” I’m too nice ! I still have this s—!”
No, it’s not this video, the one with the edited highlights de Wall making every shot in a basketball game and playing in a busy gymnasium alongside new Los Angeles Clippers teammate Paul George. This week’s video in which Wall struts after every bucket, the model of machismo, yelling and swearing — perhaps at the hapless defender but more likely for the benefit of the crowd and, of course, the cameras.
Rather, it is this other video. The one in which Wall sits in front of a Salvation Army backdrop and opens up about his mental health. He has a one-on-one interview and talks about his art collection, support for the black community, and mothers. In particular, the one Wall calls his “Superwoman”, the late Frances Pulley.
Then the conversation takes a surprisingly deep turn. Wall casually recalls the dark days he has lived through in recent years. And as he listens to a follow-up question about that time, Wall squints and shakes his head.
“Darkest place I’ve ever been in. I mean, at one point I thought about killing myself,” Wall said. “There was a time when I had to go find a therapist. Many people think, “I don’t need help. I can get out anytime. But you have to be true to yourself and find what’s best for you, and that’s what I did.
These particular words crash down like cinder blocks thrown from a skyscraper. Even though the admission rushes in Wall’s normal rat-a-tat cadence, it forces the interviewer, Donald Ware, to sit down and utter a single word that speaks for all of us: “Wow.”
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Wall — a multi-millionaire NBA player, five-time all-star, the Washington Wizards’ career assists leader but also a grieving son, a 30-something trying to find his way, a black man — broke Stigma.
There is a meaning in this confession. He is not the first public figure to speak openly about his mental health. The topic has become mainstream in the mainstream as celebrities and athletes have prioritized their integrity. Last season, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley announced on Twitter that he would be stepping away from football to focus on his mental well-being. Also recently, Terry McLaurin, the Washington Commanders’ top receiver, spoke about the benefits he found in seeking therapy.
Yet Wall’s admission is striking. He sat in front of the camera, his voice steady, without tremors of shame. He didn’t just speak in vague terms of “tough times” or “need a break.” He said out loud that he had once contemplated suicide.
It is a taboo word in a certain branch of black culture steeped in tradition. Especially among men, some who grew up as broken black boys and were brought up, by other broken role models, that only a punk would mourn. They may have learned to express themselves through displays of physical strength. And that a real man is defined by the status he has earned and the respect he receives.
In his moment of honesty, Wall broke the facade of being tough and admitted he needed help. Such a change from a young black man who only projected the opposite.
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As an NBA star, Wall behaved like a man who knew his worth – and wanted let everyone know, too. There was no problem that Rosebar couldn’t solve. He oozed the confidence – and lack of self-awareness – of someone who refused to believe he would be anything other than No. 1.
Peak John Wall performed for a while at a press conference in August 2017 announcing his maximum five-year contract with the Wizards. NBC Sports Washington reporter Chase Hughes asked what turned out to be the most relevant question of the day, asking if Wall had thought about how his high-octane game might need to develop at as he got older. Wall shook his head slowly and simply said, “Nah.”
The whole room burst out laughing. Majority owner Ted Leonsis and then-general manager Ernie Grunfeld also laughed. Fast forward six months later, and Wall was recovering from a knee injury that would be a prelude to the 2019 Achilles surgery that changed the trajectory of his career, and he was asked what he learned at the eight weeks away from the Game. Unfazed by the pain, he replied nonchalantly.
“What did I learn? Nothing,” Wall said. “Nothing. I just relax.
But things were never the same for Wall. His body failed him. The game left him behind. His precious Superwoman had cancer.
On November 20, 2020, I was texting someone close to Wall. It happened right after rumors started circulating that Wall wanted to leave Washington. By then, the wizards had started looking for a business partner. His days as one of the District’s most beloved and trusted honor athletes seemed to be coming to an end.
Wall had this insane incident in New York with the birthday video, where he was filmed shirtless and with glazed eyes, making elaborate gestures with his hands that were interpreted as gang signs then displaying a red bandana. He was down, but it looked like there was more going on. More than the fragile ego of a superstar fractured by business rumors. More than just a 30 year old man going wild and acting drunk on his birthday. So I sent a direct message to the individual close to Wall.
“Is John… okay?” I really say that as a question. Looks like it’s been down for a while”
None of us outside of Wall’s circle could have known the depth of what he was dealing with at that time. He was not well.
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In her recent interview, Wall checked off a trauma checklist, shedding a sliver of light on what’s happened over the past two years.
“Tear my Achilles”. My mother being sick. My passing mother. My grandmother who died a year later, all in the middle of covid at the same time. Me going to chemotherapy and sitting there. Me watching my mother take her last breath. Wearing the same clothes for three days, lying on the couch next to her,” Wall said.
All of this brought him to a dark place. But Wall – a young black man from Raleigh, North Carolina, who is fortifying himself as one of “the strongest soldiers” — sought therapy.
This isn’t the part where we applaud Wall, shower him with sympathy, and mark his story with and he lived happily ever after. An ellipse belongs here, not an empathetic period, as Wall stands at the starting line of his journey to wholeness.
Wall — and others like him who have struggled with depression — aren’t magically cured of their pain by seeking help once. Therapy is a commitment that takes time and a lot of personal work. But Wall can be commended for his openness. And, yes, to be a strong black man who had suicidal thoughts but then recognized that he needed to talk to someone.
So let’s always remember this John Wall’s viral video.
He is at home in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he has always been most comfortable. It seems good. In good health. Happy, even. Possibly the happiest we’ve seen in about two years. In the clip, he’s so honest, so open, and he gets our full attention.