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John Wall Is Talking Trash for the Culture

We’ve seen a lot of greatness in this postseason, but the Wizards star’s insults have been the best thing we’ve heard

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Many seasons from now, when LeBron is 19 years deep into his acting career and five-time MVP Giannis is coaching the Nets, we’ll look back at John Wall’s postseason leap into superstardom. Viewing party in the Musecage! This time last year, Wall was prepping for double knee surgery; the postseason before that, Marcin Gortat finished with more win shares. Wall was always a flashing dot on the radar, but he was never beeping this rapidly. He’s three bar fights — sorry, games — away from Washington’s first Eastern Conference finals since 1979. And then, like now, Wall’s jump will rightly be credited to his athleticism, spectacular dishing, and ability to apparate from the top of the key to the paint in a flash — or, as Mike Breen calls it, “driving.” All correct, but with one key omission:

John Wall is winning the trash-talk playoffs. Even in this postseason, with coaches storming out of press conferences and players MVP-shading like the voting deadline hasn’t long passed, Wall has managed to stand out in one of the NBA’s best traditions: bad-mouthing opponents. The strings of expletives may have changed, but the purpose stays the same. Wall is nearing the club of greats, those who talked enough quality shit that their touch will never be forgotten. “Honey Nut Cheerios,” for example, remains as iconic as Johnny Most calling “There’s a steal by Bird!” And speaking of Larry, he sends his braggadocious best.

Wall’s hot hand (mouth?) with postseason commentary continued on Thursday. During the third quarter of Thursday’s 116–89 Game 3 win over Boston — Washington’s first in the series — the broadcast zoomed in on Wall at the charity stripe, and he gave America the extra guac for free.

At first glance, he appeared to point to a Celtic, say, “This is for you, hoe,” then shoot and sink his second free throw. After the game, Wall clarified, saying it was a dedication to Otto Porter Jr. — “This is for you, O.” To his point, Porter was playing his best game of the series, and just 44 game-time seconds prior, the former Georgetown forward had intercepted a pass from Marcus Smart and started a fast break that ended with a Wall assist on a Bojan Bogdanovic bucket.

Porter was also just one of two players to Wall’s right, the direction he pointed. The other, Jonas Jerebko, had entered the game a few minutes earlier, grabbing two rebounds and throwing up a missed jumper in that time span. Jerebko was part of a double-technical skirmish earlier in the game, when he and Ian Mahinmi got tangled up under the basket. Also, hello, his name ends in “O.”

The Wizards were ahead 25 points, with a blend of six technicals and one ejection preluding Wall’s free throws (two more techs and another ejection would follow). Pettiness levels were way past the regular season’s all-black funeral game. Eventually, even Brad “Never Tried Hot Sauce” Stevens’s sport coat was flapping as he waved angrily in protest. Yet considering all this — the score, the lingering fight-or-flight-or-foul endorphins — Wall took the opportunity of an uncontested free shot to (allegedly) talk trash.

At the very least, he messed with his routine for a shout-out. The sacred preshot free throw ritual: Even LeBron huffs at each knuckle before every shot, and the man shoots 67 percent.

But there’s only one aspect in this entire sequence that matters, and it’s that the bucket went in. The why is obvious: When the preshot brags don’t match with the actual shot, we have Nick Young turning to celebrate a 3 that isn’t going in. When the two coordinate perfectly, it’s Paul Pierce calling game.

During Game 2 against the Hawks, Wall’s unpleasant history with Dennis Schrӧder emerged as he dunked over his German counterpart. From a defensive standpoint, it wasn’t Gobert-on-Curry levels of bad: Schröder dropped off a step, making the slam a bit too uncontested to qualify as an outright posterization. But when Wall landed and jogged backward down the court, he was glaring, and the dunk took a psychological hold. For an elongated three seconds, Wall channeled Michael Phelps’s Olympics face until Schröder’s blonde patch literally (not literally) turned gray.

It was a vicious sequence by itself, but also not the end, as the NBA playoffs was proud to present John “The F*** Is Wrong With You, Boy” Wall in a replay before the break to commercial.

Later, in the postgame press conference, a reporter asked how Schröder pressing full-court changed Wall’s performance, to which he replied, “That has no effect on me.” (Wall dropped 32 points that game). The staredown will likely be the most-watched clip of Schröder’s entire postseason, one in which he nearly doubled his previous career high in playoff minutes and points per game. (Another regular-season loss would’ve sent to Hawks to Cleveland, where LeBron is no more merciful, but will at least sweep a team out of its misery.)

It was only nine days after, during Game 6, that Wall incorporated crowd participation. It’s next-level, no doubt, but spewing to an audience member, rather than a fellow athlete, can get a little … testy. Just in the first round of last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, D-Wade confronted a fan the internet named Purple Shirt Guy for his Barney-colored button-up and Tropic Thunder headwear. PSG berated Wade without relent, screaming at the three-time champion to “retire.” Fun fact: PSG was then 43 years old. Also fun: Wade later hit the shot that sent the series to a Game 7.

In the case of Wall’s audience interaction, he was actually speaking to another pro athlete, Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who was sitting courtside. Jones has since confirmed what it looked like then — that the back-and-forth was all for fun — but Wall still made the proverbial shot over him. He pledged Jones “35 or more” points and a win. Washington closed out the series that evening, and Wall finished with 42.

Wall garnished the end of the series with a wave goodbye to Philips Arena. Note Julio — the first man to average over 100 receiving yards in four different NFL seasons — and his facial expression after Wall’s taunt. Julio, despite being a man who notched 300 receiving yards in a single game and who was sitting within inches of another man who once rhymed ”Ric Flair” with “brick fair,” is still visibly rocked by greatness in this moment.

After that exchange, I couldn’t help but wonder if Julio and Wall had had any previous interactions like Wall and Schröder had. All trails on Twitter were cold; Wall never mentioned Julio on his timeline, which consists of: fan retweets, pictures of him and Bradley Beal in front of a mural of him and Beal, Wall in a wig dunking on a child, and “happy birthday!” wishes tucked away in his favorites. Though on the subject of trash talk, he did heart a tweet from January that quoted Denzel Valentine. “I’m glad I could be his motivation,” said Valentine after Wall commented on the rookie waking up his monster, “but why wasn’t he playing like that all game?”

In the final press conference of the Hawks series, Wall shared what he said to Julio about winning. “And we did that,” he said. “For the culture,” added Beal, to Wall’s delight. “For the culture.” It was as clever as it was fun — seated to the left of Jones during the game was Quavo, one-third of the Atlanta rap group Migos. Their most recent album, Culture, features a song called “T-Shirt,” in which Quavo raps the line, “Do it for the culture / They gon’ bite like vultures.”

On paper, it’s another twist of the knife for an already very dead Atlanta season. Or maybe it was like his free throw dedication Thursday night, misunderstood and unintentional, with a connection he simply failed to remember. But the kind of competitor who archives a rookie questioning the monster in him doesn’t seem like one to forget. Long live John Wall, trash talker.