Monday, January 5, 2015

Washington’s All-Star Giver

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Years ago a colleague convinced me that sports curses were real.  His trek to Southern Maryland began on a different continent – Africa, his place of birth – and included a long stay in New York City where he became an avid Yankees fan (unfortunate but understandable).  His story was fascinating, particularly as compared to my journey to the land of blue crabs and stuffed ham – a tale that starts and ends with a hearty “born here.”

The improbable intersection of our lives occurred in 2003, a time when the Yankees were perennial contenders and the Boston Red Sox, their sworn enemy, hadn’t won a World Series since 1918, the year they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees and spawned the “Curse of the Bambino.” 

As fate and a good story would have it, the Yanks and Sox played for the American League pennant in 2003.  The teams split the first six games, but my buddy’s confidence never wavered.  “Ronnie, listen, the Red Sox can’t win…they are cursed”, he would say.  Sure enough, in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7, an unlikely hero – Aaron Boone – hit a series-clinching home run for the Yanks.  

It was the final chapter of Ruth’s alleged curse – the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 - but it opened my mind to the possibility of dark forces enveloping a team or, in the case of D.C. sports, an entire region.  D.C. is cursed.  The evidence - the Nationals’ recent playoff failures, the spring collapses of the Capitals and the ‘Skins’ two-decade-long organizational death spiral - is overwhelming.  I’m spooked.  When optimistic forces – think Robert Griffin III, Stephen Strasburg and Alex Ovechkin – attempt to clear the gloom, I avoid acknowledgement for fear of provoking the gods and accelerating the return of hopeless suffering.  It sounds nuts - unless you’re a fan too.

But I’m going to risk it to talk about John Wall. 

Wall, 24, was drafted first overall by the Wizards – another lovable D.C. loser - in 2010.  He was athletically gifted but lacked a consistent jump shot and often played out-of-control.  Four years later, there isn’t another point guard in the NBA I’d rather have. 

During a period (their early 20s) when Ovechkin was in playboy mode and toured D.C. in exotic sports cars and Griffin was selling athletic shoes and sandwiches and pushing his brand, Wall has, to his immense credit, quietly worked on his game far removed from the headlines and intoxicating distractions.  He’s the rare elite talent with a blue-collar work ethic.  He is a no frills gym rat and the consummate teammate.  For a town mired in Griffin-drama, Wall is the antidote. 

Wall’s dedication and throwback approach is paying dividends.  Through last Saturday, the Wizards are 19-6, second in the Eastern Conference, and Wall is fueling their ascension.  The kid has grown into a bona fide star with an all-around game.  Wall can score the basketball and play lock-down defense.  But what I love most is his unselfishness on the offensive end.  He currently ranks second in the league with 10.8 assists per game.  With Wall, every possession is the season of giving.

But Wall’s play didn’t convince me to acknowledge his greatness; Miyah Telemaque-Nelson did.  Wall - again with no fanfare or grandstanding - befriended Miyah, a pediatric cancer patient last year and facilitated a meeting between her and Nicki Minaj.  He wrote her name on his shoes before every game.  It’s the sort of story that slips through the newsreel these days and, frankly, one I had missed until the heart-wrenching end. 

Miyah died on 8 December.  She was six.  Six.  Later that night, an emotionally drained Wall wept during a post-game interview.  The All-Star athlete exposed an All-Star heart.  It was a side and a depth of Wall I had never seen.  Yet despite Wall’s overwhelming loss, I couldn’t help but think of the joy he had given to a little girl whose time on Earth was far too short.  It was an off-the-court assist of sorts…and his greatest to date.  Giving > Receiving: John Wall the point guard…and the person…gets it.

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