It's sort of trite to say that someone like John Wall is an unlikely hero on the basketball court. Point guards with that sort of athleticism can't NOT be successful, right? Right.
But as one ex-coach points out in the Washington Post's expansive profile from this past Sunday, "LeBron has been LeBron since he was 3; Kobe has been Kobe since he was 4; Shaq has been Shaq since he was 5. John Wall has just been John Wall since he was 16. It just clicked one day."
Really and truly, the John Wall phenomenon happened overnight. And this is how greatness often happens, even today. For every LeBron James, under the microscope from day one, there's a Dwyane Wade, coming from off the grid to capture our imaginations. By basketball standards, Wall is still something of a new fascination. More like Kevin Durant, where he was one of a handful of great high school players, and then suddenly, he was the only one that mattered.
But at least in the sense of a basketball king emerging preordained, his success happened about as organically as possible on the 21st Century basketball landscape. Just like Wade and Durant, and in stark contrast to the trajectories of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant.
And that's part of what makes him so fascinating as a character study. He hasn't always been invincible. Wall's father, John Sr., was imprisoned for his son's entire life, until he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, and released with just a month to live. Wall remembers his last weekend with his father:
The younger John remembers the trip vividly and still calls it the most meaningful time in his life. With the water replacing prison walls as the backdrop to their conversations, father and son talked about life: how to be a better man, the importance of going to school, college one day, and staying out of jail.
Still, the specter of cancer loomed, and on the final day of the trip, the illness struck violently.
Wall remembers a hotel bathtub full of blood. The smell of the hemorrhage. The sound of the ambulance. His mother crying. His father died the next day, Aug. 24, 1999, at age 52.
"I didn't know at that age why God took people away, why people died," Wall said. "It took me a while, like seventh or eighth grade, to realize this is what everybody's got to do. I was not thinking that everybody's got to die someday."
To this day, Wall said, "it's tough for me to go back to beaches."
That's the sort of insight that makes the Post profile worth a read. On the other hand, later in the article, the profile writer—Eric Prisbell—takes center stage. Wall had never known about his father's criminal past, and Prisbell took it upon himself to tell Wall that in addition being imprisoned for armed robbery throughout his childhood (which Wall knew about), John Wall Sr. had been jailed for another count of armed robbery, possession of a firearm, and second-degree murder.
Those crimes, Wall didn't know about. Prisbell, in a Washington Post chat on Monday afternoon, expresses misgivings over the decision to tell Wall about his dad:
Once I got the records, then I found myself in a situation that I found to be unsettling. I've been in a lot of odd situations in my career, but this made me uncomfortable. First, I wrestled with the idea of IF I should tell John, etc. But, hey, the driving force in his life is his dad, and he cherishes the memories from those prison visits. If I incldue that, how do I not include what the dad did and how long he was in there?
As a human, it was a debatable move from an ethics standpoint. On the one hand, is it really the writer's job to educate Wall on the past mistakes of his father? It just seems perverse for some stranger to sit there quoting court documents to a 19 year-old kid, needlessly trampling on the legacy of his father.
As a journalist, though, there's not much debate. Wall's response to those revelations could be quite telling as far as his character's concerned. And isn't that the point of a profile? He had to ask.
To that end, though, Wall passed this perverted test of character with flying colors:
"Well, because, for one thing, that's my dad," Wall answered without hesitation. "He brought me onto this earth and, like everybody, makes mistakes. Everyone is not going to be perfect. Sometimes people do some stuff because of certain situations they are in, or the people they are around. Or they might be drunk or something and just do it.
"Like I said, he still was there for me. . . . Probably if I were older, you would have been, 'Forget him, he ain't my daddy, he ain't here for me, taking care of me.' At a young age, you don't know, you don't care. You're just happy to have somebody there that you can call your dad. And that's the biggest thing."
Without pardoning his father for any of the mistakes, Wall maintains his reverence for the man that he's looked to for strength since day one. And... Good for him. Maybe the reporter had to ask the question, maybe he didn't—but it's certainly no one else's place to shape the memories that have helped John Wall become a man in his own right. Where the reporter infers an "angst" between Wall and the memory of his father, I see acceptance.
If sports have taught us anything, it's that legacies are subjective. Defined less by men, themselves, and more by the idea of the men we remember. Joe Namath was an average quarterback, a womanizer, and a drunk—but to a generation of New Yorkers, he was a hero. Michael Jordan, too—he's remembered for his brilliance as a basketball player, not his belligerence as a person.
The treatment of these icons is a microcosm of how we remember anyone.
As Wall says, "Everyone is not going to be perfect." People do good things, and they make mistakes. Fathers, too. How we remember them is as much a reflection of our own character as it is theirs. Wall Jr. could remember that weekend at the beach, or be anchored by resentment toward Wall Sr., a man who's existed mostly in ephemera. Wall chooses the weekend at the beach.
You could deride Wall for ignoring his father's criminal past—or condescendingly pity him for a childhood spent worshiping a flawed icon—but that's ridiculous. All of our icons are flawed. My mom, your dad, everyone. And do you really think he didn't know his father had some serious skeletons in his closet? Wall's young, but he's not that young.
Growing up, he battled profound anger issues, and spent much of his youth getting into fights with peers and authority figures alike. It's unfair to speculate, but it's hard not to connect the dots between his father's passing and Wall's adolescent petulance. And then, he got past it. He matured, and stopped fighting everyone in his life that tried to help him, and he soared.
It's the sort of development that we rarely see up close, and only in hindsight; the "problem child" in high school never makes the cover of Sports Illustrated. And maybe that's a good thing. If Wall had been preordained from day one, the maturation probably never takes place, and this misdirected anger probably manifests itself on a much bigger stage. Instead, he got past it.
And today, he's likely stronger for it. If John Wall's perspective on his father matters at all, it's as a sign of growth and acceptance that's indicative of uncanny maturity, not naivete. And as he prepares to write the next chapter of his family's legacy, those virtues should serve him well as he tries to succeed where it all began—Washington D.C., the hometown of one John Carroll Wall, Sr.