There was something remarkable about John Wall’s Game 1 exit, as red, white, and blue streamers fell all around him in the nation’s capital. It wasn’t Wall’s finishing stat line that stood out — though his 32 points on 50 percent shooting and 14 assists made for a career day. It was when he walked away from his postgame interview, in which Wall admitted he had “been through a lot in seven years,” that was most interesting: On his feet, he bore regular, non-signature blue Nikes.
The mystery around Wall not having a signature shoe began in September 2015, when the All-Star left Adidas’s $7.5 million offer at the altar. He’s been a free agent in the sneaker market ever since, and watching his career year in points, assists, steals, and shooting accuracy vault Washington to the 4-seed makes the nameless Nikes and Jordans he plays in more odd. Peers Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard have multiple signature shoes by now; Kristaps Porzingis, Jamal Crawford, and Mike Conley have all inked sneaker deals since Wall’s previous contract with Adidas expired. But his history with the industry began in odd fashion (and frankly, not very in fashion), and that unusual start still shapes the superstar’s pending availability today.
Before Wall was picked no. 1 overall in the 2010 draft, the Kentucky one-and-done signed a five year, $25 million deal with Reebok, who outbid competitors Nike and Under Armour, (neither, of which, apparently, are all that interested in Wall as of late). It looked to be a win for Wall’s agent at the time, Dan Fegan, in comparison with what 2009’s top pick, Blake Griffin, received: a Nike deal worth $400,000.
But like Wall said Sunday, it’s been a trying seven years since. The guarantee on his deal with Reebok amounted to less, paying out $2.5 million his rookie year, with the rest of the money tied up in performance incentives. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Wall even stopped wearing his own signature shoe after discomfort with the model turned to pain. Three years into the deal, John Wall left Reebok for its parent company, Adidas. (Though Reebok denied a shift away from its basketball division at the time, 14 months later the company rebranded and reoriented itself toward personal fitness). His original shoes were dropped, replaced by a new line donning three stripes down the side.
Adidas’s approach to re-signing Wall two summers ago was an Opposite Don Vito Corleone — a $7.5 million per year offer that the guard could and did refuse. Rejecting the deal meant that Wall lost his signature shoe, but as The Vertical’s Nick DePaula reported, Wall wanted “Harden money,” referring to the $200 million, 13-year contract Adidas gave James Harden a month prior.
Adidas had to overpay to steal Harden away from Nike. There’s no doubt who, in a vacuum, made for a more appealing shoe deal. For comparison’s sake, at the time of his signing, Harden was a three-time All-Star fresh off the Western Conference finals who had played in the postseason six times (albeit coming off the bench some of those years), won Sixth Man of the Year, and made three All-NBA teams. The summer Wall turned down his extension, he was a two-time All-Star with two playoff performances and an All-Defensive second team nod.
During the 2014–15 season, prior to Harden’s historic deal, the Rockets were featured on national television 25 times; the Wizards were shown 15 times. Last season, Washington managed just five scheduled appearances. This year that ballooned back up to 14, far behind Houston’s 27. While that kind of exposure is notable, it’s wrong to chalk up the soft Wall market simply to a lack of TV time; the man is nicknamed “Wall-Star” and is regularly called the best point guard in the Eastern Conference.
Wall’s double-knee surgery during last season’s playoffs was another dent in an injury-ridden NBA career, and another way his exposure was limited. Wall’s Reeboks stood a substandard chance; the already-struggling company made a rookie the face of the brand. But it was also reported that Wall’s Adidas shoes didn’t fare well in the market, while the alternate was true for his peers in the Eastern Conference. Kyrie Irving’s highly successful Kyrie 3s, for example, are, according to Sole Collector, the spring’s “top-selling performance basketball shoe in the marketplace.”
Wall fired Fegan in January, replacing him with Rich Paul of Klutch Sports reportedly because the Adidas shoe deal didn’t materialize to his liking and no other offers followed. After the switch, Wall said Paul will be in control of “only on-court and NBA-contract matters,” with a friend taking over the rest. Those comments considered, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that 11 of Paul’s 12 clients currently have deals with Nike, and Wall’s on-court footwear since the split (most notably during the heavily covered All-Star Game), has been Nike or Jordan brand.
Much has changed for Washington’s leader, even since last summer, when both Harden and Wall’s off-guard, Bradley Beal, signed massive NBA contracts. Wall denied any gripes, saying, “Bradley Beal got more money. I’m not mad. I’m happy he’s my teammate. James Harden’s contract, I don’t care. That’s my guy. … Please don’t say I’m watching money. I’m not.”
Still, it felt like last summer’s “Harden money” snub was hurting Wall all over again. Wall was still without a shoe deal, and frustration was bubbling over. In August, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor wrote that he was “the face of the Wizards franchise, but he’s wearing a cloak of invisibility,” after Wall told The Vertical that February, “I ain’t got no billboards in D.C. … I want to leave a legacy and you can’t leave a legacy hiding behind the doors.”
It’s been nearly eight months since Beal’s contract, and Wall’s having the best season of his career. Windhorst, who spent time with the guard in February, says Wall “is convinced he’s going to get the last laugh on all of it. The salary, the shoe deal, the doubters.” And he may be right: Just a week ago, Wall finally got his billboard, Washington-style. He and Beal were painted on the side of the city’s iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl, a famous mural wall that last featured another D.C. legend, Barack Obama.
This year’s postseason is another factor to consider. Wall, never having advanced past the second round, can’t tote the publicity of a conference final like Harden can. Last season, after Wall’s injury, Washington failed to reach the postseason altogether. Missing out on the league’s biggest stage hurts when cultivating a superstar image (though there are exceptions, see: Paul, Chris). But with more victories like the opener against Atlanta, brands are sure to notice the worth in inking Wall to a signature shoe. Until then, his free agency will only stand out more and more with each playoff victory, and the nameless shoes he wins in.