John Wall in 2014
John Wall in 2014 Credit: All-Pro Reels

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It’s hard to say goodbye. In his public farewell to D.C., John Wall noted that being traded from the Wizards wasn’t how he expected his time in the city to end, so instead of saying goodbye, he chose to thank the city he had called home for the last decade.

The city, in return, should be thanking Wall for the services he provided on and off the court, for representing the city and making Washingtonians feel both entertained and proud. 

The Wizards and their star player unceremoniously ended their decade-long partnership on Dec. 2, when the team agreed to trade Wall to the Houston Rockets along with a future protected first round pick in exchange for former league MVP Russell Westbrook. Although there were rumors of Wall requesting a trade from D.C., he never wanted to leave until he realized that he had fallen out of favor with certain powers within the organization, according to a source connected to Wall. In his mind, loyalty was a two-way street and the Wizards had broken the trust that he had built over the last decade. Wall’s departure signifies the end of an era for the Wizards.

Wall came to D.C. in June of 2010 as the No. 1 overall draft pick in the same month Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis acquired the team. Wall’s acquisition was the very first transaction under Leonsis’ tenure, and the Wizards paved the way for him to be the centerpiece of the organization by trading former All-Star Gilbert Arenas. In a strange twist of fate, it appears that Wall’s exit will allow Bradley Beal to become the new face of the franchise in the same manner that the deck was cleared for Wall.

The Beal and Wall partnership had run its course, and while there was never as much animosity between the two players as national media tried to portray, it wasn’t as perfect as they both went out of their way to paint. Yes, the two would characterize themselves as “brothers for life” and their bond deepend when Beal stepped up as Wall grieved the loss of his mother, Frances Pulley, as Wall stated on Showtime’s All the Smoke podcast.

John isn’t leaving the Wizards and this situation mad at Brad,” a source close to the situation tells City Paper. Their careers have been connected for the better part of the last decade and ultimately Beal likely realized that he could not reach his full potential as a star in this league while having his legacy attached to Wall’s. 

This was Wall’s town, and even a two year absence away from the game couldn’t change that, especially with the Wizards not having any of the team success that they had while Wall was the five-time All-Star and unquestioned leader of the team. The combination of Wall and Beal served as a fruitful one for both players, as the Wizards achieved more team success than they had since the 1978 Bullets championship. 

The franchise had only once made the conference semi-finals over the last four decades before Wall and Beal led the Wizards in an upset playoff series win over the Chicago Bulls in 2014. The two came back the next year, sweeping the Toronto Raptors and threatening the 60-win Atlanta Hawks in 2015. In 2017, Wall pushed the Wizards to the verge of the Eastern Conference Finals, hitting a game winning shot in front of a sold-out Capital One Arena in Game 6 of the series against the Boston Celtics. It was the pinnacle of his career in Washington. In the moment after the final buzzer sounded, Wall celebrated by jumping on the scorer’s table to excitedly proclaim to the packed house that this was indeed his city.

Boston defeated the Wizards in Game 7, and Beal and Wall have still never made it to the conference finals.

Eventually, Wall’s body began to betray him as injuries piled up and his availability diminished just as Beal’s star began to shine. Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard has stated that this is Beal’s team on numerous occasions, but insists that the Wall trade was a tough decision.

“Basketball decisions are best made without emotion,” he tells City Paper via a text message. “Impossible not to have emotion w JW, one of the cats I have been closest to in 27 years. A lot changed in the last two years and both he and Russell are tremendous talents that can fit in anywhere and elevate the play of all their teammates. Sometimes you have to take a big riskand it takes talent to acquire talent. John will always be one of the greats to play here. Russell’s resume speaks for itself.”

In Wall’s farewell to D.C., he did not mention the Wizards organization and chose to specifically thank the city with which he had formed a bond. It should be no surprise that this divorce was not as smooth as both parties had hoped, as many breakups end in conflict. In welcoming Westbrook, Leonsis also seemingly decided to be slightly passive aggressive toward the departing Wall by praising his newly acquired star’s durability.

Westbrook has had as many as six surgeries over the last decade, including several procedures on his right knee since injuring it in a playoff collision with Patrick Beverley in 2013. Westbrook may be more durable than Wall, but to bet on a 32-year old with chronic knee troubles may be a dubious proposition for the Wizards. 

To the extent of Westbrook’s character, his social media feeds are filled with kind acts towards the Los Angeles communities in which he grew up and the Houston and Oklahoma communities he represented as a player.

It’s hard to quantify what a player means to the underserved communities from which they come or represent, but what Wall did for the community in D.C. is immeasurable. Wall’s 202 Assists program raised more than half a million dollars to help Ward 8 residents pay their rent during a global pandemic.

The untimely divorce between Wall and the Wizards may not have ended as either side anticipated, but the union that Wall created with D.C. should always be remembered with reverence.

Photo by All-Pro Reels, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.