John Wall Needs a Miracle
Everyone’s counting on him to turn around one of the worst teams in the NBA—and he believes he can take them all the way to the NBA Finals. Crazy? Maybe. But before you write him off, consider what he’s overcome to get this far.
John Wall believes he’s got a damn good shot. He believes that if he keeps taking shots, one by one, they’ll fall and the Washington Wizards will rise. He’s sure of it.
His shots, though, don’t always fall on first attempt.
There he was launching shots this past November. Finally free to go home after a long day, he walked toward the steps leading out from the practice court in the Verizon Center. But instead of leaving, he grabbed a ball from the rack.
He’s a basketball junkie and doesn’t like to walk off a court without trying one last shot. He chucked a 20-footer up toward the rim. Clank. No hard feelings—he wasn’t really trying. Time to go home.
But before he reached the door, a Wizards staffer challenged him to make a shot from the top of the staircase. It was a long, tricky baseline shot with a low ceiling overhead.
Five shots turned to ten, and no one made a bucket. Not Wall. Not the three staffers who joined him. Wall came closest, his shots twice landing softly on the rim and spinning out. This didn’t look good, considering his reputation as a poor shooter and his insistence that he’d improved as he headed into his third NBA season. He was going to make one.
“I can’t leave with a miss,” he said. “Tell Twitter I made it in one try. It’s never taken me more than five.”
It was 5 o’clock on a Monday evening. An hour earlier, Wall had entered the facility full of energy, taking the stairs swiftly down to the court for a photo shoot. He’s the face of the Wizards organization and knows that life as an NBA star is more than showing up for games. Sometimes you have to smile for the cameras even though you’ve finished a long practice, undergone treatment for an injured knee, endured a long post-practice meeting, and, as he said, “just want to go home.”
Wall was cool. Everyone else in the building seemed on edge as they adjusted to the rock-star presence of young Justin Bieber and his circus-like entourage roaming the Verizon Center halls on Segways. Asked if he planned to stick around for the sold-out show—if he was a Belieber—Wall said, “Naw.”
While Bieber signed autographs, Wall did the only thing he’s been allowed to do while recovering from a knee injury. He posed for pictures: palming the ball with one hand, squeezing it with two, shooting a free throw, crossover dribbling, dribbling behind the back, faking a pass. Flexing his muscles. Turning this way. Standing that way. Sitting on a chair. Stepping back. Dribbling faster. Again and again.
“I need a smile from you, John,” the photographer said.
Wall dutifully cracked a semi-smile well rehearsed to show the right amount of teeth without looking cheesy. He never complained, but his puffy eyes betrayed his fatigue.
“I know how Bieber feels,” he said.
The photo shoot done, Wall started shooting baskets. Miss after miss, the count swelled to 20 and everyone but Wall was laughing.
Finally he nailed one, yelling, “Get the f—- in there!”
For those who know him, this was quintessential Wall. He’s competitive. He’s playful. He’s determined. He’s restless. He’s moody. He’s addicted to basketball. He has a potty mouth. All of which make him a strong candidate to be an NBA franchise player. But can he handle that responsibility? Does he even have a shot?
The Wizards haven’t won a championship in 35 seasons, and they’re counting on the 22-year-old point guard from Raleigh, North Carolina, to turn them into a playoff-qualifying team. It’s a near-impossible job for one player—despite his prodigious talents—especially one who missed the first 33 games of this 82-game season with a stressed left patella.
Wall wants to be beloved in this city. He wants to prove he’s as worthy as those household names from other cities—Chicago’s Derrick Rose, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, Los Angeles’s Kobe Bryant, Miami’s LeBron James.
“There’s so much work I have to do,” he says.
He believes he can get there. One shot at a time.
• • •
“I believe in my talent,” Wall tells me. And rightfully. He’s the wunderkind who got cut from his high-school team in Raleigh but shook it off to become the top-ranked high-school player in the US in 2009. Then after one year of college at Kentucky, he grabbed the spotlight in 2010 as the NBA’s number-one overall draft pick.
So, yeah, he believes in himself—even more in his power to focus his talents and achieve the unthinkable. That’s his humble plan for the Wizards. Playoffs. Championship. Locker-room Champagne showers. Pictures with President Obama. The whole thing.
As Wall enters year three of his pro career—he considers it the most important year—there are many reasons to doubt him. Then again, he’s proven naysayers wrong before.
“When I was in high school, there were so many people that said, ‘John Wall can’t do this, John Wall can’t do that,’ ” he says, looking my way as he recalls his teenage years.
I remember. I was one of the doubters. As a sports reporter for the News & Observer in Raleigh, I had a front-row seat for Wall’s remarkable rise. One day no one’s ever heard of him, the next they’re playing videos of his ferocious dunks on YouTube as if it’s Gangnam Style.
By 2010, Wall had his own dance—the John Wall Dance. On ESPN you’d see people imitating the silly arm move where you pump your bicep and then rotate your balled fist. Soon after the 2010 NCAA tournament, before the Wizards selected the 19-year-old as their top pick, he received a special endorsement from President Obama, who said in an interview with Marv Albert: “Wall is a terrific player. He’s got NBA speed, NBA body, great jump shot, unselfish, really impressive. There’s only upside for that kid. And I think it’d be great for him to come to Washington.”
Back then, that blew my mind. Had I missed something? He had been impressive at Kentucky—scoring the most points of any freshman in school history and earning SEC player of the year. But I recalled an earlier version of the kid, five inches shorter with a defective jump shot and a surly demeanor.
I saw Wall play for Garner Magnet High School in North Carolina when he was a sophomore, then later at Word of God Christian Academy. I thought he was too short, too scrawny, his game too incomplete to amount to much. He walked around angry and played in a reckless, out-of-control way.
Later, as his name caught fire, I shrugged it off, telling one coach there were many more talented players in the region. “He can’t shoot,” I said. “How is he a pro if he can’t shoot?”
They said he was an elite NCAA Division I basketball player—perhaps the greatest ever to come from North Carolina.
So it’s strange to sit across from him in the Verizon Center eight years later, in an empty arena where he’s the franchise player. When he talks about how people used to doubt him, I raise my hand and admit, “I missed it.”
“I appreciate you being honest,” Wall says. He doesn’t seem to take it personally, as though his opinion is the only one that matters. And in a way he’s right.
Wall’s the future of the Wizards. He’s positioned to become an NBA All-Star—a spot he proclaimed for himself at age ten. He’s always believed this was his destiny.
“I just wanted to prove people wrong,” he says. “I tuned everything out and went for it.”
Wall’s mother, Frances Pulley, bought her son a Fisher-Price basketball set for Christmas when he was three. She replaced it every year because he played with that hoop until it fell apart.
“Dunked on it,” Wall says. “Every time.”
His mom could count on his doing two things: dunking and acting out. Pulley watched her child terrorize basketball teams and camps and schools. He was the hyperactive kid who pricked everyone’s nerves, speaking out of turn and ignoring instructions.
“He got kicked out of school all the time,” she says. “I had to go get him from school every day when he was in the first and second grade.”
His behavior grew worse as he got older, Pulley says, especially after his father, John Carroll Wall Sr., died of cancer.
Wall knew his father from prison visits. His mother took John and his younger sister, Cierra, to see their dad—who was serving time for robbery with a deadly weapon—every Sunday. They made the trip for six years until their father was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1998. The elder Wall, who was born and raised in DC, was released from prison when it was clear his condition was terminal. The family spent three months together before he died on August 24, 1999.
That summer, there was a trip to White Lake, North Carolina. Eight-year-old John and his dad swam together in the ocean on the first day of the trip. Later that night, he started coughing up large amounts of blood in the hotel bathroom. An ambulance came, and the next day he died. He was 52.
His son drew inward and responded to tense situations with balled fists.
By then, Wall was playing AAU basketball. Or at least he was enrolled. Coaches kicked him out of every practice because of his attitude. His mother worked two jobs and struggled to pay travel-team fees. She hosted fish fries on Friday nights to raise money.
“You have a choice,” she said. “Play ball or you’re off the team.”
• • •
Wall slowly started changing, but nothing resonated for him more than the news he received one morning in 2006. He had played two years for Garner Magnet High School before his family moved a few miles down the road. That change required a reluctant switch to Broughton High. He enrolled, intending to play basketball alongside Brock Young, a talented guard people talked about more than they did Wall. They called Brock “the King” and Wall “the Prince.” Many believed Broughton would have the best high-school backcourt in the country.
That is, until Wall got a call from Young on the way to school. He was riding in the car with his mother and sister.
“You didn’t make the team,” Brock said. Wall heard Brock’s father in the background arguing with Broughton’s coach, Jeff Ferrell.
“I was like, ‘Y’all just playing,’ ” Wall says. “He was like, ‘No, we’re serious.’ ”
He came home and retreated to his bedroom, avoiding people for two weeks. How do you go to school and face questions? Everyone talked about his potential, yet he couldn’t make his high-school team.
“I’d never been cut,” he says. “I’ve always been the star player on my team.”
His mother broke down in tears. “I’d never really seen her cry unless my dad died,” Wall says. “She’s crying, my coaches are calling, ‘What? You got cut?’ They couldn’t believe it.”
Wall says he soul-searched, reflecting on conversations with his father and thinking about what he really wanted from life. His dad had stressed going to college and finding an outlet for his talent.
Ferrell, who is still Broughton’s coach, says he explained his decision to Wall but has never talked about it publicly. He sees it as a private matter similar to a parent/teacher conference.
“I don’t feel it’s my right to share with the public,” Ferrell says. “If where he is now has a little bit to do with what happened, that’s great. I’m happy for him.”
Wall used getting cut as motivation. “Damn, I wasn’t good enough. I think that’s what really humbled me,” he says. “Then I looked and Michael Jordan got cut, the greatest player I ever watched play basketball.”
Every serious NBA fan knows the story. Michael Jordan—arguably the greatest player in the history of the NBA—was put on the junior-varsity team at Laney High in Wilmington, North Carolina, as a sophomore in 1979, instead of varsity. Jordan has long recalled the story as getting “cut.” He says it motivated him, though some observers say the standard at the time was to put all sophomores—no matter their talent—on junior varsity except in unusual circumstances.
Wall, on the other hand, was straight-out cut from the team. His closest friend, Ty Williams, recalls that from that day he wasn’t the same pop-off-at-the-mouth showman.
“That was an eye-opener for him,” says Williams, who has known Wall since seventh grade. “He started to realize that anybody can be cut. He changed his attitude on the court.”
In retrospect, this is the part of Wall’s story I should have told: He matured. He listened to his mother and others around him. He enrolled at Word of God Christian Academy—a private school in southeast Raleigh—and started building a name for himself. He also grew five inches seemingly overnight, retaining his speed and athleticism in a new, taller body.
• • •
An invitation to the 2007 Reebok All-American Camp in Philadelphia changed Wall’s life. Before that appearance in front of national scouts, he would come home after school and check the Internet for player rankings. He wasn’t ranked. He didn’t even have a profile on the recruiting website Rivals.com, and he hadn’t been offered a college scholarship.
In Philadelphia, he announced himself to the world. YouTube videos show him dominating games with speed and power, dribbling around screens and finishing at the basket with made-to-look-easy one-handed dunks. He scored 28 points against future NBA guard Brandon Jennings and stamped his name on the minds of every scout who attended. By 2008, he was the top-ranked college prospect in the country.
But there was something more. Word of God Christian Academy founder Frank Summerfield says he and Wall often talked in private about manhood and religion. Wall attended chapel and Bible study.
Dave Telep, a national scout for ESPN who lives near Raleigh, recalls Wall’s high-school years: “He probably changed more in those two years than I’ve ever seen a high-school player change. The anger was gone, and it was replaced with a love for the game and a real sense of humility.”
This is why Wall believes he can help the Wizards—he’s already conquered his fear and anger, already delivered himself from a deep hole. After two solid but not showstopping pro seasons, he hears the whispers about whether he’s the player to guide the team.
“I like it,” Wall says. “That’s motivation for me.
“Everybody is looking at me like, ‘Well, his first two seasons was the same. Can he be a franchise savior?’ I see it on ESPN all the time. ‘Is he a franchise player? Would you trust him with your team?’ I know I would trust myself with this team.”
The more you listen to Wall, the more you want to believe him. Then you think about what he faces. As of press time, the Wizards sat in second-to-last place in the Southeastern Division of the Eastern Conference. With an 0-12 start to the season, the team was on course to tie the NBA’s record for consecutive losses to start the season (18), set by the New Jersey Nets in 2009-10.
Wall returned on January 12. Despite his nervousness, he stepped onto the Verizon Center court to a standing ovation and, playing just 21 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks, delivered in star fashion.
There were alley-oop passes—four assists overall in his debut. There were layups—he finished the game with 14 points. And there was undeniable energy, punctuated by the spectacular moves that everyone has come to expect from Wall.
As the clock wound down at the end of the third quarter, Wall held the ball at the top of the three-point line. Hawks defender Devin Harris assumed a defensive position, but Wall raced by him en route to an easy bucket, displaying the blow-by speed that separates superior guards from average guards. He later screamed, “I’m back!”
Who was he talking to?
“To anybody,” says Wall, whose team won 93-83 over the Hawks. “To whoever was in my way.”
Many more heroic performances are needed from Wall to pull the Wizards from the basement and into any playoff conversation. Nonetheless … .
“He makes life much easier,” says rookie sharpshooter Bradley Beal. Wall’s return propelled the Wizards to a three-game winning streak—their longest during this dismal season.
Many consider Wall the fastest player in the NBA with the basketball in his hands. He’s a TV producer’s dream, creating highlight-reel material on nearly a nightly basis. Every time he pulls free into the open court, there’s a chance he may finish with an ankle-breaking crossover or a thunderous dunk. He’s praised for his courageous, high-flying antics, driving hard and undeterred into the league’s tallest defenders. Observers call him electric and freakishly athletic. He owns a 40-inch-plus vertical leap.
“It’s the speed,” Wizards forward Martell Webster says. “It’s the ball control. It’s the change of speed. The kid is good.”
Statistics bear out the compliments. Wall is the sixth-fastest player to reach 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in NBA history. Last season, he finished seventh in the league in assists per game.
What he hasn’t been able to do is win. Last year, the team finished with the league’s second-worst record (20-46) during a season shortened by a lockout. In all, Wall’s team won just 43 games in his first two seasons.
“It’s cool that he’s here, he’s playing in the NBA, he’s the franchise player,” his friend Ty Williams says. “That’s cool. But it ain’t worth nothing if you’re the franchise player and you ain’t winning.”
• • •
Wall wasn’t supposed to be the Wizards’ franchise guy—at least not so soon. That role was designated for Gilbert Arenas.
Arenas, who was dubbed Agent Zero and owned a lethal jump shot, was a fan favorite, lifting the Wizards—along with Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler—to the playoffs from 2005 to 2008. “Gilbert had this city in the palm of his hands,” Wizards TV analyst Phil Chenier says.
The team brought Wall on to complement Arenas, to be the skilled playmaker who could feed the hot-handed veteran. They were to be a formidable duo.
But on December 21, 2009, Arenas had brought a handgun into the locker room and ruined it for everyone. He made light of the situation and never recovered.
With the departure of Arenas in 2010 —a welcomed trade to Orlando—Wall was anointed the new franchise guy in his rookie year, at age 20. Before he had settled in, he was called on to lead.
“I want to be the best player who ever played here,” Wall says. He knows that’s saying a lot considering the team’s early history, with Hall of Fame players Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, Wes Unseld, and Elvin Hayes. Wall wants to add his name to that legacy.
He wants to be king of a city that at its core is basketball-crazed. The Redskins hold a special place in the hierarchy of Washington sports—especially with the addition of quarterback Robert Griffin III—and the Wizards averaged only about 17,000 in attendance last year, with just two sellouts. But a legion of hoops fans here is just waiting for something exceptional to cheer about at Verizon Center.
They want to believe in Wall.
• • •
At least once a week, sometimes daily, Wall tweets this message to his 678,265 Twitter followers: “Thankful for another day!!”
It’s a refreshing sentiment from an NBA star, especially one who signed a $25-million endorsement deal with Reebok in 2010 and made a reported $5.5 million last season with the Wizards.
Wall says he remembers the lean times, before he could Instagram a photo of himself with the caption “Chill Day in The Coupe.” That’s Bentley coupe.
Wall flashes a bright smile. He shakes your hand but prefers a fist bump. His hair is cropped close, and he sports diamond studs in his ears. He has no tattoos. “I’ve been in the chair,” he says, but ink doesn’t quite fit the image he’s crafting. Some days, Wall is a casual dresser. A blazer, jeans, and Prada loafers. Other days, he’s a dandy. Light-gray suit, electric-blue tie, and matching pocket square. His closet holds a collection of hipster sneakers, and he’s been known to shop at Kickk Spott in Georgetown.
Like his idol, Allen Iverson, Wall has had a shoe named for him: the Reebok Wall Season 3: Zig Escape. (He recently announced a move to Adidas, whose shoes he now wears.) But back in the day, Wall’s mother bought his shoes—he loved Iverson’s Reebok Questions—on layaway. She worked day shifts at a hotel and cleaned buildings at night.
Life is better now. “A lot better,” she says. “I’m still in shock. Got a new car. New house. I’m happy.”
Wall says he often thinks about that angry kid who grew up poor on Davie Street in Raleigh. He thinks about the friends who chose the wrong paths, and he knows he could have easily walked with them.
“I’m thankful to be awake and see a new day and blessed to play basketball,” he says. “Having 19,000 fans screaming my name every night—it’s amazing, it’s exciting, it’s a dream come true.”
“This feels like home,” Wall says, having signed on for a fourth season with the Wizards in the preseason. He arrives early for practice and stays late. He’s getting out into the community and seems to enjoy meeting local kids.
At Simon Elementary School in Southeast DC one morning in September, Wall strolled into the gymnasium to raucous cheers from kids participating in the national BOKS (Build Our Kids’ Success) program, which promotes early-morning physical activity among school-age children. Wall could relate—as a student, he picked gym as his first-period class to energize himself.
Wall joined the kids on the school’s field for games, warmups, and other activities. Limited by his knee injury, he didn’t run around much. But he answered students’ questions, bending down to hear them. He smiled the entire time.
“He wants to do the right things,” Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld says. “And it’s genuine. He understands the responsibility.”
Perks come with his position, too, such as throwing out the first pitch for the Nationals. In 2010, DC mayor Adrian Fenty named June 25 John Wall Day. And last August, Wall participated in a campaign fundraiser for President Obama in New York. He joined basketball legends such as Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Patrick Ewing in a benefit shoot-around at Chelsea Piers.
Wall first spoke to Barack Obama as a freshman at Kentucky; he challenged the President to a game of HORSE. (Obama declined.) But while the President had welcomed Wall to Washington on TV, he had yet to attend a Wizards game. So when Wall saw Obama at the fundraiser, he made a request.
“I put a little pressure on him,” Wall says. “I said, ‘I want to see you at a couple games this year.’ He said he’s going to do that for me.”
Wall lives five blocks from the Verizon Center with his friend Ty Williams, whom he calls a brother. Their circle is small, growing to five when Wall’s other closest friends—Reggie Jackson, Baine Okafor, and E.J. Grissett—come up from North Carolina.
Wall’s condo is on one of the top floors of his building, giving him panoramic views of downtown DC from his living room. TVs are stacked and framed in a grid on one wall, as in an ESPN studio set, and a Red Bull vending machine is in the kitchen.
Wall rarely cooks, but his mother visits at least twice a month, preparing her son’s favorites: fried fish, shrimp, greens, spaghetti, and corn. On nights without leftovers, Wall’s friends eat out at one of their favorite haunts: Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Fogo de Chão, Hot N Juicy Crawfish, District ChopHouse & Brewery. He has talked a few owners into staying open late so he has a place to go after games.
At Wall’s condo, NBA TV is the preferred channel. If he’s not watching classic games, he’s studying Wizards game film for hours at a time. Or surfing his laptop for information about NBA greats. Or out watching DeMatha High School’s basketball team. He’s a basketball fanatic—something Ernie Grunfeld learned during a half-hour pre-draft interview in 2010.
“You could tell,” Grunfeld says. “Very few young players nowadays know the history of the game. The Oscar Robertsons and going way back into the ’60s and ’70s. He knows all those guys.”
Bowling is another favorite pastime. Wall is proud of what others describe as the oddest, ugliest overhand, bent-wrist roll you’ve ever seen. “Janky,” Williams calls it, but he acknowledges his friend’s 160 average.
Wall doesn’t have a girlfriend, and he’s been criticized by fans for excessive partying, jet-setting from New York to Atlanta to Miami to California. His Twitter page is littered with celebrity photos: Kevin Hart, Floyd Mayweather Jr., The Game, Wale, Ludacris. Parties and club dates fill his calendar, but mostly in the summer off-season.
“It’s harder for a young guy coming into a city like this,” Williams says. “You have to be focused and remember what your main goal is and why you are here. You can get sidetracked quick with the nightlife.”
Wall defends himself: “Listen, man, the summertime I’m going to enjoy myself. But at the same time, as long as I’m up every morning by 6:30 am and going to the gym by 7, it doesn’t bother me. Throughout the season if I was doing it, that would be a lot different.”
• • •
One obvious link connects Wall to the kid I watched years ago: his inconsistent shot.
He was a 41.6-percent shooter from the field during his first two seasons and just 23.6 percent from three-point range—far below where the team needs him to be. Last year, he made only three of 42 attempts from the arc.
If Wall doesn’t improve his shot this season, he may never convince fans he’s the right man to be the Wizards’ franchise player. “If he can’t make a jump shot, it’s time for him to go,” says Scot Singleton, a Wizards season-ticket holder.
Wall knows it. He worked with a new trainer, Rob McClanaghan, during the off-season to improve his shot. He spent weeks in California to develop consistent habits and exaggerate his follow-through. Last year, he often faded away, splaying his legs and pulling shots short.
As a young player, he moved anywhere he wanted on the court, but he can’t rely only on speed to carry him in the NBA.
“If I start making jump shots, it’s going to be tough to stop me,” Wall says.
Looking in on Wall eight years after I first observed him in Raleigh, I admire what he’s accomplished. He’s learning on the job and making his mark. I’m glad to have been wrong about him.
With the Wizards’ 0-12 start this season, the team has little respect in the NBA. Plenty of people doubt Wall can turn the team around.
He believes differently.
“I just want to see how the city is going to be when we start winning and make the playoffs,” Wall says. “It’s kind of amazing how the fans get. I want to see it.”
This article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.