WHEN THE NBA released its 2022-23 schedule in August, John Wall immediately scanned the page until he got to Dec. 10.
He scooped up 50 tickets. The two seats he wanted most, though — where his mother used to watch him play — were gone.
Frances Ann Pulley was a courtside staple in the arena’s Gold North section, Row AAA, seats 11 and 12, sipping a beer, cheering on her son and chatting up fans and arena employees who were hoping she brought them her famous North Carolina sweet tea.
“It’s gonna be tough not seeing my mom there,” Wall told ESPN while sitting at the Clippers’ practice facility last week. “I was gonna try to put flowers on the seat where she’s sitting and let my cousin or somebody sit in the other.
“But they already sold out.”
Due to injuries and the trade, the 32-year-old Wall has not played in front of a D.C. crowd since Dec. 16, 2018. While with the Rockets, Wall returned to face the Wizards on Feb. 15, 2021, but no fans were in attendance due to the league’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Wall was out of sorts in a familiar yet empty arena, but most of all he was grief-stricken.
Wall was still mourning his mother and best friend — who died at 58 years old due to breast cancer in December 2019 — and was hoping to at least see her old courtside seat across from the Wizards bench so he could pay some sort of tribute to her. The floor seats, though, weren’t even set up.
Just weeks before that first return to Washington, Wall’s grandmother, Frances Keith Pulley, died at 81. The losses crushed Wall’s foundation, which had already begun to crack.
In late January 2019, one month after undergoing season-ending surgery on his left heel, Wall fell at his home and ruptured his left Achilles. He said an infection from the procedure on his heel nearly led to him needing his foot amputated.
Losing basketball while having to watch his mother go through chemotherapy before her death, and then his grandmother’s passing, led to Wall having suicidal thoughts and seeking therapy, as he detailed in a deeply personal Players’ Tribune piece.
For a man who does everything fast — whether it’s talking or playing — Wall is gradually building himself back up, mentally and physically, as he returns to his old home with his new Clippers team. Wall will also likely mark the emotional day with his first start of the season, with the Clippers resting guard Reggie Jackson.
This homecoming sequel will provide Wall with a chance to properly celebrate a D.C. career that saw him and Bradley Beal lead the Wizards to the second round of the playoffs three times, thank Wizards fans in person and have a much-needed opportunity to remember his mom in a place with so many cherished memories.
“It’s gonna be dope,” said Wall, whose two young sons will also get to see him play in D.C. “It’s gonna be crazy. Kinda get chills. I just can’t wait till the day gets here. It’s gonna be emotional, for sure, for me.
“[The last time there] was kind of a weird moment for me. …
“This one’s gonna be totally different.”
TWELVE DAYS BEFORE he stepped inside a cavernous Capital One Arena, Wall stood alone in an empty funeral home room next to his grandmother’s casket.
Due to the NBA’s COVID-19 restrictions, Wall could not be in close contact with anyone when he left the Rockets to attend the funeral. So he had the agonizing task of having to say goodbye to his grandmother without any loved ones surrounding him.
“It was emotional for me,” said Wall, who has tattoos of his mother and grandmother. “It was scary. She was in all purple, that’s her favorite color … I think she passed cause she was just probably depressed [that] my mom died … before she did. Stress.
“And then she was in the [nursing] home. COVID was so bad at the time, they protected [seniors]. So even when I used to try to visit her, we had to talk through glass and an iPad on FaceTime. It was tough. And I think she just got to the point where she was like, I’m done with it.”
Despite the sorrow Wall was still feeling, less than two weeks later in D.C., he had 29 points and 11 assists in a 131-119 loss to the Wizards.
This time, Wall will be able to see where his mother used to jump out of her seat and cheer after one of her son’s patented behind-the-back dribbles in traffic — when she wasn’t chatting it up with arena employees.
“Oh, everybody loved her,” Wall said. “Her sweet tea was fire! Sometimes she’d bring food in for people.”
After the national anthem and each time he checks into Saturday’s game, Wall will kiss his right and left wrists where he has tattoos that read “Never Satisfied” and “So Determined” and one of his John Wall Family Foundation. Then he will touch his chest and point to the sky, a gesture meant to remember his mother, grandmother and a young girl he befriended, Miyah Telemaque-Nelson, who just before turning six, died in 2014 due to a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Wall became close friends with Miyah and her mother after helping the girl meet rapper Nicki Minaj.
The Wizards are planning to give their former five-time All-Star and all-time assists leader another video tribute so that Wall and the fans can properly enjoy it, as was initially intended. While Wall greatly appreciated the original video tribute that opened with scenes of him giving back to the community he was so embedded in, there were no fans to see it, no one to shower one of the team’s greatest players ever with gratitude.
“He probably gonna cry,” Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. told ESPN. “It’s emotional, man. He lost his mom there. I hope that he gets exactly what he is looking for and what he deserves.”
During his previous trip, Wall was disappointed that he could not personally thank many of his friends and family at his favorite restaurants in the Nation’s Capital and get tickets for associates, such as his longtime housekeepers and interior design consultants for helping him grow from a teenager doing the “Dougie” into an adult.
“Being a kid that was 19 with no facial hair, no tattoos,” Wall said, “that city embraced me from Day One, sticking with me through all the adversity of not winning early on, injuries, to us being a team in the playoffs [for] consistent years, me being an All-Star, me giving back to the community and my mom being there [with me]. …
“I’ve always given 110% effort, played through every injury I could have played through. And I also gave my heart to that city.”
Wall also hopes to catch up with Beal, his longtime backcourt mate who is currently out with a hamstring strain.
“That’s somebody I call like a brother to me,” Wall said of his relationship with Beal, which critics often deemed unsustainable. “He has always been there for me and so many guys in the media are always trying to make us be like we [had a] hate-each-other relationship.
“It’s just different when you got two young guys that both know they’re talented and both want to be the franchise guy. You’re gonna have ups and downs and not see eye-to-eye all the time. But we were always there for each other. We always try to compete, try to make each other better and we never had no real differences with each other.”
Wall has no regrets but wishes he and Beal could have had more time together, especially once Beal developed into a 30-point scorer. Wall also admits he could have passed more.
“I think, like, at times, maybe, I could let him have the ball more,” Wall said. “But we [were] developing. … One thing Brad’s done every year he’s been in the league, he’s always expanded his game. When he first came here, everybody said he’s a catch-and-shoot guy only. Now he’s running pick-and-rolls, making plays, putting the ball on the floor.
“I just wish I would’ve allowed him to do that back then, even if he wasn’t ready for it, just to let him do it early on so it could have made it easier for both of us.”
Still, Wall described his legacy in Washington as “historic.” He didn’t bring the city a championship, but his assists extended off the court, impacting fans in The District with his charitable work.
“Being able to get in touch with the community was the most important thing for me,” Wall said. “I think the city respects me [more] for John Wall as a person than my talent. That’s what my mom always wanted people to do.”
BEFORE WALL PLAYED his return game in Houston on Nov. 2, Clippers forward Paul George posed a question for his new point guard during warm-ups:
When was Wall going to pull out his signature move?
Wall unleashed it at the start of the fourth quarter, stealing the ball from Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. at halfcourt, reversing toward the basket and breaking out his famous behind-the-back dribble, maneuvering past Daishen Nix and toward the rim.
With Porter Jr. closing in, Wall threw a no-look, over-his-head dime to a trailing Moses Brown for a dunk.
“It was crazy,” George said of the play after the Clippers’ 109-101 win. “I’ve never seen anyone stop [the behind-the-back move] and sure enough he pulled it out. He’s special. He’s elite with his craftiness.”
Wall has been building back to the world-class speed that propelled him to five All-Star appearances with the Wizards. He hopes to drop another five to 10 pounds. And Wall has already shown glimpses of his old self, getting to the rim on breaks even if there are two or three defenders in front of him.
“One thing that you think guys would do as they get older is lose their athleticism [and] quickness,” Sacramento coach Mike Brown said. “He’s just a little smarter about conserving his energy, but he’s still a blur.”
On Nov. 21 against the Utah Jazz, Wall flashed to the Clippers’ center court logo and sank a buzzer-beater at the end of the first quarter, celebrating with an air guitar and helping the Clippers win their third straight game. While there are times when he plays as if he is trying to get everything back at once, like when he had eight turnovers to go with eight assists in that win over the Jazz, Wall is thankful to be playing basketball again.
Wall said he no longer has any suicidal thoughts like the ones during, as he described to ESPN in July, “the darkest place I’ve ever been.”
“This is my sanctuary. This is my peace right here,” Wall said while staring out at the Clippers’ practice floor last week. “[If] the money and all that s— go out the window, I could come here and play the game I love. … Just being here around the guys, in an environment where I know I’m on a team, that calms a lot of it out.
“I still can play. I still have a lot left.”
Wall is averaging 12.6 points and 5.8 assists while shooting 42.8% from the field in 22 minutes a game. Despite only playing with Leonard and George in five of his 21 games this season due to injuries and playing-time restrictions, Wall is still having the kind of impact the Clippers envisioned — pushing tempo and often attacking multiple defenders on his way to the rim on breaks. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, Wall is thriving finding shooters on the run, ranking in the top five with 12 assists on 3-pointers in transition. The Clippers have shot 12-for-19 on 3’s in transition off a Wall pass.
“To be this good this quick,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said, “we didn’t see it coming.”
After playing in a total of 40 games over the previous three seasons, Wall has been impatient at times with his minutes restriction while having to sit one game of back-to-backs. Moments after he delivered his electric behind-the-back dribble in that win over the Rockets, Wall bolted out of the visitors locker room. He was frustrated, having played just 15 minutes, when he had wanted to show Houston what he could still do.
Still, he doesn’t even need his full minutes allotment to do damage — like when he dropped 15 assists on the San Antonio Spurs in 24 minutes in a 119-97 win on Nov. 19.
“There’s gonna be the moment when we don’t have a minute restriction,” Wall said of Leonard, George and himself. “Us three just go out there and really can be like a Big Three that we want to be. …
“That’s gonna be scary.”
Wall is thankful that his mind is filled with basketball again. But he still thinks about his mom a lot.
“I don’t have dark places [anymore],” Wall said. “I’m playing again so I’m happy as hell.”
On Saturday, Wall’s eyes will be fixated on Row AAA, seats 11 and 12, across from the Wizards’ bench.
“I’ll probably look at that s— the whole game, to be honest,” Wall said. “When there are free throws or if I’m about to check in or I’m on the bench, my eyes will probably drift down there and be staring, trying to figure out what’s going on.”
“She’ll definitely be in the building,” Wall added, his voice rising as he remembers what she would be doing.
“Yelling like s—!”
‘Gave my heart to that city’