Death and violence clouded his past, opportunity and ambition illuminate his future
John Wall Jr. was the long shot. The black child in rage. The kid they called “Crazy” J because all he did in the streets of Raleigh, NC and on the courts of The Boys and Girls Club on West Garner Road was fight, cause trouble, commit carjackings and engage in deadly gunfire.
Now he’s a seasoned NBA superstar with his emotions and pain in check, trying to lead his Washington Wizards squad to an Eastern Conference Finals matchup against King James and The Disciples. The Wizards are tied 2-2 with the Eastern Conference's No.1-seeded Boston Celtics and are facing a pivotal Game 5 on Wednesday night.
Playoff collapses have haunted Washington in the past, but this could be the year that D.C.'s team separates itself from that rocky road and assumes a new identity as John Wall Jr. has done in real life.
Sometimes, however, they try to pull him back in and he has to remind folks that his life ain’t been no crystal stair.
He was a product of an underserved community rife with violence and part of the complex lineage in a gene pool of Black men with immense talents, unshakeable burdens and tragic circumstances.
John Wall Sr. was convicted of the second-degree murder of a housewife before he ever met John Jr.'s mom, with whom he had an eight-year relationship before his namesake was born in 1990. In late September of 1991, John Sr. pulled a .22-caliber Ruger from the back of his jeans and ordered a store clerk to drain the register. The state convicted him of robbery with a dangerous weapon.
For the next seven years, young John, his mother Frances and his younger sister, Cierra, trooped to the penitentiary nearly every Sunday. His mom even married John Wall Sr. while in prison.
Wall once said of his hectic life, shuffling back and forth to prison to see his father: “That was just his home in our eyes."
Wall Sr. died from liver cancer shortly after he was released from prison. John Jr. was 9 and they didn’t get to share many more quality moments. The Wall family is no stranger to guns and violence. Years earlier, Wall’s mother was also 9 when she witnessed her dad get blasted with a shotgun by a friend over a missing $10 bill.
It took Wall some time to harness his emotions and anger. He went through three high schools and the sting of lukewarm recruiting options early in his high school career before he got a grip on life.
One thing he could always do was play basketball, but as Levi Beckwith, his coach at Word of God Christian Academy, told him after his sophomore year, John was “an asshole.” He beefed about every call and chastised and belittled inferior teammates during games.
His own mother told him, he was going to be just like his father and when Wall’s half-brother went to prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in 1999, it seemed as if John Jr. would eventually follow suit.
The Black men in Wall’s family seemed destined for tragic failure as victims of lost childhoods and stereotypically rough conditions that sucked the ambition out of every living soul in its wake.
"Crazy J was a bad kid that did everything," Wall told ESPN in 2015. "Always did the wild things. Didn't think. Did whatever. Fightin'. Jumpin' off the bleachers. Basically, like a stunt devil who would do anything. I was mean at times. If you try me..."
Eventually Wall got his attitude together and started focusing on a better life than the streets of Raleigh, NC. had to offer. The recruiting letters started pouring in, he chose Kentucky and then was drafted by the Washington Wizards with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 Draft. His basketball gift was something that changed his family's fortunes forever and erased a lot of the hardships of the past.
He still does crazy stuff from time to time, but it's toned-down and well delivered.
He was indeed the chosen one. And his NBA life hasn't always been smooth sailing. The four-time All-Star lost as many games as the Charlotte Bobcats and post-LeBron Cleveland Cavs in his first three pro years. Wall has played with inferior talent in comparison to his other prodigious point guard counterparts, in an era where high scoring ball-controllers rule and compete for championships. And despite his All-Star billing, many consider Wall, who has averaged 18.8 points and 9.2 assists per game in his career, a cut below the legendary point guards of this generation.
His Wizards teams have never been serious contenders for a championship, but after Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Portland's dynamic duo of CJ MCcollum and Damian Lillard, John Wall and his partner in crime Bradley Beal are next in line in ranking the elite NBA backcourts.
Wall and Beal have been scorching the league this playoffs. That 26-0 run against Boston in Game 4 says it all. We are seeing the elevation and manifestation of a real American hero and a rags to riches story that should inspire any African-American kid from the most depressing circumstances.
Wall is a kid who submitted to the magnificence of his talents. Along the way he stumbled, made bad choices, humbled himself and eventually understood the bigger picture. Going from Crazy J to draining crazy J’s, finger rolls and banging down dunks with an electricity and intensity in his game that is matched by few NBA players.
There will come a time when Wall has all of the surrounding pieces and emerges from the shadows of a Curry, Harden and Westbrook. He has an opportunity to do it in these playoffs. The Wizards are as strong as they've ever been with Wall. They won 49 games in their most successful regular season since 1978.
The Wizards had tough playoff exits in 2014 and 2015. Down 2-0 to the Celtics in this series, the Wizards have stormed back to tie it up, and Wall is getting more and more respect by the day. He still carries that chip on his shoulder and openly plays with it.
There’s no more sleeping on this guy.
A look at John Wall's insane play last night vs the Hawks 🔥 pic.twitter.com/lLkD8TJkLn— FootBasket.com (@FootBasket) April 23, 2017
He's a superstar that the rest of the league should be dying to play with. And for a guy who knows the price of death as well anyone, Wall is the slithery, skilled snake turned city savior that will be hard for Boston or Cleveland to put down in the hole.