Four years ago, John Wall made his debut as a Washington Wizard and had the temerity to do the nation's most popular dance during player intros. To most fans, this was a fun introduction to a seriously promising (and entertaining) player.
To ESPN chatbox Colin Cowherd, this was a sign that Wall lacked character, that he'd be the NBA's Michael Vick, that he'd never win a championship, that he lacked seriousness. Cowherd, a grown-ass man who hides behind his job requirement to have lots of opinions (no matter how half-baked), also said he needs to know who a point guard's dad is to know whether he'll be a leader. In doing so, Cowherd either ignored or deliberately referenced the fact that Wall lost his dad at age eight.
In later years, still in the self-defined service of doing his job, Cowherd pointed to Wall's tattoos as signs of unimportance as a player and a lack of character. (Credit be to The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg, who has been on the Cowherd-says-insensitive-and-wrong-things beat longer than he cares to remember.)
On Monday, Wall made national news after leading his team to victory while mourning the loss of a 6-year-old fan Miyah Telemaque-Nelson to cancer. Wall had gotten to know Miyah and her family and facilitated Miyah meeting her idol, Nicki Minaj. After the game on Monday, Wall broke down crying on live television. Wall has known death since he was a boy. To watch him be so empathetic to Miyah's family's plight was heartbreaking.
There's also the matter of Wall being a really freaking good player. He'll be a deserving All-Star starter in all likelihood, he's on the fast track to an All-NBA bid and he's probably going to pick up some MVP votes. At just 24, he's the floor leader of a good and almost great team. He's won a playoff series and almost carried the Wizards to the conference finals. He's a brilliant playmaker, a fierce defender and one of the better scoring point guards in the league. There is literally nothing to dislike about John Wall.
Except that one time he danced, right?
After years of attacking Wall's character for no valid reason, Cowherd faced the music on Tuesday. He had no choice but to walk back his critiques to some degree. Of course, he managed to do it in a way that totally absolved himself of any idiocy. From SportsGrid's transcript of Cowherd's radio comments:
"If you play real defense in this league, you've got character. John Wall works hard on the defensive end. He grinds people. [...] Do I think John Wall has grown up? Absolutely! Do I think he was immature when he broke into the league? Absolutely. First couple of years he was a turnover machine and couldn't shoot because he took lousy shots. Do I think he has evolved? Yes. Do I think he has matured? Absolutely! Do I think he has character? Yeah. You don't play defense like that without deeply caring about teammates. Defense is about your teammates. That is why Melo doesn't play any. Offense is about you. Defense is about caring about your teammates. John Wall plays real defense. Definitely has real character.
Was I too harsh on him? I host a radio show. I do basically 30 columns a day. But if you are looking for apologies you are off the wrong pier. I said what I mean, I mean what I say. John Wall has grown. Hopefully over five, six years, so have I."
How ridiculous. Wall as a man hasn't changed. By every account, he's been a class act his entire adult life -- gracious to fans, active in the community, a great teammate. In 2013, he donated $1 million to D.C. charities. His John Wall Family Foundation has held events focused on raising up the urban youth. Unlike several former Wizards teammates, he doesn't have a single professional blemish. And while his game has certainly improved from age 20 to 24 like every star in NBA history, a player's on-court performance has no correlation whatsoever to his character.
Cowherd's in(s)ane theory that great defenders by definition have good character is really out of left field and completely unsupported by any sort of historic or current evidence. The attack on Carmelo Anthony, who is not reputed as a consistent defender, is so bizarre. Is Cowherd implying Melo is of poor character because he's primarily a scorer? On what basis? The idea that playing style is a proxy for a man's heart is very dangerous. Instead of judging people on their actions (good and bad), Cowherd is suggesting we judge them by their skill and effort in one aspect of basketball.
Which, of course, is exactly what Cowherd did from 2010 through Monday.
"If you play real defense in this league, you've got character." Spare me. Defense in basketball is an actual skill relying on physical attributes (both innate and developed), consistent effort and mental acuity. Some players, like Steve Nash, lack the physical attributes necessary to defend well. (Nash's lateral quickness was always a problem, and he lacked explosiveness and length.) Some players, like Dirk Nowitzki, are too taxed on offense to afford maximum effort on defense. (This applies especially to the late-aughts Dallas teams where other Mavericks handled defense on his behalf.) Some, especially youngsters like early Kevin Durant, just need time to figure out how to best defend in the NBA.
No one would argue Nash, Dirk or KD -- all poor defenders at times in their career -- have poor character. So why a young Wall? Why Melo?
"If you play real defense in this league, you've got character." Tell that to Ruben Patterson, Dennis Rodman, Lance Stephenson. Or actually, tell that to the nanny Patterson allegedly attempted to rape, the multiple women Rodman allegedly abused and the woman Stephenson allegedly threw down a flight of stairs. John Wall doesn't have character because he plays defense, and he doesn't play defense because he has good character. John Wall has character because he is a good human, as he has apparently been his entire adult life. He plays good defense because he has the physical attributes, mental acuity and consistent effort required of good NBA defenders. It's really not that hard to understand.
Style of play and quality of production in sports say absolutely nothing about a person's character. MVPs aren't saints, scrubs aren't thugs, defenders aren't angels and scorers aren't scourges. There is no connection to how well someone does their job and how good a person they are. None.
This is all beside the point of course, because Cowherd's half-hearted walkback is four years too late. The time for Colin Cowherd to backpedal on his stupid comments about Wall, Wall's head, Wall's dad and Wall's heart was the second he made them. Nothing has changed about John Wall's character in those four years, and Cowherd damn well knows that.
This new theory on how defense is an indicator of character is simply a distraction from the fact that Cowherd's worldview about human nature is completely worthless and has been proven so in the most comprehensive fashion possible. This isn't about Cowherd shooting less than 100 percent in his sport of opining. This is about the foundation of his platform imploding.
No wonder he's groping for a lifeline out of the rubble.