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John Wall and the Certainty of D.C. Sports Despair

The point guard’s ruptured Achilles tendon is just the latest in a montage of grim Washington sporting lowlights

Alex Smith, John Wall, and Bryce Harper Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Late Sunday, a dismal post started making the rounds on Twitter: “A 4-month-old baby in Boston has seen more championships than a 45-year-old Mets-Jets-Knicks fan.”

Are you luckier, pennant-wise, than that baby? Almost certainly not. Nor are you likely quite so badly off as the poor souls at the center of the Mets-Jets-Knicks nexus. (Unless you are one, in which case: sorry.) But you get the point: Some babies, they have all the luck. Others—well, maybe the next generation. Or, you know, the one after that. And let me just say, for the most part, things don’t look so good for the tots of Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday, the Wizards announced that John Wall will have surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon. That this tendon had been ruptured at all was itself news, a dramatic development in an already grim saga: The 28-year-old point guard, who last played December 26 before undergoing surgery to, among other things, repair a chronic Achilles injury in the same heel, will now be sidelined for 12 more months. With this news comes a procession of bleak possibilities: that this is, perhaps, the beginning of the end for the athletic star power of Wall, who had already been struggling, and the resolute ruling out of a near-term championship in Washington, since the Wizards still have Wall and his untradeable, albatross contract until 2023.

It’s this last note that’s particularly jarring, given all the fizzy excitement that’s surrounded the franchise since Wall was drafted first overall in 2010, since his employers chose to reconstruct their team around him. In this particular gloom, the Wizards join a panoply of recent D.C. despair.

You can argue about different kinds of fandom heartbreak, the varying (de)merits of respective title droughts: I’ll raise your freak injury to my stingy billionaire; his Bernie Madoff to her four-peat Super Bowl losses; their managerial nepotism to our years of wan noncompetition. If you’ve had the wind knocked out of you by a team you love, I send my sincere condolences—there’s no good way for it to happen.

But, in my humble opinion, there’s not one much worse than standing near the precipice of glory, shelling out for playoff tickets and collecting this-is-the-year tchotkes, and then watching the whole thing fall apart. With three separate teams. Over the space of just a couple of years.

The Redskins, Nationals, and now Wizards will almost certainly play the entirety of their coming seasons without the players who were arguably their biggest stars on the first day of the preceding season: The Wizards and Redskins because of devastating injuries to Wall and just-signed quarterback Alex Smith, and the Nationals—most likely, though it hasn’t yet been set in stone—who seem intent on letting Bryce Harper, the face of the franchise and newly a free agent, walk away.

You might think about these things in terms of wins lost: Wall, who played in a fifth consecutive All-Star Game just a year ago; Harper, who put up 27.4 WAR over seven years with the Nats; Smith, who had led his team to a 6–3 start and first place in the NFC East. Or maybe you consider things financially: After taking into account Smith’s 2018 signing bonus, he and Wall are the highest-paid players on their respective rosters, with three years left on both of their contracts, plus a $47 million (!!) player option for Wall. In that vein, you might think of these things in terms of mismanagement: Why are Ernie Grunfeld and Bruce Allen still calling the shots after so many years of spectacularly unsuccessful team-building? Or you might think about these things as a fan: the parades you imagined when your mayor proclaimed June 25, 2010, John Wall Day, the sudden hopefulness you felt after a fractious breakup with Kirk Cousins and the arrival of veteran Smith, the Harper Chia Pet you have sitting on your shelf.

Wall’s Achilles rupture happened when he slipped at his home in late January, apparently while getting into the shower. Add that—the point guard hobbling around his house in a walking boot, losing his balance, feeling that just-repaired tendon sing, and knowing, maybe, what it meant—to the slideshow of recent D.C. men’s sports miseries. Here’s another: Alex Smith turning up to a Wizards game two months after a compound fracture, his right leg bound up in a brace so baroque you can’t help but wince. Next up: Bryce Harper and Mike Rizzo sitting around a table, the words “not enough” being said or thought or just hovering in the air, the polite goodbyes, the drive home with no deal made. You can console yourself with the still-warm memories of Ovi, the cup, the fountain, maybe. But for how long?

For the Nats, at least, you can make the case for rays of optimism: The team has young, homegrown stars in Juan Soto and Víctor Robles. But there’s not much use in denying what all those nearly fulfilled D.C. sporting promises add up to: something truly, desperately grim. And much like newborns getting spoiled with trophies in Boston, the worst part is that it just doesn’t seem surprising anymore.