When John Wall “Dougied” in front of an elated Verizon Center crowd before his professional home debut on November 2, 2010, the Game Changer’s career would be forever linked to the Philadelphia 76ers. Little did anyone know at the time how this connection between Wall’s Wizards and the 76ers would epitomize the ups and downs of his personal and team success. Philadelphia has sky-rocketed into its current perch amongst the best of the Eastern Conference, while Washington has plummeted to become a national punch line for sports futility. The relationship between Wizards and the 76ers has seen its triumphs, torment and just plain weirdness in the brief Wall era.
Going into the 2010-11 season, similarities between the teams were striking. Wall was the first overall pick in 2010, Philly selected Evan Turner second. Both teams were led by veteran teachers (Flip Saunders and Doug Collins) who had past playoff success. All-Star guards Andre Iguodala and Gilbert Arenas were viewed as possessing albatross contracts that needed to be moved in order for the teams to rebuild. A crop of young players in Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, JaVale McGee, Nick Young, and Andray Blatche littered their rosters.
Wall won each of his first two meetings versus Philly in thrilling overtime fashion, and a budding rivalry seemed in motion for these two NBA cities separated by only 132 miles. However, Washington has now lost four straight to Philadelphia by double-digits, including the most recent 103-90 defeat on January 14th.
In the original ‘Teach Me How to Dougie’ game, Wizards reserve Cartier Martin hit an improbable three point shot to send the game in overtime. Washington eventually pulled it out 106-105 on the strength of free throws, and Wall produced an eye-popping stat line: 29 points, 13 assists, 9 steals and 8 turnovers. Wall’s first pro game, seen on TNT, was a dud blowout loss in Orlando, and while he performed much better in his second game (28 points and nine assists), the Halloween weekend loss in Atlanta garnered little attention. The 76ers victory affirmed to the sports world that the one-and-done hot shot out of Kentucky might be worthy of all the hype.
Comparisons to Oscar Robertson were thrown about, along with glowing coverage from ESPN’s SportsCenter, which led with Wall’s Dougie introduction. Wall’s dance moves and eight turnovers unfortunately drew the ire of a troll (a name which will go unmentioned) with a large radio show megaphone. His unfair, borderline racist views did nothing to stop the sports pop culture juggernaut that went from the John Wall Dance phenomenon to California Swag District’s “Teach Me How Dougie.”
The video of Wall’s D-town Boogie became a YouTube viral hit, and it quickly was incorporated into his brand with TNT running a cartoon version and Cali Swag District performing the tune at a Wizards home game. Wall would continue to famously Dougie throughout his rookie season, with the likes of Chris Brown; it also landed him in an ESPY commercial. Even today, fans often yell out for Wall to Dougie and chords of Cali Swag are sometimes played throughout the Verizon Center after a standout play by Wall.
In the second Wizards-Sixers matchup of the 2010-11 season, Wall actually came off the bench due to a leg injury, yet still finished with 25 points, six assists, three rebounds, and one turnover. This game was memorable for Elton Brand being ejected after a flagrant foul on JaVale McGee; JaVale waved bye-bye to Elton while laying on the ground. Turner and Wall had closing moments that TAI’s Rashad Mobley described:
At one point Evan Turner hit four straight free throws to preserve the 106-103 lead for the Sixers with 11.8 seconds left. After Nick Young missed a three, the Wizards were forced to foul Turner again with eight seconds left in regulation. Turner missed both attempts, allowing Washington to stay within a three-pointer of tying the game. John Wall was then fouled while taking that three-pointer; he calmly sank all three, creating an extra session of basketball.
The Wizards triumphed 116-114 in OT, which moved their record to 5-8 at the time; Philadelphia fell to 3-11. These two teams seemed on identical paths with Washington having the slight advantage. But by the time the two met again in Philadelphia on January 5th 2011, fortunes were rapidly shifting. Philly was playing around .500 ball and the Wizards were in a season-defining road losing streak which then stood at 0-16. The 76ers destroyed Washington 109-79, highlighted by Blatche’s bizarre hair cut.
The final tilt of last season was another Philly pasting (117-94) of Washington on February 23, 2011. The contest would be remembered for Hilton Armstrong and Kirk Hinrich leaving the game midway because they had been traded to the Atlanta Hawks. The 76ers (28-29 at the time) were on their way to drastic improvement in making the playoffs as the 7th seed, while the Wizards (15-41) were sinking to another bottom five NBA finish.
The blowout losses had finally gotten to the uber competitive Wall, and he publicly lashed out for the first time in his career:
“Until we find five guys that really want to fight, compete, and don’t care, you know, the whole time, it’s really going to be tough for us to win.”
Wall called teammates out without saying names. When asked about his frustration level:
“Pretty high. I haven’t lost this many games, and it ain’t just about the losing, I’m listening to my coaching and development, and they don’t want me to get in no losing mind set. But it’s just so frustrating to see that certain guys seem like they don’t have the effort to be out there, like they don’t care. That’s the toughest thing for me … no matter if I’m having a bad game or good game, I might show frustration in my face, but I’m going to compete. That’s one thing I’ve always did my whole life is compete, and that’s all we asking for from everybody.”
This new season brought optimism to the nation’s capital city that quickly evaporated with Washington’s poor start. In comparison, Philadelphia busted out red-hot with its current 11-5 record. In their opening meeting, the 76ers crushed Washington in Philly 120-89. This time Wall, who had feasted on Sixers D as a rookie, averaging 23 points and 11 assists, struggled mightily. Critics questioned his poor body language and wondered if he completely dogged it late in the loss. On the next night in D.C., the 76ers defeated the Wizards 103-90. Wall played much better, flirting with a triple-double, but his turnover bugaboo struck again with eight give-aways.
After the road win, 76ers head coach Doug Collins discussed the game plan against Wall:
“He [Wall] is so quick and fast that he is going to be atop of the rim. One thing we tried to do is take away the easy baskets and make him play in a crowd. And see a lot of bodies…We build a wall to try to stop Wall, where he sees jerseys and there is no where to go.”
Collins elaborated what is different from last season to this season in guarding Wall:
“He would get in that open floor. Our transition defense is much better. Just trying to keep him off the rim … What I was concerned about is, late in games, he starts going 100 miles an hour, starts barreling into you, and if they call those as fouls, you are in trouble.”
Philly players also remarked on how to limit Wall.
“We try to stay in front of him is our goal. He is so athletic. It takes a team effort. You got to wall him in, all puns intended.”
“Make him see numbers. Make him complete tough shots. Usually he gets in there, flips ‘em up, and makes alot of those shots. So make him see numbers to create pressure for him.”
Jrue Holiday denied any personal rivalry between the two young guards:
“Last year, [Wall] did his thing, not really back-and-forth. In the first two games, they got the best of us. We came in here [Verizon Center] and tricked it off.”
As the two teams battle tonight, Wall appears to be out of his slump, but his team’s losses continue to mount (Washington’s record is 2-14) and questions over the direction of the franchise with Wall at the helm have become harder to ignore.
How could these two teams, in seemingly similar situations before last season, be so far apart in just 14 months? Why does one squad buy into team concepts while the other sticks to hero ball? How come one staff designs an offensive system to their players’ strengths while another continues to turn their entire roster into poor mid-range jump shooters? Why do veteran players accept lesser roles, if necessary, on one team, while on the other, they fight with coaches and unnecessarily pout with seemingly no accountability? Washington is eight losses shy from totalling 200 over the past four seasons to only 70 wins. Yet, the same basketball personnel management brain trust remains in tact. How is that possible?
Philadelphia might not be the correct model for Washington to follow due to roster construction differences, but answers to the questions above are frustrating for Wizards fans to contemplate as another season limps toward the draft lottery.