John Wall rubs his scraggly beard and hops on the pool table in the players' lounge of the Verizon Center, his languid, 6-foot-4, frame unfolding as he leans back. "Shoot," he says.
All right. Where would you be if the NBA never worked out for you -- the money, the fame, the whole package?
"I'd probably be in the streets or in jail," he responds, emotionless.
The 24-year-old All-Star point guard sits upright and thinks on it some more.
"A lot of people in the league will say that. But this really was my escape," he explains. "Without basketball, that's where I was going. No sense lyin' about it or comin' up with somethin' that sounds good. I was going down the same road as my dad."
The District of Columbia, in particular, treasures deeply flawed, angry, successful men who show vulnerability. The more authentic, the less homogenized and pre-packaged, the better.
Jaded by spin and frauds, D.C. came to love the late Marion Barry. It came to grasp the gruff and growl of Big John Thompson, and all of his real and imagined Hoya Paranoia.
Hell, being black and difficult isn't as much a prerequisite as simply being real.
Chocolate City cherishes pasty John Riggins above all others. A beer truck with a broken parking brake as a running back, the District loved Riggo's public accidents as much as his Super Bowl steamrolling of the Dolphins.
From Petey Greene to Chuck Brown, Washington adores the guy who makes America uncomfortable, who, after early stumbles, careens toward their profession's pinnacle.
John Wall lost more games his first three years in the NBA than anyone but the Charlotte Bobcats and the LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers. After slowing his helter-skelter game down, floating teardrops and making jumpers -- after carrying the Wizards to the Eastern Conference semifinals last May and burying questions about his work ethic and attitude -- he emerged as a bona fide elite point guard, equal parts passion and panache.
So while Greater Washington coos and prays for its homegrown luxury liner, Kevin Durant, to dock at Chesapeake Bay in 2016, perhaps the city unwittingly discounts the captain destined to restore D.C.'s NBA legacy to where Wes and Elvin once had it.
"Hell of a lot of experts said John Wall might not have it," Big John Thompson says, extolling the lost virtue of patience in pro sports. "Now look. John is that guy coming out of the dust."
Hope and change sound irresistible out of the box, don't they? But in a way, Barack Obama and Robert Griffin III were overpromised and underserved by the miserable people around them to ever genuinely deliver their dreams.
Too pasteurized. Too interested in being liked by people whose existence is predicated on their failure. Too polished.
"People like John Wall, people like Marion Barry and others -- they know our story," says Miles Rawls. "They relate to the people more. They more authentic."
Miles is old-head District. D.C.to the core. A longtime Wizards season-ticket holder, he heckled President Obama when he rooted courtside for his Bulls in 2009. Apart from his job the past 18 years at the Department of Homeland Security, he's been running the Goodman League at Barry Farm in Southeast Washington since 1996. Everyone from Kevin Durant to Warren "D-Nice" Jefferson hooped on that legendary playground inside the chain-link fence, where patrons can shoot dice, inhale the scent of herb and sizzling half-smokes and be free from the bad happening "outside those gates," Miles says. No one knows D.C. hoops or the city's athletic pulse more than Miles.
"Nothin' against Griffin comin' up in a middle-class family," says Rawls. " But when he says, 'I know your pain,' it's like, no, you really have to live my life to know that pain."
John Wall lived that life. Four-and-a-half-hour's drive south, amid the loblolly and longleaf pines of Raleigh, North Carolina, he knew that pain.
John Wall bought his mother a seven-bedroom, four-acre spread shortly after the Wizards drafted him. An ornate, mahogany box sits on a shelf in the living room. Frances Pulley points to the wooden urn containing the ashes of her husband, born in the District.
"One day we'll take 'em to D.C. or Baltimore and throw 'em in the harbor," she surmises. "That's what he wanted."
Frances knew what John Carroll Wall Sr. had done when she met him in 1981. As the head housekeeper at a Hampton Inn, she saw the criminal background report on the new maintenance man's application.
By their third date, he confessed he had been incarcerated for second-degree murder. He'd shot a 26-year-old housewife in the head during an argument. Like Morgan Freeman's character in "The Shawshank Redemption," John Sr. wished he could have talked some sense into that young, angry man who wasted his life before being paroled.
"I never asked nothin' about it -- bygones be bygones," said Frances, who had a daughter at 18, John's older sister, Tonya. "I needed a man at the time. I guess that's what it was."
They dated for eight years before John's birth in 1990. But three weeks after John's first birthday, for reasons no one in the family can explain, John Sr.'s old life killed his new one. In late September 1991, he pretended to buy a beer at a Raleigh convenience store on Garner Road. Instead, he pulled a .22-caliber Ruger from the back of his jeans and ordered a store clerk to empty the register. The state convicted him of robbery with a dangerous weapon.
For the next seven years, Frances, John and his younger sister, Cierra, traveled to the penitentiary nearly every Sunday. Frances married John Wall's daddy in prison.
"We would see him for, like, an hour," John recalls. "When the gates closed, that was the last time we'd see 'em 'til the next weekend. He was good to us. You never thought, 'Oh, my father's in prison.' That was just his home in our eyes."
Terminally ill with liver cancer when John was 9, John Sr. was released a month early. Before school began in 1999, the family vacationed in White Lake, NC.
"We were drawing pictures of ourselves, eatin', enjoyin' the beach," John says. "It was one of those days you wish your family could have every day, you know, where things just feel --
"Then the next day we heard the ambulance comin'."
A series of small, surgical rubber bands broke and forced John Sr.'s liver to burst. He hemorrhaged in the hotel bathtub -- "the most disgusting smell ever," his son states, remembering the horror.
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 ...
"-- John Wall
John watched him wheeled out on a stretcher in his Randy Moss jersey, which John keeps to this day.
John also remembers his mother saying, "'Y'all go home.' My aunt came and took us after that. [We were told] he passed away that night. It was the day before school started. It was devastating."
He actually was removed from life support two days later, Frances now remembers, adding, "He was already gone. I didn't feel the need to tell the kids."
She also hid his murder conviction. John found out from a reporter in 2010. Frances Pulley shielded her kids from as much of her pain as she could. Her daddy, Hildred Keith, was shot dead on his front porch. She was 9 years old and, at her mother's instruction, hiding behind the house with her siblings when it happened.
Hildred's drinking buddy had accused Hildred of taking $10 and swore he would return with his shotgun.
"My daddy told him, 'Come on,'" Frances recalls, "So he stayed on the porch and wait for the man. ... He said, 'I'm not goin' nowhere. If it meant to be, it meant to be.' He was st-uhhhhborn. The man came back and shot him.
"Turned out [the man's] girlfriend had the $10 in her pocket."
"You got any more questions?" Johnathan Hildred Wall asks, his shoes dangling a few inches from the floor last week after practice.
Did you know your mother lost her father at 9 years old, too?
"I never knew that. She told me the story, but I didn't know how old she was. Damn."
When told his father and his grandfather on his mother's side were considered stubbornly proud men, with mean streaks that often obscured their good qualities, he pursed his lips and nodded.
"Basically, everything you just named was me," John Wall shares. "A lot of people say I'm just like my dad. I have both of them inside me. I do think this, though: Seein' the tough times and adversity they went through -- and not doin' it in a positive way -- helped me to do it in another way.
"Yeah. Who was 'Crazy J?'"
"Where'd you hear that?"
The Boys and Girls Club on West Garner Road -- the men there said that's what they called John Wall, the incorrigible, angry kid who played there every day.
John thinks back to that lost child. "Crazy J was a bad kid that did everything," he says. "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..."
Crazy J cussed out inferior teammates. He gave the hand and lip to coaches whose decisions he didn't like. Crazy J jacked cars, too.
"Just take a car," John recalls. "I was probably 13 or 14. Or my homeboys would steal it and I'd be ridin' with 'em. If you can't get in through the door, you break the window and do what you gotta do."
Gunmen fired bullets at Crazy J twice. He recalls returning fire once, an incident at a crowded house party. He never actually owned his own gun, never sold drugs. But his choices as a young buck were those of a kid predisposed to incarceration.
"I was so angry when my dad passed that it all came out the next few years," John explains. "Then my brother was getting in a lot of trouble, too. He went to jail right when my dad died."
"He's older. I used to go visit him in lock-up when I was younger. I never really talked about him to nobody."
An Internet search of "John Wall's brother" shows no mention of John Carroll Wall Jr. Scanning a North Carolina offender database, though, uncovers John's 37-year-old half-brother. Like his namesake, John Carroll Wall Jr. went to prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in 1999. His release from the Lanesboro Correctional Facility in Polkton, North Carolina, is scheduled for 2018.
Through the lens of sports, The Undefeated will be the premier platform for intelligent analysis and celebration of black culture and the African-American struggle for equality. The Undefeated will challenge, engage and advocate for people of color in a manner consistent with the black-press pioneers, such as Sam Lacy, who led the charge for Jackie Robinson's civil rights-sparking baseball career.
Coming summer 2015"
On Monday night, after the Wizards beat the Magic and John finished one point short of a triple double, he revealed that his brother had written him a letter from prison, which he said he planned to read when he got home. It's the first communication between the two in several years.
Everyone seemingly has a theory of when John Wall slew Crazy J.
Was it the LeVelle Moton Basketball Camp, run by a man with the courage to send John home as a seventh-grader?
"The moment he doesn't get a call, he throwing the ball down and ready to throw a temper tantrum at the drop of a dime," LeVelle Moton says now. "I'm like, 'Listen, bruh. You need to get your attitude together.' So he did it again the next day, and I threw him out my camp. I told him don't ever come back."
The next summer, after Frances Pulley convinced Moton her son deserved a second chance, Moton invented calls against John to make him boil over.
"Then the most amazing thing happened. Every time I made a call against him, he just put the ball down and ran back down the floor and gathered his team."
Was it Levi Beckwith, his coach at Word of God Christian Academy, John's third high school team in three years, who gave him the harsh truth after his sophomore year?
"I said, 'John, why are you not getting recruited by Duke and Carolina?' He said he didn't know. I told John, 'You're not being recruited by them because you're an ass.'"
Or was it simply John's mother being dead straight with her only boy?
" 'You goin' wind up like your daddy if you don't start taking ball serious.' That's what I told him," Frances Pulley says. And then she broke her boy's heart, sending him to a group home.
John Wall began killing Crazy J the day his mother spent $200 on an AAU tournament and let the electricity get turned off in her apartment.
"There was no lights for a day or two," he says, shaking his head. "That was it. If my mom was going to do that for me, I was going to make sure she was satisfied for life."
Within two years, the sneering, nasty kid with all the anger issues transformed himself into the No. 1 high school basketball player in America.
"At the time, they were living on Davie Street in Raleigh," recalls Tony Edwards, the AAU coach. "He said, 'I'm going to get my family out of here.'"
Frances Pulley's opulent home in Northeast Raleigh is the main gathering place for John's immediate family. Two days before February, battered chicken crackles in hot oil beside meatballs bubbling in brown gravy and a vat of spaghetti sauce. "I'm going to start eatin' better soon," she says. An aneurysm several years ago and blood clots over the past year deeply worried her son. "Knock on wood I make it to the All-Star Game this year."
Behind the house is the area reserved for summer cookouts. Another 20 yards further is the clay-colored, full court that John had put in, replete with gleaming glass backboards.
"When I knew?" she answers rhetorically when asked about her son's athletic prowess. "I had to keep buyin' them damn Fisher Price basketball goals. Seem like every week as a small child he would dunk and break it and I would have go buy another one."
Ten miles toward town, her old apartment decays.
A clutter of children playing in the street outside 537 East Davie Street scatter as the rental car approaches on a late January night. This part of Raleigh has seen 44 violent crimes since Jan. 1. This is the brick tenement apartment complex John Wall called home for much of high school. He, Cierra and his mom had the corner unit.
"It was worse when John lived here," Alban "Bane" Okafor clarifies, taking a reporter on an informal tour of John's old hood and haunts. "Everybody smokin', drinkin', doin' drugs, shootin' each other. That's no life for a child."
Up the street is Roberts Park, where John worked his game and dreamed his dream at 11.
Hard off Highway 40, a 10-minute drive away, is Rock Quarry Road and Word of God Christian Academy, his basketball salvation after the coach at downtown Broughton High School cut the future NBA No. 1 draft pick as a sophomore.
Even today, Jeff Ferrell won't talk about it. Asked before a recent Broughton home game, Ferrell went from jovial to ashen-faced the moment Wall's name was broached.
"It's probably not a good time for that," he says. "No, it's probably not a good time ever. He enrolled here in August and he left in November."
Maybe Ferrell saw flashes or heard stories about Crazy J and chose a safer point guard, Brock Young, the senior most everyone believes Ferrell favored. Young went on to a decent career at East Carolina.
John Wall went on to Word of God. The Holy Rams shot the 3, played nails D and dunked on everybody. Fans who couldn't get tickets held each other up to peer through the gym's glass windows.
"No lie, John could get from one end of the court to the other end of the court in about 3½seconds," says Tim Woods, the assistant coach then and now Word of God's head basketball coach and athletic director.
Wall could still get in trouble, too. Police charged Wall and another friend with breaking and entering an abandoned home his senior year. He was placed in a first offender's program and had his record expunged after completing 75 hours of community service.
But by then, John Wall owned Raleigh. His closest friends -- Bane, Eric "E.J." Grissett, Reggie Jackson and Ty Williams -- had become uber-popular, hosting their own parties, cruising the Southside Raleigh loop for ladies. It wouldn't be until the next year's NBA draft rolled around they coined the name "5-Deep" for their crew, wearing matching, diamond-studded pendants.
"Every day after school, we would go to my house and I would listen to rap battles," says Williams, who met John in seventh grade when they were both hoop phenoms. "Every single day, John came home and would get on Scout.com. 'Man, how I suppose to get up here?' Junior year, he got a Scout.com profile. They ranked him probably top 20. He still was coming home every day after high school, 'Man, how's Dexter Strickland ranked No. 1?' Next thing, between junior and senior year, he jumped to No. 1. The dude wouldn't quit."
Soon John Calipari, Kentucky and the chance to be the next Derrick Rose beckoned. So did Wall's troubled past.
"When I left," Wall remembers, "a lot of people said, 'He'll be back.' They said, 'He'll be in school for four years, and he'll be back.' Nobody thought I would make it."
It is late Saturday night, a week before All-Star Weekend in New York, and a bona fide NBA MVP candidate has just led his team to a blowout victory over Brooklyn, snapping an ugly, five-game skid.
John Wall and all his no-look majesty and spin-to-the-rack tenacity shoveled the dirt away again, pushing the machine toward a high seed in the Eastern Conference. He will start his first All-Star Game on Sunday in New York. Last month, he joined Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Chris Paul as the only players to average at least 17 points, eight assists and four rebounds through their first 300 games.
"I got to give John credit -- he's a totally different player than the one that came here," Miles Rawls says. "At first he was like a crash dummy, goin' 100 miles an hour, runnin' into whoever was under the basket. Now we got somethin' special."
Big John Thompson, whose great Georgetown teams were the pride of the District and beyond some 30 years ago: "If John and that team keep improving and winning, they will create a lot of hidden interest for a city that still wants to be a basketball town. It's lain dormant at times because the Wizards haven't done that much over the years. But when the Bullets won in '78, people forget what that was like, how excited everyone was."
Either way, if Washington has found out anything about sports and politics lately, it's that messiahs don't work like flawed, genuine folks here. Hope and Change and All-In For Week One sound visionary. But sometimes, affecting societal change -- hell, to help the District break a major-revenue sports championship drought dating back to 1992 -- happens when the reckless, vexed man, who can't always get out of his own way, has the gumption to hurdle the dysfunction around him.
Sometimes, when the hope doesn't justify the hype, Robert Griffin III in a heartbeat goes from a teammate calling him "Black Jesus" in 2012 to a town turning and labeling him Black Judas.
President Obama has made gains in the minds and hearts of his home since 2008. But next to how D.C. feels about its forever-flawed and immortally beloved Mayor for Life, Marion Barry, POTUS is just passing through.
Barry's demons worried everyone sick. Big John Thompson scared the hell out of us, especially white people more comfortable with a calm, palatable black man rather than a profane, pawing, 6-foot-9 bear. By the force of his personality, Big John transformed a program but simultaneously made us examine our prejudices. A drunk John Riggins once told a Supreme Court justice at a White House correspondents dinner, "Lighten up, Sandy baby." For a time, he frightened an entire fan base into wanting to be his designated driver.
But they all revealed what D.C. admires most about agents of change -- a realness, people devoid of facades and walls, players and politicians willing to work through the dark of winter and not just bitch about it.
This city acts like it wants the exotic candidate working abroad to come home and validate it. It thinks K.D.-to-D.C. is the answer.
What if that ship has already sailed? What if K.D. leaves his best years in OKC or ends up in New York or L.A.? What if the District misses the boat waiting for a yacht?
During the early years, Georgetown almost lost patience with Big John. Big John Riggins wasn't quite fast or shifty enough for some Washington football fans. Little John Wall has a few warts of his own.
"All the stuff I did, it made me who I am," he says without a hint of remorse or self-pity. "It made me a competitive person, have that tough edge, grit, don't back down from no opponent. I can't regret it. It's why I'm here.
"Look, I'm just going to be myself. And when you're bein' yourself, you don't have to back up lies or the stories you told. You don't got to sugarcoat nothin'."
With reporting from Justin Tinsley.