John Wall sat in front of his locker in a rare, unguarded moment. There were no teammates around to joke with; no circling horde of media members shoving recorders and cameras in his face asking him to explain the team's latest loss.
There was only a team trainer, a team official, and a lone reporter standing in the doorway watching, as Wall leaned down to pick up his sneakers, and put them on.
It was less than an hour before game time, and although he'd never admit it, Wall looked tired, and probably was. He was about to lead the Wizards against a superior team that was not playing it's second straight game, and barring another Oklahoma City miracle, he knew this night probably would end with another loss. He would once again be surrounded by people looking to him for answers.
"I know how this feels. Trust me, I've been there," said Chauncey Billups, 35, who's in his 15th NBA season.
"I've been on some bad teams, I've been on some good teams, and remember both. I never liked this feeling, and it motivates me to never have that again."
For competitive players, like Wall and Billups, losing hurts, and no matter how far removed it becomes, they never forget how it felt.
Billups, now playing the role of shooting guard with the Los Angeles Clippers, has been on nine NBA teams and played in five All-Star Games.. He won a championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and was named the NBA Finals MVP. Billups' new backcourt mate is Chris Paul, one of the league's best point guards. Billups sees the similarities between Paul and Wall.
"Physically and athletic-wise, he's on another level," Billups said of Wall. "I think the next step for him is going to be mentally, getting to know the ins and outs of the game, working on every aspect of his game.
"He's already a young stud, but at some point, maybe a year from now, people are going to be saying 'so what's next'? It's like with Derrick Rose. He came in and took the league by storm athletically, then 'boom' he took the next step. I think John is going to be in the same position."
But Billups could only shake his head at what Wall is going through right now.
"As a point guard, you're the leader of the team," Billups said. "It's tough. But at some point in his career, he's going to be on some winning teams. I'd tell him not to forget what this feels like right now."
Billups relinquished his point guard role when the Clippers acquired Paul, who feels a kinship with Wall, his fellow North Carolina native.
"He's a lot more explosive than I ever was," Paul said with a hint of a smile, and a note of admiration in his voice when asked about Wall.
"That fast pace that he plays at is a pace that I played at, you know, at one point early in my career. But I talk to John all the time about changing speeds. He's so fast, a lot of times, guys can't stay in front of him. He's got to work on that. It comes with age."
And time. And experience. It's a luxury Wall may not have.
The Wizards made him the leader and face of the franchise the moment they drafted him with the first overall pick after one season at Kentucky, and placed a world of responsibility on the shoulders of a man who hadn't yet turned 21.
"John is a student of the game," Paul said. He's a North Carolina boy like myself. He loves to play. What he's going through right now, the losing, I'd just tell him to keep working, keep pushing, and his teammates will follow his lead."
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