Sports

‘It’s pretty profound’: How John Wall became a hero in D.C. community

When Cliff Beckford learned in December 2020 that John Wall, the former No. 1 overall draft pick and decade-long face of Washington’s NBA franchise, had been traded to Houston in a swap of former All-Star point guards, his reaction was swift.

“I was upset,” Beckford said. “You can quote that.”

This was not the thinking of an armchair general manager concerned by Russell Westbrook’s fit alongside his new Wizards teammates. Beckford is the executive director of Lydia’s House, a non-profit foundation that supports at-risk families in Washington’s poorest neighborhoods, predominantly the seventh and eighth wards in the city’s southeastern area.

A few months earlier he’d received a call: The John Wall Family Foundation was looking for organizations to partner with during the COVID-19 pandemic. He could not sign up fast enough to be part of a rental-relief fund.

“The timing was just perfect,” Beckford said. “Can you imagine what was going on at that time with these families? They lost their job, economy had shut down, folks needed not only to pay rent but put food on the table.”

A donation by Wall and fundraising aided by his foundation eventually brought in more than $600,000 that was disbursed to more than 450 families in wards seven and eight, Beckford said. He knew Wall’s interest in supporting the area was no outlier.

John Wall hands out backpacks full of school supplies to D.C. area students at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington in 2015.

(Getty Images)

“From an executive director’s standpoint, yeah, my goodness, keep him around, don’t trade him!” Beckford said.

When Wall returns to Washington on Saturday as a backup Clippers guard, it will not be his first visit since the trade to Houston Rocket. But this will be his first game inside his former arena in which fans are able to fully attend, making the occasion a proper reunion between a city that invested its hopes in Wall and a player who invested his passion into the city.

“They always stuck there with me, that’s why I think I touched the city and I feel like it’s home for me, because of how much love I get there,” Wall said. “Super excited to go back.”

Fans saw Wall make five All-Star teams and produce the defining moment of the Wizards’ past decade — his game-winning shot in Game 6 of a 2017 second-round series against Boston — by the time he was 26.

Community leaders saw him create scholarship funds, hand out turkeys and host movie nights for children during Christmas.

“I believe it’s going to be a love fest,” said Michael Lee, a Washington Post reporter who covered Wall’s first four seasons.

“Up here they love him more for his community work than what he did on that 94-by-50,” said Miles Rawls, who runs the Goodman League in the southeastern Barry Farm neighborhood and has known Wall since his 2010 arrival. “It’s a what have you done for me lately based type of deal with basketball, but when you’re in the community, man, and you’re taking care of all these not well-to-do folks whenever that special time comes, it sets a great precedent. They don’t forget it.”

John Wall chats with DeMar DeRozan during an exhibition game between Goodman League and Drew League teams in 2011.

John Wall chats with DeMar DeRozan during an exhibition game between Goodman League and Drew League teams in 2011 at Trinity University in Washington.

(Associated Press)

Rawls certainly hasn’t forgotten that Wall could have hosted his foundation’s five-year anniversary in a tonier section of the city. Instead, he and his mother, Frances Pulley, handed out 5,000 backpacks filled with school supplies on a “200-degree” summer day on the blacktop of a Barry Farm court.

Tamara Perez, a former family and community engagement manager at Bright Beginnings, remembers when in 2015 he presented a $400,000 check to open a second center for the charity, which helps children of families experiencing homelessness prepare for kindergarten. And then he stayed, hanging out with kids. When the center opened in the city’s southeast, it featured a “John Wall Wall of Achievement” highlighting students’ success.

Coressa Williams, the founder of Building Hope, which provides wrap-around services for displaced single parents and their children, remembers Wall personally attending every event his foundation hosted, such as the time Wall shut down a Dave & Buster’s for a back-to-school drive. Williams has worked with numerous athletes. None was as hands-on, or showed up as regularly, as Wall, she said.

“Even though he’s been gone three years or more, that the legacy that he left is still imprinted because a child always knows the [genuineness] of someone’s love,” Williams said.

“It’s pretty profound and I don’t say that lightly, I really don’t.”

Wall arrived in 2010 as a “skinny kid with no facial hair, no tattoos, just trying to understand what the NBA is all about,” he said, and with pressure to do so quickly with the Wizards in rebuild mode. Wall danced the “Dougie” in his first home game, then burst into stardom like one of his full-speed, full-court transition dunks, becoming the team’s first home-grown star through the draft since Wes Unseld, Lee said.

Since the Unseld-led runs to consecutive Finals in 1978 and ’79, the franchise has won five playoff series; Wall was involved in three of them.

There will be debates about the injuries that plagued his final seasons, the promise left unfulfilled on the court, the pairing with Bradley Beal that couldn’t break through with a Finals run. Wall’s unquestioned D.C. legacy, Rawls said, was that the Raleigh, N.C.-raised guard embraced the least prosperous neighborhoods tighter than many who grew up in the area.

The day after he signed a five-year contract extension worth $80 million in 2013, Wall wept when discussing his mother and announced he would donate $1 million toward local charities through a partnership with a foundation overseen by the Wizards’ ownership group.

Wizards guard John Wall enters the court during player introductions in 2019.

Fans wave at Wizards guard John Wall as enters the court during player introductions in 2019.

(Nick Wass / Associated Press)

“He did it with such a passion for the city, and he was out and about, he went to the clubs, he went to the community, he gave to single mothers, and he was so involved, it was a realness, a genuine character to him,” Lee said. “You could tell it wasn’t an act.”

Other athletes said no to Rawls’ requests to visit places such as Barry Farm, Robinson Place, Congress Heights and Bellevue. Wall pulled up to Goodman League games in his Bentley. The visibility earned him credibility his NBA accolades could not by themselves.

“I’m talking about in the beast of the east is what they call southeast,” Rawls said. “They loved him because he was real.”

Wall said he was following the example of others who had invested in his success growing up. He spent his days playing basketball in the Raleigh Boys Club. At home, his mother “instilled in me to try to be a better person than a better basketball player, be known for that,” Wall said.

Multiple people underscored the influence of his mother, who died of cancer in 2019.

“Just understanding where I come from, Section 8, not really having nothing and being able to be in D.C. and see that environment going on all the time throughout the city,” he said.

An added piece of his motivation to connect to D.C., Wall said, was knowing his family’s roots. His father, John Sr., had grown up in the area. Wall Sr. spent much of Wall’s life in prison, dying of liver cancer when Wall was 9.

“He didn’t have to do this,” Beckford said. “A lot of times guys say, ‘We owe it to our community.’ Theoretically, they do. But in reality you have to have a heart for this and John, in my opinion, has a heart to put back.”

Wall befriended Miyah Telemaque-Nelson after learning of the 6-year-old’s lymphoma diagnosis. He wrote her name on his shoes, campaigned on social media for her to meet Nicki Minaj, and spoke at her 2014 funeral.

Shoes adorned with R.I.P. Miyah, in reference to Miyah Telemaque-Nelson, a 6-year-old girl who died of cancer in 2014.

John Wall’s basketball shoes are adorned with R.I.P. Miyah, in reference to Miyah Telemaque-Nelson, a 6-year-old girl he befriended who died of cancer in 2014.

(Danny Moloshok / Associated Press)

Through a city program that pairs professional athletes with elementary schools for a year, Wall “adopted” Ketcham Elementary in southeastern D.C. in 2020 — then stayed for two years. Maisha Riddlesprigger, a principal at Ketcham for eight years, said Wall went beyond the school’s expectations, sponsoring Christmas gifts for the entire school, a movie night, renting out a TopGolf for teachers and staff, and popping up in a virtual staff meeting.

“Everyone’s freaking out because it’s John Wall,” she said.

What will last most, she said, was his help creating a scholarship fund for Ketcham’s 2020 fifth-grade class. Wall pledged $5,000 per student in the class who graduate from high school while meeting a GPA criteria, she said.

“You will never hear me say a bad thing about John Wall, ever,” Riddlesprigger said.

Wall was seven seasons into his career when his game-winning shot beat the Celtics in the 2017 postseason, and he jumped atop a scorer’s table while pushing out the “Washington” on his jersey’s chest. Amid the celebration he proclaimed Washington his city.

To Williams, the founder of Building Hope, that wasn’t empty talk. It’s why more than five years later, she plans to show up to the same arena Saturday with 27 children from her organization in tow. They will be sitting in a lower-bowl section alongside other children for whom Wall arranged tickets. He expects more than 100 to attend.

“They’re going to scream when they see John Wall back in that arena,” Williams said. “They love John Wall. I’m going to scream, too.”



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