February 26, 2024

Bradley Beal knew it was time to go, but his return to D.C. brought back fond memories

WASHINGTON — The game ball!

Where was Bradley Beal’s game ball?

A five-hour flight west awaited Beal and his teammates after he dropped 43 on his former employers’ heads. A long, happy flight back home after a 13-day, seven-game road trip with the Phoenix Suns, who barely broke a sweat Sunday in dispatching the woeful Washington Wizards 140-112 in an exhibition game. Really, if Phoenix needed to schedule a scrimmage to break a good sweat and keep its now-healthy Big Three sharp under simulated game conditions, weren’t there more compelling opponents than this one?

(What’s that you say? This game actually counted in the standings? For real?)

Anyway, there was the matter of Beal’s game ball, which you get when you go 16 of 21 from the floor, and which was last seen being dribbled and shot by a smaller version of Beal, age 4, who has his dad’s smile.

Thankfully, one of Monumental Sports’ security folks tracked it down, and tossed it to the three-time All-Star, now heading for the Suns’ bus to the airport, rather than down the steps to where his various rides over his 11 seasons in Washington sat in the team’s garage underneath Capital One Arena.

For 11 years, Beal was the stoic face of the franchise, trying to lift the Wizards to where they hadn’t been for decades. But the weight was too great. What seemed so possible with John Wall in the early days of Beal’s run, and so oddly intriguing with Russell Westbrook toward the end, topped out at a seventh game in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals in Boston.

So, when Ted Leonsis fired Tommy Sheppard last April, Beal knew what would happen. And that’s why he said, over and over Sunday, that there was no animosity between him and the Wizards, as the team’s new front office of Michael Winger and Will Dawkins took over. Both sides knew a divorce was inevitable. The only question was whether it would be amicable. For the most part, it was.

“The new guy was gonna come in and do his thing,” Beal said at the bus. “I had a feeling. ’Cause I understood, there was no attachment with the new guys. It’s a clean slate for everybody. It was a lot easier to deal with that transition (with Winger and Dawkins) than with Tommy and Ted.”

And yet, even then, there was a part of Beal that thought … what if I stay?

It grinded Beal — and, believe me, it still does — that when he was dealt, he was just 161 points from breaking Elvin Hayes’ career franchise scoring mark of 15,551 points.

“I’ve heard of how good Winger and Dawkins do it,” Beal said. “So part of me was like, ahh, (bleep), I could see y’all putting something together, especially with the Clippers and OKC, that’s decent. Quick, too. That could happen fast.”

But instead of stringing Beal along, the new brain trust made it plain: they didn’t come here for retooling. This was going to be a years-long, total rebuild. And that meant the 30-year-old Beal would be going on his way. The deal with Phoenix was, simply, awful for Washington, because Beal’s no-trade clause, coupled with his max contract, gave him all the leverage in trade talks, so the Wizards couldn’t hold out for more than what they got from the Suns. But it had to happen for Beal and the team to be able to move on. Beal had to get selfish about what to do with the remaining years of his career; the Wizards had to stop chasing the Play-In round and re-start, from near zero.

So Beal got his wish and a trade to Phoenix, where Kevin Durant and Devin Booker were waiting. It meant the end of his time here in D.C., which ended with many fans who never again warmed to him after his $252 million deal hamstrung Washington’s ability to build around him happy to see him go. To be sure, Beal was paid like someone who could take a franchise somewhere special, and he did not.

But Beal did so much more here than hoop.

He leaned in with Ron Brown College Prep in Northeast Washington, a partnership for which Beal won the league’s 2019 NBA Cares Community Assist award. He helped refurbish basketball courts at the Banneker Community Center in Shaw. He donated to D.C.’s Central Kitchen’s summer meals project. And, in 2020, he and now former Mystic guard Natasha Cloud led an organization-wide march for social justice and police reform, along with celebrating the Juneteenth holiday, through the streets of downtown.

“I always credit Tasha for that,” Beal said Sunday. “She was the biggest voice in getting us all acclimated and making sure that we said something, and that we actually did something. That day, specifically, was one of the most powerful days, probably, in our organization. Just to be up front, speaking in front of those people, it’s hard to put in words.

“For me, I was definitely in the moment. Understanding just the tough time we were in as a society. Being here in D.C., we have a community that’s impacted by unjust systems, by a lot of unfairness in our communities. Poverty … financial disadvantages. It’s a lot. The city needed a voice.”

After weeks of injuries to Beal and Booker kept the Suns’ Big Three from getting together, they’re now all healthy and dealing. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Each of these guys has been the alpha on his teams; it’s easy to talk about sacrifice and giving up shots, but another thing altogether to make it work on the floor. The hard part is for all of them to be exactly who they were before, while they’re on the floor together. But, of course, if they figure that out, they could be damn near unstoppable. After a slow start, the Suns have risen to sixth in the west.

“Every minute they’re on the floor together helps,” Suns coach Frank Vogel said. “I don’t know how many minutes we’ll have. Hopefully, we have the rest of the regular season. But all those minutes together can help build that cohesion. We’re at a continuity disadvantage, so to speak, against some other teams, like the reigning champs, Denver, who has mostly everybody back. We’re a team that’s trying to build that cohesion throughout the course of the season. Hopefully, we have as much of it as possible. Our goal is to be the best team in the league come playoff time.”

Their potential to be a “three-headed monster,” as Vogel put it, is the embodiment of what the Wizards dream that, a decade or so from now, they could become. A franchise that, first, hits on a superstar in the draft, as Phoenix did in taking Booker at the end of the 2015 lottery with the 13th pick overall. Then, that franchise’s superstar, along with its infrastructure — management, coaching, facilities and player development — become compelling enough for another superstar to want to join (Chris Paul, in 2020; Durant, at last year’s trade deadline). And, then, another.

It doesn’t always work. Washington would love to be able to try, though, some day.

DMV tennis star Frances Tiafoe and Beal after the Wizards-Suns game. (David Aldridge / The Athletic)

For now, all the Wizards can do is be magnanimous to their returning ex-players. There was, of course, a classy video tribute for Beal before he was introduced in the starting lineup, followed by a warm ovation from D.C. fans. And when Vogel took Beal out early in the fourth quarter, he received a standing O from at least some of the 16,984 in attendance. He dapped up and hugged damn near everyone in the Wizards’ organization after the game, from Deni Avdija and Anthony Gill and Corey Kispert to Monumental’s VP of Player Development & Social Engagement Sashia Jones. He signed a Wizards jersey for a gushing Frances Tiafoe, the DMV’s tennis superstar, in a crowded hallway of people who wanted a word and a picture.

Maybe Wall, who wore his heart on his sleeve, was loved more openly in D.C. But, make no mistake. Bradley Beal was, and is, loved, too.

(Top photo of Bradley Beal: Geoff Burke / USA Today)