John Wall has always been viral, from that infamous image of his distraught face on the bench, to his smiling on-court shimmy, to that whole pregame dancing thing.
The best kind of sports viral, though, is the kind linked to winning. Think Michael Phelps, stewing in nuclear silence behind Chad le Clos at the Rio Olympics. The fury in Phelps’s scowl toward the shadowboxing South African was unforgettable. Match it with his subsequent gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly, and that image became part of the Phelps aura.
Thursday night, the former University of Kentucky star scowled and danced and kept the gif-makers engaged throughout Washington’s blowout win over the Boston Celtics, which got Washington back into this second-round series. Then, as luck would have it, he met with Phelps in the team’s training room. They’ve known each other for years, having met when Phelps was at the peak of his powers and Wall was still trying to find his professional legs. As Phelps left the locker room with a Wall jersey over his shoulder, he thought back to that conversation.
“I think the coolest thing for me is watching him come into his own, you know, watching him sort of take over the leadership role,” Phelps said late Thursday night. “It’s just special. He gets it, and he’s finally starting to realize a bunch of stuff, and it really shows. And that’s why they’ve been able to do what they’ve done this year and make this run. You just recognize great things, and he’s doing it.”
And those viral scowls, which have hints of a pre-race Phelps?
“He’s passionate; that’s what it is,” the most decorated Olympian ever said. “He’s playing with passion, and it’s always good to see an athlete play with passion. I mean, I always get fired up when you see greatness.”
Wall’s game is irrepressibly great; you don’t really need me or Phelps to tell you that. Here are the players who’ve ever averaged better than 26 points and 10 assists in a playoff run: Russell Westbrook, Allen Iverson, John Stockton and Isiah Thomas (the first one). Wall, now averaging 29 points and 11 assists this postseason, is on the verge of joining that group. He’s the first player in NBA history to have nine straight playoff games in one season with at least 20 points and 7 assists, according to Elias Sports. He was responsible for 19 points during Thursday night’s electric first quarter, scoring eight and assisting on 11 more. (The Celtics finished the quarter with 17.)
“When he came out, it seemed like he was just engaged, like ‘I’m about to just straight put on a demonstration,’” said Caron Butler, the emotional engine from a different Wizards era, who was at Verizon Center on Thursday night. “When you see a dude determined like that off the top, he sets the stage and the energy and the momentum of the whole team. They follow his lead. He’s the head of the snake. He’s about that life.”
And Wall has gradually developed a similar relationship with the home fans. They follow his lead, too, and when he stalks the baseline after forcing the visitors to take a timeout, an ovation is just about inevitable. I’m not sure there’s another active D.C. athlete who plays off the crowd as well as Wall does — who deliberately demands a reaction, who can scowl 18,000 people into a roar. That’s why Eric Bickel of the Junkies keeps saying that Wall is the most embraceable of the current crop of Washington stars.
“He seems to relish being kind of the face of D.C., and I just love that,” Bickel said on Friday. “He wears his emotions on his sleeve; he has that chip on his shoulder that we as a [fanbase] have. He just seems to perfectly embody and embrace being the face of D.C., and I love it.”
I know, I know. Cranky older columnists, plus local podcast hosts, would rather Wall leads his team past the second round before we build him a mean-mugging statue or write 1,000 words about his scowls. It’s a fair point. Wall could have led the Wizards past the top-seeded Pacers in 2014 but fell short. He could have led the Wizards past the top-seeded Hawks in 2015 but fell short. Washington has enough talent to beat the top-seeded Celtics this year, and maybe we should wait for him to make that next step before gushing about embraceability.
Still, he’s playing like a superstar and acting like an excited college kid, and that combination can turn some emotional dials. People rally around the passion, the fire and yes, the GIFs. Like all that flexing after he scores an and-one, which Wall explained with four words: “Too strong, too fast.”
“The whole bench gets hyped; we flex right with him,” little-used reserve Sheldon Mac said. “ I feel like I’m playing, I feel like I got an and-one. It just feeds off to the rest of the guys.”
Or the Jordan shrug, which Wall brought out against Atlanta during the first round.
“Jordan started it, but it ain’t his,” Wall said, when asked about the appropriation. “It was just like, I’ve got everything going right now. So it was like, I amaze myself at times on the court.”
Or the most classic Wall GIF, when he clenches his face into a mean mug that could melt cotton candy.
“That’s his — excuse my language — that’s his ‘You can’t eff with me’ face,” Bradley Beal explained. “That’s his mentality, that’s his knack, that’s his edge. You know when he has that face, it’s go time. … I just know whenever he has that face, it’s gonna be ugly.”
Wall’s game is overflowing with self-assurance right now, so the emotion pours out alongside. He’s playing with more confidence than he ever has, and he’s acting the part as well. He talked to his coaches Thursday morning about Washington’s need to move the ball more quickly on offense to make Isaiah Thomas work on both ends of the floor; that’s the kind of thing someone in his position can and should do. The confidence, he recently said, is because “this season, it’s fully my team.”
His game has matured, and so has his identity; “just from an athlete to another athlete, it’s just a true treat to watch somebody come into their own,” as Phelps put it. So bring on the GIFs.
“That’s part of his persona; that’s part of his personality,” said Garrett Temple, another former teammate who was in the building Thursday night. “That’s what makes him John Wall.”
Celtics at Wizards
6:30 p.m. Sunday (TNT); Boston leads series 2-1