“Who is your favorite basketball player?” A squirming student asks during the question-and-answer part. Wall’s reply – he always admired Allen Iverson – just nods to the headmaster and some of the teachers.

Ketcham’s fifth graders, most of whom are 10 or 11 years old, were infants when the 2010 Washington Wizards designed Wall with the number 1 overall pick. They were so young in the prime of point guard that it’s no stretch to imagine knowing Wall’s legacy in DC as one based on charity, just like basketball.

In many ways, Wall is okay with this. After Washington exchanged him for point guard Russell Westbrook in a blockbuster deal in early December, the 30-year-old wanted to invest in a new long-term project in the district. He and his foundation are committed to donating $ 5,000 to the college plans of every Ketcham fifth grader who graduate from high school with at least 3.0 GPA.

“For me, that’s the bigger factor than basketball,” Wall said on a recent phone call before referring to a sentence his late mother often repeated. “She would say, ‘It’s great to be known as a great basketball player, but it’s even better to be known as a great person.’ “”

Wall comforts himself with it, believes it deeply. He’s still not sure how he’ll feel on Monday when he returns to the Capital One arena for the first time since December 3rd when he visited the venue to say goodbye the day after the deal was closed.

It won’t be his first game against his old team – that was in January when Wall led the Rockets to a 107-88 win with 24 points and five assists, and he and Westbrook each received a technical foul after attacking each other had everything game.

But Wall expects Monday to make him more emotional. Almost every milestone in the point guard’s adult life occurred while playing for Washington, including the birth of his two sons and the death of his mother. Every time he imagined he would go back to basketball in the nearly two years he paused and recovered from a foot and Achilles’ injury, he saw himself in a Wizards jersey.

“Do not get me wrong; It was kind of mind blowing digestion to be new somewhere. I had only been in one place from 7 to 30, ”said Wall. “I still think about that day – but when the deal happened, it was me [in Houston] If I went to training camp in the preseason I would still say wow. I can’t believe it’s the first time I’ve put on my jersey in two years, but it’s a different uniform, in a different city. “

A turning point

On the evening of November 17, Wall, who is spending his off-season in Miami, was preparing to return to Washington to prepare for the 2020-21 season when texts from friends and other interested parties arrived. There was a tweet that said the rockets and wizards were discussing a deal involving him and Westbrook. Was it real

Wall wasn’t sure, but his first reaction was that it couldn’t be.

“I think there is no way I am being traded, boy!” Said Wall. “I haven’t played for two years! Who would like to act against an injured person? “

Wall’s first call was to Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard, who told the point guard not to worry. But Wall felt “blind” by the rumors, he said.

Three days later, a person with knowledge of the situation confirmed to the Washington Post that Wall had made it clear that he wanted to leave Washington.

In retrospect, Wall clearly sees the turning point in his decades-long relationship with the Wizards: a 13-second video clip that hit the Internet in the early hours of September 13th and went viral. In it, Wall was at a crowded party in the middle of a pandemic and apparently blinking shirtless gang signs.

“In reality,” said Wall, “I think they probably never got over it, but they told me they did.”

Hours later, Wall vaguely apologized on Twitter, spoke to his teammates and the Washington Front Office, and learned in the days and weeks that followed that the team had gotten over the incident. In public, Sheppard said the wizards were disappointed but needed to move forward.

Privately, the video enraged some within the organization, including owner Ted Leonsis, according to several people close to the franchise. Not only did it feel like a slap in the face – Wall had made more than $ 57 million in the nearly two seasons he’d spent outside of an NBA court – but many within the organization recognized a pattern of behavior from their 30s. year old star.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been celebrated on tape when maybe he shouldn’t have. During a playoff series against Atlanta in 2015 that the league office drew the team’s attention to, Wall had been caught on the pitch with blinking signs at least once before. (At the time, Washington pushed back against the allegations.)

Even so, several league sources said the wizards were not actively looking for a trade with Wall immediately after the September incident.

But by December 2, Houston and Washington had struck a deal that the wizards believed was too good to leave on the table. In exchange for Westbrook, the Wizards sent Wall and a protected future selection to Houston for the first round.

“That summer video pushed them to some extent, which I understand,” said Wall. “I’m not mad about it. I apologized. If they wanted to assume I would have respected it. … but you feed me one, but it’s very different at the other end. That is the most hurtful thing of all. “

Sheppard declined to answer questions in a recent telephone interview about what he shared with Wall and the schedule of the trade talks.

“I wish John all the best. We have always wished the best for John, ”said Sheppard. “He’s a special player and a special person in this city.”

“A brother outside of basketball”

In his new city, to which one wall is still getting used to, he immediately felt the embrace of the rockets. He was reunited with his close friend and college teammate DeMarcus Cousins, and even through the pre-season drama with James Harden, Wall immediately felt related to Christian Wood and Victor Oladipo.

“I went to the locker room to be with the boys. They all respected me, ”said Wall, a five-time all-star. “You understood what my résumé said. Around the same time, I’m with a lot of people who are hungry and have a lot to prove, just like how I got hurt or probably got written off and traded multiple times. “

The point guard is showing more flashes of his pre-injury self with each game – something that was no certainty for an Achilles-injured player whose hallmark is lightning speed. Wall has averaged 19.5 points and 5.9 assists in 17 games with the Rockets and is so comfortable that he recently said he felt like the team’s franchise when Harden was traded to the Nets.

It’s the status he is most familiar with in an organization, the same one he held for nearly a decade before the wizards built themselves around his former colleague Bradley Beal.

“I’m glad he’s back. He fought hard for [two] Years to come back, ”said Wizards coach Scott Brooks in January. “I hope he will have a healthy year and end his career healthy. He deserved it. “

Wall said he never resisted the thought that Beal, 27, would play a bigger role in the organization, although the couple occasionally crashed while Wall was in Washington and their relationship provided media feed for years.

The point guard said their friendship has been easy to maintain since his trade as the strongest thread has always been their extrajudicial bond. The couple grew up together into adulthood and became fathers around the same time. Beal was in the hospital donating comfort to Wall when his mother died of cancer in late 2019.

“That was more than anything, this is a brother outside of basketball,” said Wall. “Nobody thought that we would shake hands beforehand [the Wizards and the Rockets played in January]. Nobody thought we’d shake hands and talk afterwards – I’ll fix that even though we’re supposed to have Covid logs. Because that is someone I respect at a high level. Every time we just play when I’m not playing I definitely see him play because he’s one hell of a talent in this league. Who wouldn’t want to see a guy like that? That’s talent at its finest, and it’s kind of a sucker for him to get a few all-star nods and the respect he deserves. So I’m happy about everything he has. “

Not being able to make his comeback with Beal by his side is one of the things that hurt Wall the most about trading.

He said the couple spoke about his return over the summer when Wall started scratching more seriously and dreamed of working together to get the wizards out of their recent lull.

“We thought we were going to roll it back another year,” said Wall. “See how it goes with Brad. If it doesn’t work, we know what’s going to happen. I never got that. And that’s one of the things that hurt me more than anything. That and I never had the opportunity to play in front of these fans. Even if we can’t have fans there, they would still see me in this uniform, in this city, in this arena. “