From NC to DC: How John Wall built a legacy bigger than basketball

………………………………………………………Written by: James Randolph

My grandfather used to clean the Capitol building. He moved with my grandmother from North Carolina shortly after my mother was born. They came to Washington D.C. in pursuit of a chance at better jobs, a better life, and the opportunity to make their own mark in the world. They made a home on S. Capitol Street where my family would stay for decades. Years later I would return to my mother’s birthplace in Nash County North Carolina for college. It was a full circle moment for me and unknown to me at the time, I was part of a much larger legacy. So many people in DC, Maryland, and Virginia have historical, familial, educational, and occupational connections to the Carolinas. There’s an unspoken alliance between the areas which can only be understood by those who have traversed and lived along this stretch of the Mid-Atlantic corridor. The DMVNC is what I call it and in addition to being a Washington sports fan, this geographic connection is a big part of why I had such a personal investment in John Wall’s success in the nation’s capital.

The Washington Wizards drafted John Wall #1 overall in 2010. He was a high school standout in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina and his college career at the University of Kentucky — although brief — generated plenty of excitement for what was to come from the star point guard.

On the court, he was a phenomenon. Following the rebuilding years and a losing record for the first three seasons, Wall would lead the Wizards to 5 straight winning seasons, 3 Eastern Conference Semi Finals, and the team’s first playoff sweep (as the winner) since the 1977–78 season. He’s the organization’s all-time leader in career assists and holds the record for most assists in a season (831). He’s done so much for the organization as a superstar player but that’s not the part that made so many Wizards fans inconsolable about Wall’s trade to the Houston Rockets announced during the abbreviated 2020 offseason.

On December 8, 2014, John Wall had 26 points and a career-high 17 assists. He scored his team’s final 10 points in a double OT victory against the Boston Celtics, and in typical John Wall fashion, even his amazing play on the court wasn’t nearly as impressive as the man he proved to be off it.

In his postgame interview that night with NBC Sports’ Chris Miller, John Wall broke down into tears while remembering his friend Miyah — a 6-year-old with leukemia whom Wall had befriended the year prior. Miyah passed away earlier in the day and Wall carried her memory into the game. After his record setting night, he said “this is for her (Miyah)” before folding over with tears streaming from his eyes, unable to continue his interview.

In today’s meme culture or perhaps just in another city, those tears might have been met with media wit or worse — indifference, but in Washington DC in 2014, those tears meant that the city had found exactly what it had been searching for — the heart of a champion in an athlete that understood his purpose in the city was bigger than basketball.

In DC, Wall became a common fixture at local charity events including drives sponsored by the local radio stations 93.9 and 95.5; he was often spotted helping other sports figures and their organizations including players from the Washington Capitals, Nationals, and Mystics; and he always made it a point to invest his time, money, and resources into the historically disenfranchised neighborhoods of DC’s Wards 7 and 8.

Through his annual Turkey Day Assist drive, Wall helped hand out thousands of turkeys and hot meals every Thanksgiving in Southeast DC since 2011, and all this was all in addition to work he continued to do back home in Raleigh.

In 2016, Wall was awarded the prestigious NBA Community Assist Award for the 2015–2016 season. The award is given to NBA players for outstanding work to address global and social issues within local communities and for what Wall achieved throughout Washington D.C. and its neighboring communities, he was more than deserving.

As he returns to Capital One Arena on Monday night to face his former team, regardless of the crowd capacity, he should receive the standing ovation of a returning champion because that’s exactly who he is.

His critics will point to his injury or some unsubstantiated claims that Wall wasn’t committed to the team, or maybe bring up the now infamous back-and-forth with Steven A. Smith about Rosebar. But when and where it really matters, John Wall has always shown up.

It’s not for averaging 12.5 assist while sweeping the Toronto Raptors in 2014; and it’s not for his game winning 3-pointer against Boston to force a Game 7 in 2017; and it’s not even for the subsequent leap on the scorer’s table to proclaim that DC was in fact his city: rather it’s for showing up time and again off the court for the people of a community that so desperately yearned for someone to represent them, that Wall deserves his loudest ovation. No, he didn’t represent the monuments and the federal buildings but he represented the heart of a city filled with real people eager to make a difference.

Whether he was knee-deep in charitable giving or leading racial injustice protestors down Independence Avenue alongside former teammate Bradley Beal, John Wall represents the truest and most sincere version of what DC is all about.

His legacy here is so much bigger than basketball and hopefully, the people will welcome him back to a city that should forever remain open and welcoming as his second home.

Following his first matchup against his former team, Wall said, “The love I have for that community in DC and the fans that have loved me for 10 years…I have nothing but love for those guys”. I imagine that there are more fans than not who feel the exact same way about their #1 pick.

As I think about Wall’s time in the nation’s capital, I think about my own family. I think about my own grandfather who made a similar trip from North Carolina up I-95 to become a young professional and carve his own legacy. Whether the organization understood it or not, whether they thought he was an asset or not, John Wall already proved that he was more than an asset to the people and communities of Washington DC and for that, the city is eternally grateful.

James Randolph is a published author and freelance journalist

James Randolph is an American author and journalist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store