John Wall has engendered enough goodwill in his time in Washington — heck, in just the past few months — that a video which surfaced early Sunday morning of him throwing up gang signs, lifting a red bandana and looking completely out of sorts isn’t enough to take a blowtorch to his character. What he did was stupid, not criminal. But he doesn’t get a pass.
Wall doesn’t need any advice or condemnation. He needs a reminder that he’s worked too hard to toss away what he’s earned. The apology that he released on Twitter after social media put his embarrassing exploits on blast signaled that he is at least aware of the damage he has done to his reputation. Acknowledging the mistake – even if he wasn’t direct about what exactly he regretted (That the video was made public? Boasting his affiliation with the blood gang? Not practicing social distancing procedures during a pandemic?) – was an important and necessary step toward moving forward.
But from now until he eventually makes his return to an NBA floor, Wall is going to have to decide what’s really important to him.
In this business, we get the pleasure of interacting with athletes whom fans dream of sharing the same vicinity, but we don’t fully know them, only what they’re willing to share with us. That being said, I’ve been around Wall enough over his 10 years in the NBA to know a little something about him. He’s a good dude.
With a good heart. He’s loyal, almost to a fault. But in recent years, Wall has had difficulty matching up his aspirations with his actions.
Wall wants to be a leader but hasn’t always been able to channel his energy positively to inspire those around him. He wants to be the best point guard ever but showed up to training camp out of shape at the start of the past two seasons in which he played. He wants to prove his critics wrong but hands them the weaponry to attack. It doesn’t have to be this way, but Wall just raised some reasonable doubt about his return from a nearly two-year absence that has repeatedly been interrupted by setbacks, both physical and mental.
When friends and colleagues started sending me the gang-sign video, my first reaction was neither anger nor disappointment. It was sadness. This was such an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound to what should be a redemptive period in his life and career.
As Wall crunched up his face and twisted his fingers while others recorded the gestures on their smartphones, I saw a man who looked troubled. No one needs to wonder if the time since Wall made his last NBA appearance against the Detroit Pistons – Dec. 26, 2018 – has been challenging. He’s suffered a ruptured Achilles. He had to deal with the loss of his mother and rock, Francis Pulley, last December. He’s had to watch the power of the franchise transferred into the hands of Bradley Beal, who has thrived in Wall’s absence.
One would be heavy enough. All three at once – while also becoming the father of two young boys – and the weight has likely been paralyzing.
That doesn’t excuse the careless disregard Wall displayed for those who have supported him through all of those challenges. Wall has an owner in Ted Leonsis, who plans to pay him more than $130 million over the next three years and has committed, for the time being, to building around whatever version — diminished or otherwise — hits the floor next season. He has an in-demand, All-Star teammate in Beal, who shunned the possibility of bailing on the beleaguered franchise and instead signed an extension that bound the two to play together for at least two more years, maybe three. He has fans who have waited, and waited, and suffered through the franchise’s nosedive back to irrelevance while he recovers.
Everyone loves a good comeback story, but how can they be concerned or care about Wall if he doesn’t appear to be trying to do the right thing? You gain equity and the benefit of the doubt through the evidence of hard work, through a dedicated approach to coming back in the best condition, with the best focus. Anyone who has watched a player work himself back from a traumatic, potentially career-threatening injury understands that the path is never a straight line. Bumps must be overcome. The body doesn’t always comply. Confidence is shaken. But when the other side finally arrives, those tales of perseverance boost the legacy, build the legend.
Wall should be laying low, living in the lab and letting greater fools dominate the headlines with head-shaking shenanigans. The only videos he should be posting are encouraging shots on Instagram of him working out or dunking, not publicizing gang affiliations. Gang Sign John Wall first became a meme in 2015, when he celebrated an assist to Bradley Beal in a second-round playoff game against the Atlanta Hawks by forming his index finger and thumb into the shape of a circle and shouting, “Big Bs, bitch!” It gained a little life on the Internet, the league considered investigating it but was easily accepted as a heat-of-the-moment, emotional outburst. Just a giggle and wink incident that wasn’t questioned or taken all that seriously.
The video from Sunday morning was an in-your-face declaration. It was made all the more disconcerting because Wall allowed someone to capture the display and flippantly plaster it all over a place where it would only be ridiculed, at best, and put him in danger, at worst. Without that little 13-second clip being shared, only those in the room would’ve known what transpired. Wall gained nothing from it going public; in addition to tone-deafly attending an indoor party without masks during a pandemic, he appeared out of shape, incoherent and pressed. It was a bad look.
Wall doesn’t need any more respect from the hood, because he already had it through his dedication to taking care of those near and dear and to him and his sincere involvement with community service projects and donations to neglected communities. Back in June, Wall raised more than $550,000 to provide rent assistance through his 202 Assist fundraiser for families in Ward 8 affected by the pandemic. He led a Juneteenth march in protest of racial injustice and inequality. They were both uplifting moments, and completely on-brand for Wall. He’s shown a passion for his charity work, winning the NBA Cares Community Assist award in 2016 for supporting causes in Washington and his hometown of Raleigh, N.C. He’s donated hundreds of thousands to Bright Beginnings, a nonprofit that provides learning centers for homeless children. The efforts never felt performative or public relations driven. They lined up with Wall’s authenticity.
“During this pandemic, if you don’t come out of this a better person, I mean, I don’t know what to tell you,” he told my colleague with The Athletic, Fred Katz, earlier this summer. “You know how people always say, ‘I don’t have time to do this or time to do that?’ Well, we have all the time in the world to do all the things we couldn’t do the last three months. We couldn’t go nowhere. So, you can lock in and focus on what you need to focus on. I just don’t think you wanna be nothing in life but be special.”
The good Wall has done and continues to do won’t be erased by this lapse. Wall, however, has made it harder to be viewed as a leader within a community that he deeply loves, within an organization that needs him to come back and be something close to what he once was.
Maybe the embarrassment will force Wall to acknowledge and confront the difficulty of the past few years. Finding the fortitude to keep plugging away, to keep pushing through repeated hard knocks would wear on anyone. His foundation has been rocked, in being separated from the game, from the fame, and losing the mother who inspired him to make something of his life rather than succumb to his environment. The latter hurts more than the game because the game only moved to the forefront when it became a means to make her life better. Wall would always get emotional when speaking of Pulley. He appreciated and admired her sacrifices, was motivated to never disappoint or embarrass her.
“That’s where all that comes from – what my family been through, the tough times I had to see, that adds a lot more fire to it and makes me even more passionate,” Wall once told me.
Wall has been the face of a franchise since he arrived at the venue formerly known as Verizon Center with a police escort and red-carpet entrance in 2010. He’s always embraced — or at least tried to grapple with — those challenges with a genuineness that made him both likable and relatable. He wasn’t going to be perfect, but he was going to be himself. You had to respect it, even if you disagreed with his approach. He has a proclivity for the nightlife and staunchly defends it, which is his prerogative. No one is asking him to be a wallflower.
But since being named to the All-NBA third team in 2017, Wall has had difficulty in reversing some downward trends with his production and health. And, Wall has had a few moments in recent years — such as that infamous bloated picture at Team USA — that suggests he’s experienced some difficulty in navigating all of the expectations and obligations. His transgressions have mostly been harmless, with only his image scarred and not anyone else.
This game, this league, doesn’t wait for players to figure it out, to mature. They move on to what’s next. Wall can’t get back the last two years of his career.
Because here’s the thing: the hard part, as it relates to basketball, hasn’t even arrived yet. Catching up to what he once was, much less surpassing it – after all of these surgeries and his advancing age – is unlikely and will require a level of discipline and mental strength for which few have the capacity. If these struggles are becoming too difficult to manage, Wall has the resources to get the help he needs before he completely loses control. If he has the will is yet to be determined.
Had this incident occurred five, 10 years ago, it could’ve been chalked up as a youthful indiscretion, a lesson from which Wall can learn and grow. But Wall isn’t some kid. He’s a 30-year-old, grown man who is fully aware of his responsibilities to set an example for his own children and others who admire him. He can have errors in judgment – we all do – but his are magnified given his status as someone who made it. The other people in the snippet wouldn’t have been able to produce all of the shares and likes; they’re accessories to the only five-time All-Star in the frame.
Wall’s prodigious athletic talents offered him an escape that only a minuscule portion of society is granted. His life has been smiled upon despite the accompanying stressors. He doesn’t have to forget or leave it all behind. He needs those who have been with him through the rough times, and have always rode for him, now more than ever. But Wall also has to recognize that he has to be the tide elevating the boats he chooses to take along. He can’t get caught up and allow those who don’t appreciate his good fortune to sink him.
In his apology, Wall vowed, “to be better on the court and more importantly off the court.” Getting those who care about what he does with a basketball to forget about these minor slip-ups becomes more difficult when negative publicity, unfortunately, plays out louder. Wall can’t continue to let the glitches become the program.