Sunday, December 6, 2020


Russell Westbrook has been a nine-time NBA All Star. He’s been a two-time Most Valuable Player of that game. He’s been named to the first team All-NBA twice and second team All-NBA five times. He’s also been third team All-NBA twice, but that was slumming for Westbrook.

And, I might point out, he’s been an NBA MVP.

Russell Westbrook has been everything that John Wall thought he would be — but wasn’t.

The Washington Wizards traded the Westbrook wanna-be for the real deal, sending Wall and a future first-round draft choice to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Westbrook, putting the fun, however limited, back on Fun Street.

There can be no argument that general manager Tommy Sheppard upgraded the product his boss, owner Ted Leonsis, will offer to fans who still recognize that there is an NBA franchise in town. Westbrook, teamed with Real Deal Bradley Beal, makes this team more interesting and likely more competitive.

What does more competitive mean? NBA playoff success? Winning the East?

Not hardly. What it means is that the presence of Westbrook probably puts the Wizards back in that 40-to-49-win limbo season that is all to familiar to Washington basketball fans — the good times for a franchise that hasn’t won 50 games in a season since 1979 — before the Bird-Magic era even began.

Did the Wizards get the MVP Westbrook? At the age of 32, probably not. But the guy they traded away — Wall — a 30-year-old point guard coming off multiple knee surgeries and a torn Achilles tendon, is further away from ever being the player he thought he was.

This was part of the Wall legacy in Washington — he was supposedly disrespected by everyone who didn’t have a DMV zip code.

He was passed over repeatedly for All NBA teams and Team USA spots. After being cut for the World Cup team several years ago, Wall told CSN Washington, “I guess I’ll have to prove myself one more time.”

Wall never quite did, and, with a game predicated on speed now slowed by damaged legs, he likely never will.

Here in Washington, though, he didn’t have to prove himself to fans, on or off the court. His game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics remains one of the few moments to remember for Wizards fans over the last 40 years.

Of course, the next game — Game 7 — Washington lost because Wall, coming off knee surgeries that season, was exhausted and beaten down because then-Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld had failed to build a bench to support Wall.

Off the court, Wall’s connection with fans and the District community was legendary, with donations and programs for poor and needy people. His heart was out there for all to see. Consider his connection with Damiyah Telemaque-Nelson, a young girl he had befriended who died after a battle with cancer.

Wall broke down in tears following a double-overtime win over the Celtics in December 2014 at the Verizon Center following her death. “It was kind of tough throughout the day just knowing how hard she fought for it,” he said. “It was tough for me. I know it was tough for her family. I haven’t had an opportunity to talk them today because I was trying to not think about that and give her family their condolences and peace and just not think about it.

“This game was really meant for her,” Wall said. “It would have been even tougher to lose it. I think God has a plan and I just went into a mode where I didn’t want to lose this game.”

Those are the kind of celebrated moments that will be John Wall’s legacy. He was fortunate to leave town before those bright spots became tarnished by the some less-noticed, less-celebrated moments — on and off the court.

Maybe Wall recovers to be one of the better point guards in this league playing in Houston with James Harden. But I wouldn’t bet on it. And, having been moved out of town, Wall won’t have to suffer the indignity of playing alongside his younger “brother” — Beal — and playing second banana to the teammate who has passed him by.

It could have gotten ugly. Behind the scenes, there were incidents that were starting to get there — Wall showing up for practice in no condition to take the court, fighting with teammates and berating his coach. There were the reports of his partying, culminating in his flashing gang signs in a clubbing video that went viral in September.

He apologized, but there were too many moments like that over his 10 years in Washington, with too few signs of maturity. Leonsis inherited an organization that was nearly destroyed because its previously-beloved franchise icon brought guns to the locker room. He couldn’t risk a repeat-type performance.

This was, according to sources, the last straw. That means there were other straws that came before.

Now, though, Wall leaves with his limited Wizards immortality intact, not buried by what is to come.

Hear Thom Loverro Monday afternoons on 106.7 The Fan and Tuesdays and Thursdays on the Kevin Sheehan Show Podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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