On May 12, 2017, John Wall was on top of the basketball world. His bucket with four seconds left in Game 6 of the second round vs. the Celtics gave the Wizards a 92-91 win and forced Game 7 in Boston.
Washington would go on to lose the series, but that moment was a dream-like scenario for Wall. At 26, it felt like he’d truly arrived. He’d been an All-Star four times, but this was his ultimate star turn.
That summer, Wall signed a massive four-year, $170 million extension to stay in D.C.
Everything that came after seemed like the stuff of nightmares. It led Wall down the darkest of paths, but he’s come out the other side, looking to contribute to a title contender. His journey and openness about it make him easy to cheer for.
Wall spent the next two seasons after signing his extension fighting off injuries, including one to his left heel that required surgery in January of 2019. When there was a clean up done for an infection in his heel, it was discovered that Wall had ruptured his Achilles after “slipping and falling” at his home.
Wall would miss the entire 2019-20 season. Not long after, Wall lost his mom to breast cancer. At the age of 9, Wall lost his dad, who was incarcerated for most of John’s life, to liver cancer. Then he was traded to the Rockets by the only NBA team he’d ever known in a blockbuster deal for Russell Westbrook.
That’s when, according to his poignant piece for The Player’s Tribune (which you should absolutely read in full), Wall considered taking his own life:
The franchise I had sacrificed my blood, sweat and tears to represent for 10 years decided they wanted to move on. I was devastated, I’m not gonna lie. That was when I started debating — literally debating — whether I wanted to go on, almost every night.
In the piece, Wall goes on to describe a night where that feeling was its strongest. He was attempting to hide his pain by partying and surrounding himself with friends. Until one day it was too much to bear:
One night, after all my homies had left and it was just me sitting there all alone with my thoughts running wild, I got about as close as you can get to making an unfortunate decision and leaving this earth. Only by the grace of God, and the love of my sons, am I still here to tell my story.
It’s easy for people to put athletes on pedestals because they’re doing things that seem superhuman and making an awful lot of money. Wall’s experience humanizes a once larger-than-life athlete.
“Money and fame don’t mean shit if you don’t have peace in your life,” Wall recently told Sam Amick of The Athletic. “We’re still regular people, just like they are. We’ve just got an opportunity to make enough money and play the sport that we love on the highest level.”
Most of us can empathize with Wall. Breast cancer has sadly touched many of us. Many have felt the pain of losing someone close and not knowing how to manage those emotions. Perhaps feeling like there’s no way to escape that pain and not having an outlet for it.
It’s what makes Wall so easy to root. The stigma around suicide and mental health has lessened, but it’s not gone. Coping with the loss of his mother and without the ability to seek refuge on a basketball court, Wall was lost. Until one day he realized he needed help — and showed true strength by asking for it.
As he told Amick, the “amicable” decision between Wall and the Rockets wasn’t as “amicable” as it was portrayed. Houston wanted to play its young players. Wall wanted to play basketball, no matter the circumstance. Because of his $40.8 million cap hit for the 2021-22 season, there was no way the Rockets were going to find a trade. So, Wall was forced to sit for an entire season while he was perfectly healthy.
In the end, it may have all worked out for Wall, who got to spend time with his sons during the time off and then reached a buyout agreement with Houston over the summer. That allowed him to sign with the Clippers for the midlevel exception.
Wall’s journey has led him to Los Angeles, where he’s been strong in his bench role, scoring 31.1 points per 100 possessions through five games. What’s more, he’s shown glimpses of the athleticism, explosiveness and court vision that once made him one of the most exciting players in the sport.
The Clippers are off to a slow start at 2-4, but it’s to be expected. Kawhi Leonard has only played in two games and multiple players — including Wall — have been given the occasional night off. You’d expect when everyone is up to speed that a team with arguably the deepest roster in the NBA should fare better.
Given what Wall has been through — from his rough childhood to a serious injury at the peak of his powers to the loss of his mother to being traded to being forced to sit out — it’s wonderful to see him doing what he loves. His strength in getting the necessary help and sharing his story make him an easy person to pull for.
Though he might not be the player that jumped on the scorer’s table back in 2017, he’s better and stronger in so many ways.