being a sports fan in Washington. People know a worthy star when they see one. Because we grew up with them. On the pro level, none shone brighter than Wall, who was a five-time All-Star from 2014 to 2018.
Did the praise from hometown fans get more slurpy than it needed to at times? Sure. Washington fans desperate for validation spent way too much time worrying about whether he was a top-five point guard for the sake of arguing on Twitter, leading directly to one of the more fascinating self-proclaimed superlatives in sports history of Wall being the “best shot blocking point guard in the history of the league.”
But there were plenty of genuine moments that are impossible to deny. Regardless of how gimmicky the event was in 2014, Wall still won an NBA dunk contest the first year he was an All-Star. He was a flat-out electrifying player. The magnum opus came against the Boston Celtics in 2017, when he went nuts in the second half of an elimination game at home, including a game winner. He jumped on the scorer’s table after the victory, a signature moment in his career.
That style of play had come to be known as “gang sign Wall.” Him, in control, a blur on the court, hyping the crowd and repping his set. And everyone loved it. Sure he might have been a little out of control from end-to-end, but who cares? Did you see that?
“I remember that those  playoffs with Paul [Pierce], when we made the playoffs, it was a legit chance,” Ralph Wesley, former public address announcer for the Wizards, said of Wall’s popularity. “And John couldn’t do any wrong at that point from a fan base standpoint.”
Then it all went awry.
If you walk north from the White House on Connecticut Avenue NW, it won’t be long before you happen upon a place called Rosebar, a legendary nightspot. A place where the turn up was real, to use the parlance of the internet, where on any given night you could see a person of some repute partying more than you might expect. One time I saw a prominent local politician’s son getting Grey Goose poured straight down his throat in front of a crowd who loved watching it. The only reason it was noticeable among all the other usual club shenanigans is that I was at the next table over.
But the otherwise fun haunt became a national discussion point when, during a conversation about Wall’s injury rehab in 2018, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith clowned the entire franchise, never mind Wall, by positing that the point guard was in the club too much to be taken seriously as a committed athlete. Was it a fair criticism? Perhaps, but it didn’t help that earlier that summer Wall’s USA Basketball photo made him look like he’d just been released from behind bars, in his own words.
It was a somewhat embarrassing affair for an irrelevant franchise. But it set in motion a series of events that only make sense in a city where suddenly the very people who supported, built and elevated the product were steadily marginalized.
“John Wall was given a lot of money at a very young age and did not make any terrible mistakes,” said Rodney Rikai, who was the in-arena host at Wizards game and also assigned sponsorship and fan engagement for five years. “And he represented himself in that organization in a way that many other people thought had fallen short. …
“But John was like the people’s champ. Like he didn’t feel inaccessible.”
For the record: If John Wall would like to come back & retire as a Wizard, the fans would love nothing more than for that to happen.
— Becca Winkert (@BeccaMVP) February 14, 2021
That of course depends on the kind of person you are. If you were like Rikai, or Wall, absolutely. If you were, say, Zach Leonsis, son of owner Ted, who is reported to be the person who decided that jettisoning longtime TV broadcasters Phil Chenier and Steve Buckhantz was a good idea, maybe the guy they called the “WallStar” didn’t sit the same way with you.
“I call it the Diddy glow,” Rikai added. “Diddy is one of the other people that I’ve come across who does, man. Like whether he has on his jewelry or not, when he walks, his presence says, ‘Yo, I’m somebody.’ His shoulders are back, and he has the presence, man.”
The thing about existing in Black cities in America is that you can’t just claim to be an ally because you are forced to live with us without violence, then act like something is wrong when we are just being ourselves. Additionally, if said originality in personality is what got us here to begin with, it makes no sense to quell who we are. That’s bad for business, never mind our health.
So, highlighting certain parts of our existence while denigrating others, either publicly or privately, is a tricky task. Because while many NBA players do their best to give back to the community, the connection isn’t always the same depending on the person. For Wall and Bradley Beal – a pairing of stars whose public relationship was always the subject of much talk – it was a natural fit.
For example, during the most intense year of our lives in 2020, the two hit the streets to protest police brutality. It was widely celebrated by the franchise, with the #DCFamily hashtag all over every social media post. An excellent show of solidarity and citizenship from the backcourt once known as the House of Zards.
“Some of them don’t care to do it and I think he and Beal both have been really good at kind of immersing themselves into the community and becoming one with the community and that’s a good thing,” Buckhantz said recently.
In a perfect image of new Washington, here were two prominent athletes, from the Blackest league in America, standing up for their people’s rights in a public and important way. All sorts of people joined the march, a legit show of solidarity through basketball. Beal told a story about an officer taunting him about ruining his career during a traffic stop, by arresting him for no reason.
As for Wall, connecting with the community was certainly nothing new. Even up until a couple months before he was unceremoniously shipped off to Houston, he was doing his best to make sure that other families were staying together as best as possible. His efforts to contribute to Washington’s 202 Assist program were noticed not just by sports fans, but those in the nonprofit community as well.
“He knew that rental assistance programs existed for tenants under certain circumstances, but he realized that not all tenants could quickly access those of that assistance or that assistance could solve all problems,” said Marian Siegel, executive director of Housing Counseling Services, a nonprofit funded primarily by the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. “And so, his team looked kind of between the cracks to see what he could do quickly, and quickly he did. He did a fundraising campaign where it wasn’t just his money, but he seeded a fund that encouraged other celebrities and noncelebrities to invest in low-income tenants to keep them in their homes.”
He looked out for people as best he could, at a time when skyrocketing rents are just another footnote in the vicious cycle of displacement and gentrification. It wasn’t just team interest, it was natural interest from a man whose father died at an early age and whose mother had recently died in December 2019. That’s the guy the Wizards traded away.
“He brought his family to D.C. You know what I mean? Like, his mom was a mainstay in the city. That’s a city that he embraced beyond just playing basketball. For anybody to speak on John Wall in any other way than positively, while he’s going through one of the roughest time periods of his life, is a travesty. And it’s a damn shame,” Rikai said. “The man lost his mom. The man is battling injuries. He’s trying to come back. He’s trying to become a father. Trying to understand what it means to be a father, being a Black man who didn’t grow up having one necessarily. And you talk about the man because every now and again he like to go to the club and have a good time.
“I want to see how people out here act when they have $200 million. I want to see if they’re a hermit crab when they’re given $200 million at 24, 25 years old. And allow for people outside of their own community to try to dictate who they are, what they are, trying to change your origin story.”
John Wall on facing the Wizards tomorrow: “It’ll be some faces I can’t wait to see, and others…you know what it is.”
— Kelly Iko (@KellyIkoNBA) February 14, 2021
Publicly, there was a reasonable argument that it was a basketball decision to trade Wall. The huge contract, the injury debacles, the speculation about his rehab, it was all arguable to a point, except for one big problem: Most people just didn’t care about the basketball beyond entertainment. Fans in Washington know the difference between a contender and a pretender, mainly because the franchise was almost never in the former category. The latter was barely even achievable at times.
Meaning, people knew full well this set of players wasn’t winning a division title or anything close, never mind some deep playoff run. John’s rehab seemed to be going well, with Instagrm serving as a front row seat to his rehab process, and also apparently as his ticket out of town. A video surfaced of him shirtless at a party, doing the same thing he’d done on the court as a member of the Wizards, and it was clearly the last straw for Leonsis. (Newsflash: Many Black men in the NBA come from communities in which gang affiliation is a matter of survival and support, not violence and crime.)
For some, it was understandable for both sides that he had to go at that point.
“No offense to John, but I come from the school of, if you didn’t win a championship, if you couldn’t even make it to the Eastern Conference finals, hey, love you, but it’s time to part ways,” Wesley said. “Because honestly, and this was, again, I like to stress this, this is no slight against John as a player, but the experiment, it wasn’t even an experiment, it was a full-fledged, we’re doing this, with Brad and John, it just wasn’t working.
“I think we plateaued at some point, and it just wasn’t going to work moving forward. As good as John and Brad are as individuals and the support that was around them at times, it just wasn’t a championship feel.”
But the way it happened was flat-out grimy. Rumors about the brass not being impressed with his actions that night started circulating, and Wall eventually apologized. Then rumors started circling about the franchise using it as an excuse to deal him, and he asked out. It was awkward at best, considering the bill of goods the franchise had literally sold against his likeness to fans, regarding a comeback. It never happened.
Instead, not unlike so many housing projects that were torn down in Washington for the sake of mixed-use developments that we were promised would be beneficial to everybody, they traded him and kicked dirt on his name, through sneak dissing on the way out. According to Wall, they couldn’t even be straight up with the guy who was the reason anyone paid attention to the rest of them to begin with. That’s the opposite of making chicken salad. It felt exactly like how developers talked when they tore down the places that families had lived for years in the name of “revitalization.” By calling Russell Westbrook durable and high-character, it was a direct shot at a guy in Wall who’d been nothing but a positive contribution to his community.
“I was shocked. I don’t know if I was hurt shocked because, sadly, being in this business for as long as I have, I’ve seen it happen too many times to too many guys who I didn’t think it should have happened to,” Buckhantz said. “And all that did was remind me that it is a business first for these owners, man.”
“You can have a little bit more reverence for the guy who carried this organization, who for 11 years never put him in an optimal position to win. That’s the thing that, unfortunately, sometimes white people do when they’re done with you. They’ll change the narrative about who you are,” Rikai said. “The Wizards benefited greatly from having John Wall present. So, anything other than, ‘We love the f— out of that guy, and he’s the son of our organization’ is a huge embarrassment and a huge dark mark.”
Overall, though, the entire episode was unbecoming for a player who gave so much to a city that respects the game as much as it does. And at 7-17, the worst record in the East, and arguably being the worst team in the league, the Wizards clearly lost the trade.
The most apt description of the entire situation came from a brother and sister on TikTok, the former a Wizards superfan. While standing in his living room, his sister asks him what’s wrong.
my new favorite person on earth pic.twitter.com/lFR530cCJu
— Openly Black History (@clintonyates) December 3, 2020
“My boy John Wall gone, he’s gone. To Houston, he’s gone.”
He got traded?
“For Russell. Westbrook.”
Are you upset about it?
“Yep. The Wizards are never going to be the same ever again,” he concludes.
Monday night, Wall will return to Washington, where he is still beloved by many. But when it comes to playing against his former team, Wall has said publicly that this is all still personal to him. On the day after Valentine’s Day, there will be no love lost.