Outside the District’s Verizon Center on Friday, the scrolling JumboTron had one word: Wall. There were fans lined up behind bordering gates and a makeshift red carpet was bordered with wishful bystanders holding laminated signs. T-shirts, hats and posters all shared the single word: Wall.

It seemed like a TMZ video clip highlighting a blockbuster movie premiere but it was instead, Washington Wizards No. 1 draft choice John Wall’s coronation by the city. “John Wall Day” was in effect for Friday and the fans that followed him inside the Verizon Center did everything to welcome him except throw rose petals.

Members of the media, politicians, children and adults filled Wall’s introductory press conference, where he sat between Wizards head coach Flip Saunders and general manager Ernie Grunfield to take questions. After Wizards play-by-play announcer Steve Buckhantz presented Wall with a plaque from D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty that declared June 25 “John Wall Day,” the packed auditorium went berserk.

It was a flashback to May 19 when Irene Pollin, widow of longtime Wizards’ owner Abe Pollin, mouthed the words ‘Oh my God’ after learning her late husband’s team had won the NBA Draft lottery for only the fourth time in the franchise’s 48-year existence. The same surreal expression Irene displayed that night resurfaced on the faces of the hundreds in attendance at the Verizon Center on Friday.

It wasn’t the usual reserved look of “I can’t believe they drafted this guy” that regularly follows Washington draft picks. But it was more a look of “They finally got one right.” Judging by Friday’s turnout, drafting Wall was a no brainer for the Wizards.

Typically, when teams land the first pick in any draft, they concentrate on making a power decision that will drastically alter their franchise. When asked if there was any doubt who the Wizards would select, Saunders quickly answered “Not really, no.

“In this league, it’s proven if you look at teams that end up having success in the long run, a lot has to do with how their guards play.”

The type of projections that surround Wall is something Saunders is used to. Having coached high school phenom Kevin Garnett during his early NBA stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Saunders admitted he’s accustomed to working with talented players. Working with the hoopla now surrounding Wall, however, is something new to the second-year Wizards coach, but something he anticipates should be exciting.

“Garnett had a lot but not to the extent of this,” Saunders admitted. “This is an event city. Events are big here. John Wall Day, this is an event and what we’re hoping to have happen is that every time we play in this place it’s an event and we get the same type of enthusiasm and reception on our game days. We want to change the culture of how people perceive our team. We want to change the culture of how we play.”


Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO