WASHINGTON — In an instant, the words stopped flowing and John Wall dropped his head and sobbed. Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis calmly patted Wall on his back until the point guard regained his composure.
Wall’s family and close friends, his agent Dan Fegan and even Mayor Vincent Gray were in attendance at Verizon Center on Thursday, when the Wizards proudly anointed Wall as their franchise player by rewarding him with a five-year contract extension worth approximately $80 million. But as he gazed into the audience and spotted his mother, Frances Pulley, holding back tears, Wall put aside the pressure that comes with being a maximum-salary player.
Instead, Wall got lost remembering the very real pressure that Pulley faced having to raise a family by herself after his father, John Carroll Wall Sr., died of liver cancer when the son was 9; of her working three or four jobs to provide shelter and put food on the table. In a quiet moment later, away from the cameras and the stage, Wall explained why he got so emotional.
“It was like a breathtaking moment, seeing my mom and seeing everything she worked for,” he said. “I mean, I do this because I love the game of basketball and I love playing it, but you also do it for her, as a single parent and what she had to do to raise us and I feel I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity, especially, to take care of her for the rest of her life and do other things in the community.”
During the 25-minute news conference, Wall also announced that he intended to donate $1 million to local charities, in conjunction with Leonsis’ Monumental Sports and Entertainment Foundation.
Wall’s deal is guaranteed and doesn’t include any early termination options or buyouts, according to league sources with knowledge of the situation. His extension, referred to as a designated player contract, also contains language that would allow him to earn up to 30 percent of the salary cap – potentially pushing the deal to $96 million – in the event that he earns the NBA most valuable player award next season. Wall is ineligible to reach the 30 percent threshold based on the other qualifying criteria: being voted to two all-star teams or being named an all-NBA selection twice before his rookie contract expires at the end of next season.
“I’ll never let money change me,” Wall said. “I’m already motivated. But this is motivation to another level. The only thing you can do is win now. If you’re not winning what’s the point of getting the contract? You’re still going to get your money but you’re not going to have no fun. It’s no point in having it and not being happy.”
In three seasons, Wall has averaged 16.9 points, 8.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, but the Wizards took a calculated risk in making him the NBA’s fifth point guard with a maximum contract allowed under the collective bargaining agreement – joining former MVP Derrick Rose and all-stars Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams – before he had reached all-star status or led the team to a playoff appearance. The team could have let Wall become a restricted free agent next summer, but Leonsis wanted to maintain some continuity for what he has described as a “painful” rebuilding effort since he bought the team in 2010 – the same summer the franchise nabbed Wall with the No. 1 overall pick.
“If there is an inevitability to what you’re having to do, why not turn it into a positive and say: ‘You’re our guy. We believe in you and you’re going to get the max anyway, so let’s get it out of the way,’ ” Leonsis said, adding that other teams would have offered Wall a similar deal based on his talent and potential. “I felt John earned this because of what he’d been through and his level of commitment. I thought he was our foundational player and he deserved to be a max player.”
Coach Randy Wittman praised Wall for his growth over the past three years, noting how he has grown from a player who often bristled at criticism to one that became like a coach on the floor. Wittman said Wall proved his character as a player and a person last season, when he was forced to miss the first 33 games with a stress injury in his left knee but returned to overcome mounds of criticism and finish on a remarkable tear, averaging career highs of 18.5 points per game on 44.1 percent shooting to go along with 7.6 assists.
“I think that was a really big determining factor, I think in all of our minds, of what and who John Wall will become,” Wittman said. “He’s not there yet and I think he knows that, he’s aware of that and he’s willing to work and do that.”
Leonsis said he flew to Los Angeles two weeks ago and met with Wall and Fegan to “show respect” and also make sure that Wall was focused on team goals and understood that “to whom much is given, much is required.” With Wall deciding to commit to Washington, Leonsis believes that it sends a message to the rest of the league that the Wizards are committed to building a winner because “a player of his caliber” was eager to stay.
Wall recalled an early discussion that he had with Leonsis shortly after being drafted when Leonsis explained the difficult challenge of rebuilding a franchise.
“Tough times don’t last long, tough people do,” Wall said. “I’m not a follower. I like to be a leader. I feel like I would have had the opportunity to go anywhere. I feel like I’d be a follower trying to build a legacy somewhere else. I feel like I’m a person who gives my word and my commitment to where I started and that’s where I’d like to finish. We haven’t been to the promised land of winning a championship for years. I know we’re a long way from there, but that’s my main goal before my career is done, to win one here.”