This is the cover feature for Dime #70. To see the piece in its entirety, check out the issue on newsstands nationwide now.
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A year ago, we weren’t the only ones waiting for John Wall to explode. The entirety of the basketball universe felt he was on the cusp of touching greatness. Instead, the rise of one of the NBA’s best young players slowed through a tumultuous losing season in Washington. Now, Wall plans on fulfilling his promise next season. The world is waiting.
There are the smiles, the fist pounds and the congratulatory handshakes, the markers signing basketballs and the sneakers exchanged. Cameras flash, and the light swarms over everyone. There’s one of them asking, “Where you goin’ tonight?” as if the only thing in the world he wants to add is, “Let me come too.” It’s a tsunami of adulation, a title wave of admiration, a downpour of respect. John Wall, in his red and black Louis Vuitton sneakers, drinking out of a blue and steel gray Red Bull can, says he got used to it. He had to. Because this stampede isn’t even killer, these autograph and picture seekers are all ballplayers themselves. Some are former D-I players. Others get paid overseas. Some are merely Washington, D.C. streetballers. All are here for Red Bull Midnight Run. But they’re not supposed to glow when Wall shouts them out. Love is love on the court. Respect the game. But if they can engulf him like this, he’ll need a police escort the next time he walks into the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.
It’s a regular thing for a star. Celebrity is a proverbial fishbowl, where you can get caught up in the middle off it, look up and suddenly, you can’t move or breathe. “The more you win, the more they come,” Derrick Rose told GQ recently. The funny thing about this story though? Wall hasn’t actually become one yet.
16.3 points per game. Eight assists a night. A 17.77 Player Efficiency Rating, ranking him No. 71 in the entire NBA. As a team, the Wizards went 20-46, and were out of the race for the playoffs within last season’s first 15 games. What will everyone remember from their year? More often than not, it’ll be the night JaVale McGee ran the wrong way.
One summer after we put Wall on the cover of our “Breakout Issue,” one lockout after the 2010 No. 1 overall pick flew all over the country and shut down every gym and playground across America, and one season after he had one of the most disappointing NBA years of anyone, nothing has really changed. Wall is still learning to become great, and the Wizards are still a mess.
“You wanna do it all,” Wall says. “You wanna be an All-Star. You wanna be one of the top five best point guards. You wanna make the playoffs, and get this city back to where they know they can be. When you have the playoffs, I heard how crazy it could be when everybody is wearing all white. That’s what I want to get to. I want to be the savior.”
Charles Dickens once wrote a novel about the personal growth of an orphan boy who went from a hardened blacksmith to a wealthy gentleman. But Pip did it all in the shadow of anonymity. John Wall has his Great Expectations, and they are dragging him along for the ride. The public needs a star. Washington, D.C. needs a hero. And they want him now.
Wall can play the part. At the Red Bull Midnight Run in downtown D.C., he survived the mass of awed ballplayers to command the gym, and helped the event staff pick out which players deserved to move on in the national showcase tournament. Wall called out to his friend, Baby Shaq, after a strong post move. He yelled at Ralph Hegamin Jr., an overseas player, and asked for his name in the middle of a game. Everything nearly stopped. He joked with Myles Holley, “We’re used to seeing dunks go in the basket!” after the local player barely missed a windmill. He was Yoda, and the 100 players in attendance were his apprentices.
Weeks before, we shot the cover for this issue at famed Barry Farms playground on a sweltering Friday in April. Wall pulled up in the passenger seat of a gleaming white Porsche, wearing flip-flops and black NBA socks. It was 3:38 in the afternoon. Washington had practice at 5. Wall came in and knocked it out: posing against the fence, Red Bull and Reebok product shots with the sun shredding his face, time needed with a basketball in his hand, and the video interview. Anyone who’s worked with famous athletes knows it doesn’t always go this way.
I asked him about his new sponsorship with Red Bull, and how often he drinks it.
“Often, probably once or twice a day,” he told me, before adding. “Most of the time, I try to drink my mom’s sweet tea. But if I’m not drinking that or Gatorade, I try to sneak a Red Bull in there.”
Smooth. Classy. Wall has this superstar shit down pat.
Just last summer, Javaris Crittenton was memorably arrested in connection with an Atlanta murder. Earlier in that same August, ex-NBAer Sean Banks was arrested after he was suspected to be involved in two separate burglaries totaling $20,000 worth of valuables. For 149 days, through the summer and into the fall, David Stern, Billy Hunter and the rest of the NBA’s suits couldn’t break down a $4 billion dollar pie, nearly keeping the world’s fanbase from getting a taste. After a loss in the 2011 NBA Finals, LeBron James even admitted he locked himself away in his home for two weeks, sulking, listening to nothing but Barry White and Curtis Mayfield, feeling sorry for himself. It was a summer of gloom for Stern’s global brand, from actual arrests to the near arrest of the entire NBA.
Meanwhile, John Wall got in trouble for playing too much basketball.