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Letter to My Younger Self
Behind the Scenes at AEW Dynamite
By The Players' Tribune
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I was this close to taking
my own life.
Los Angeles Clippers
Sept. 22, 2022
There are no words for what came next. Ten hours in an airplane. No Wi-Fi. No messages from our family. Just the sound of the engines. At that point, all you want to do is just get to say goodbye. Please, just let me give him a hug. Let me be there.
When you’re trapped on that plane, the memories become like tiny little breaths that keep you from drowning.
The memories. Memories, memories, memories, memories. F*ck.
See, there is my dad that I talk about when I have to do press … and then there is my dad. There’s the guy who used to call me Princess No (!!!).
Because, according to him, when I was little, “Noooooo!” was my favorite word. But, in my defense, it had different meanings in different contexts.
“Mikaela, do you want to hear a joke?”
“Nooooooooooo!!!!” (It really meant yes).
“Mikaela, do you want to go to sleep?”
“Nooooooooooo!!!!!!!” (It really meant no).
“Alright, Princess No.”
That was our thing. And of course he always had that big, bushy mustache, so I called him “The Lorax.”
So many memories….
The first day Mom and Dad finally let me ski in real powder on a real mountain. I was four years old. A little peanut. After months of practicing proper technique in the driveway — never letting us cheat and do “the pizza” to stop — they finally let us run wild in the powder. My first time down, I went headfirst into a mound of fluffy powder and I was so small that I fully disappeared. All you could see was two little legs sticking out of the snow. I remember thinking, Well, I’m trapped. This is my life now. I’m never getting out of here.
Then the hands of a giant came out of the sky and scooped me out by my legs. I was hanging upside down, and I saw the face of my dad, laughing.
“Do you want to go home?”
“Noooooooooo!!!” (It meant kind of.)
The next run, I remember him telling me — and I don’t know if this is just a dream of a memory, or if it was a real memory — but I can hear his voice so clearly….
“Hey, Neon, you’re maybe gonna wanna put your weight back a little more so your skis will cruise right over the powder, O.K.?”
So calm. Just a suggestion. “Hey, Neon….”
I went from getting buried alive and nearly having a panic attack to wanting to stay out there until my toes were frozen solid. I could not be bribed.
“Alright, do you want to go home and eat some french fries?”
“Noooooooooo!!!!” (It meant hell no).
“Alright, Princess No. One more run.”
I remember I got my first real racing suit not long after that. It was purple. I refused to take it off. I would wear it to bed every night. A few years later, when I was nine, I wrote in my journal, “I want to be the best in the world.”
My parents made that dream, scribbled in a notebook by a child, a possibility.
Skiing was always Our Thing. And that’s what made it so hard — just brutally hard — to keep on going when we lost my dad. When he was gone, I didn’t want to ski. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t even want to sleep. I was so afraid of the dreams.
Usually, when you have a nightmare that something terrible happened, you wake up in a cold sweat and your heart is racing and you slowly realize, “O.K., it was just a nightmare. Phew. They’re not really gone.”
For me, it was the reverse.
In my dreams, he was still here.
When I would wake up, I'd slowly realize that the nightmare was the real thing.
Sometimes, even now, when I’m awake, it feels like he’s just stuck at work late. He’s caught up in a meeting. He’ll come walking in the door in a few minutes, and everything will be the way it was.
That’s the way grief works. It’s not linear. It’s not a climb up a mountain. It’s more like a maze. Some days, I feel O.K. Some days, it still feels as raw as when we walked into the hospital after our 10-hour flight home and saw him on the ventilator.
That night, everyone cleared out of the room, and I climbed into the bed with him and I just put his arm around me. I stayed there like that for nine hours, just letting him know that I was there. I put my head on his chest, and I could still feel his heart beating.
I know he felt me there with him. I know. I know.
This is all still so raw for me, but I cherish that memory, because at least I got to say goodbye.
If that last part is true, then maybe I will never stop grieving. And that’s O.K., too. Even when I found the strength to get back up on the mountain, it was such a battle just to feel O.K. Just to not feel guilty for doing the thing that he loved to do. When I knew that I had a chance to win my first race after his death, I had this really surreal moment at the top of the mountain before my second run. I knew that if I had a good run, then I’d win. But if I won, then I’d be winning in a reality where my dad isn’t here to experience it. And I was asking myself, Do I want to even exist in this reality?
When I was at the gate, I had this really intense memory of him. It was just a random thing, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I didn’t want to. Normally, when I’m racing, I’m trying to block out everything. But my biggest fear now is that if I let a memory die, it’s like losing him all over again.
I mean, maybe this sounds crazy, but I just felt like … after someone dies, you have a few days where everyone they ever touched is thinking about them, right? Celebrating them. Keeping the flame alive. But when my dad’s funeral was over, and all the incredible people who shared stories and sent letters and flowers — and everyone who simply thought of him — they moved on. It’s inevitable. And when that happens, who is left to keep his memory alive?
It’s just me. It’s just us.
That’s how I felt. So this memory came to me on the mountain, in the middle of a huge moment, with TV cameras everywhere, and … I just kind of let it be. I heard the sound of his voice, and I let myself feel everything. And then I let myself ski down the mountain. I let myself win, without my dad there to experience it.
It was so bittersweet and so hard, if I’m honest. Right now, my truth is a lot more complicated than what you see on TV, or what you can get from a press conference.
People always ask me, “What happened in Beijing?”
They want some kind of answer. And I genuinely don’t have one. I could give you the media answer that I always give. I could put on a brave face and tell you some generic thing. But the real truth is … I don’t know.
It’s two minutes of your life. Two minutes, on a random day. You go down the hill. You try to go fast. You try not to make mistakes. Sometimes, you win the gold, like I did. Sometimes, you fail, like I did.
I could not really tell you why.
Some days, I have perfect moments. Perfect turns. Perfect technique. I forget about the pain. I remember my dad from a distance, and when I get up on the mountain, it feels like the only place that I can truly breathe.
And then some days, it still just sucks. Some days, it’s so hard to put one foot in front of the other. That’s grief. That’s being a human.
After Beijing, when I turned things around and ended up winning the World Cup, people would say things to me like, “Mikaela, now that you’re in a much better place….”
And I never said it out loud, but I would always think: Am I?
We equate winning with being O.K., and failure with being not O.K.
The real truth is that I’m neither O.K. nor not O.K. It really depends on the day, and it has almost nothing to do with how fast I came down a mountain.
You know, I think about my dad’s video camera a lot. He took all this footage over the years, in all these different places. So many memories, stored and cataloged on a machine. Well, as fate would have it, one day he was taking his backpack through airport security and something in the X-ray machine scrambled all the harddrives.
All those little memories were wiped out. Gone. In the blink of an eye.
But, the thing is, they were just pictures on a screen. Memories work a little bit differently than the things we capture on a camera. The sound of a voice. The smell of a sweatshirt. The way someone smirks when it’s a joke that only you two understand.
“Time for bed, Princess No!”
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That’s a hard thing to tell the world. But if you can say one thing about me, it’s that I’ve always been real, and that’s not going to change today. I can’t sugarcoat it. The truth is … two years ago, I was in a really dark place and I just couldn’t see a way out. And I know that probably sounds crazy to some people. I already know the kind of comments I’m gonna get.
“Bro, how the hell can you have all that money and be depressed? You’re John Wall.”
Listen, I know exactly who I am. I’m a dog. I been knocked down and got up off the canvas 100 times. From a skinny little kid growing up in Section 8 in Raleigh to the No. 1 pick — all the ups and downs and the sh*t I’ve seen? I know exactly who I am, and what I represent, and how many people need to hear this. So I’m not afraid to tell you that I've been in a place that was so dark that suicide felt like the only option.
I mean, we’re not supposed to even say the word right?? It’s almost like a taboo, especially in the community I come from. Well, I’ll speak on it.
For me, it all happened really fast. In the span of three years, I went from being on top of the world to losing damn near everything I ever cared about. In 2017, I’m jumping up on the announcer’s table in D.C. after forcing Game 7 against Boston, and I’m the king of the city. I’m getting a max extension, thinking I’m a Wizard for life. A year later, I tore my Achilles and lost the only sanctuary I’ve ever known — the game of basketball. I ended up with such a bad infection from the surgeries that I nearly had to have my foot amputated. A year later, I lost my best friend in the whole world, my mom, to breast cancer.
And you have to understand, when I say I lost my best friend, I’m not exaggerating. I had two nicknames growing up. “Crazy J,” because I was crazy as hell. Ha. I used to literally do anything the homies dared me to do. They had me jumping off roofs into bushes like it’s Jackass. And then my other nickname was “Momma’s Boy,” and you already know why. My dad had been in jail since I was one, and he died of liver cancer when I was 9 years old. They let him out just to say goodbye. I can still see him in that dope 84 Randy Moss Vikings jersey, the last day I ever got with him. To this day, I don’t even like going to the beach, because that was our first and last trip as a family. My older brother was locked up, too. So my mom was my whole world. She would work three jobs just to keep our lights on. (And some months, those lights were definitely cutting off, if we needed that money for AAU tournaments.)
I wasn’t a Foot Locker kid. Everything we got was from the flea market. I was the kid who showed up to basketball practice in some And1s from the clearance rack at Shoe Carnival. I was the kid with the anger issues. The kid who was always acting up. But damn if my mom didn’t love me, man. She used to drive me 45 minutes to my elementary school and wait out in the parking lot because she knew there was a 50% chance I was gonna get kicked out for acting up to the teachers. I used to come walking out to the car with my hands in the air like they’d called a bad foul.
I’d be saying, “I don’t know what I did…. Yo, these teachers acting crazy.” Hahaha. She would just sit there shaking her head like, “See? This is why I don’t drive home.”
Everything I ever did was for my mom. I had one mission, and that was for her to be good, for life. I accomplished everything we ever dreamed about. I just had no idea how short our time was gonna be. One of the things I’ll never forget was a few years before she got sick, I got invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and it was President Obama’s last one, so of course I was bringing my mom as my date. Man, when I say she was turnt up to be there that night, you don’t even know. She had her little drink in her hand, and she got to meet every celebrity she ever dreamed of. Somebody would be like, “Oh! John Wall! We gotta get a picture!” And my mom would be like, “Hello??? I’m John Wall’s mom! You’re getting a picture with me!”
I’m pulling her to the side like, “Mom! You can’t be Deeboing ’em like that! We at the White House!!” (I mean, I know it wasn’t the White House but might as well been.)
When she saw Tony Romo, it was over. She’s the biggest Cowboys fan in the world. “Tony!! Tony!!! Oh my God, we need a picture, just me and you, Tony!!”
That night, we switched roles. I was just the photographer. She was the star. And I know everybody thinks they got the best mom, but that night I was looking at her shining, and I thought, Damn, I really got the best mom anyone could ask for.
From Section 8 in Raleigh, working three jobs to survive, to stealing the show at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
We even got to take a picture with Barack and Michelle — and you know what she said to them? “Y’all are so dope. Thank you for having us. Y’all are just so dope.”
That’s my mom. How can you not love that? She was the most genuine person in the world. She had a millionaire son and was still shopping at T.J. Maxx, out of habit. She was still working the door at AAU tournaments, out of habit. She was still waking up at four o’clock in the morning, out of habit. She was never gonna change. She was a force of nature.
And then she got sick.
I remember one of the things that hurt me so bad was when she started her chemo treatments, just seeing her struggling to get up out of the recliner afterwards. You know how they got the patients sitting in those recliners for hours while they do their treatment? That was when my anger issues started coming out, because in my mind, they should have you in a nice hospital bed. I was getting frustrated with the nurses, because I just couldn’t stand to see my mom like that.
She was fighting like hell, and for a while, she was doing really good. She even came to my 29th birthday party. But looking back, that was like our final goodbye. A few weeks after, she had a stroke, and her whole left side was paralyzed. I remember walking into the room and seeing her face drooping, and she was trying to talk, and she just didn’t sound like my mom. I ran straight out the room crying, like a little kid. I literally couldn’t handle seeing my mom like that. It took all my strength to go back in there and be feeding her applesauce. This is the strongest woman ever, and I’m feeding her like a baby? That f***ed me up so bad.
One day we were all alone, and she just told me straight out, “I had a good life. I enjoyed it. But I’m tired of fighting. I just want to be at peace.”
A few weeks later, we were playing in Charlotte. I was still rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. We had just landed when I got the call.
“Bro … your mom died. But the doctors were able to bring her back, and she’s on a ventilator. You need to get here now.”
We got to the team hotel, and I just snapped. I smashed everything in that Ritz Carlton — the TV, the mirror, everything. That’s actually when I got really close with Brad. I think he knew there was nothing even to say, so he came down to my room and just sat with me. He was there for me during the hardest moment of my life.
That night, my homeboy drove me all the way from Charlotte to the hospital in Raleigh and I remember sitting in the back seat the whole ride listening to “I Wish,” just playing it over and over and praying that my mom and I could have one more conversation. When I got to the hospital and saw her on the ventilator, her chest going up and down, I fainted.
When I woke up and got back on my feet, our whole family crowded around her bed. She was in a coma. Her eyes were closed the whole time. Then it got real late, and people started going home. It was just me and my sisters sitting there by her bedside.
All of a sudden, she opened her eyes.
She couldn’t talk, but she had tears in her eyes. She knew we were there. And we just told her, “Thank you for being our mom. Thank you for being our mom.”
As soon as someone opened the door, she closed her eyes. She never opened them again. For three nights, I was on a little pullout bed next to her, holding her hand while we slept.
Finally, on the fourth day, my best friend passed over to the other side.
That was when I started talking to a therapist — and it slowly turned things around. Like I said, I don’t know how other people feel. I don’t want to preach to anybody. But for me, I felt like I’d been in Survival Mode my whole life. Coming from where I came from, and seeing the things I’d seen, I had to grow up so fast. I had to be the man of the house at nine years old. So my whole mentality, no matter the situation, was always, “I don’t need anybody’s help. I’ll figure it out. I’ve gritted through everything else, so why not this?”
Being a product of your environment is not a bad thing. But I think it’s a blessing and a curse. Being a dog, being unbreakable, always having that chip on your shoulder — hey, I get it. I’ve been that guy. But the day is going to come when you can’t do it on your own. And you gotta be strong enough on that day to ask for help.
Listen, y’all know me. Y’all know how I carry myself, and what I stand for. If I can tuck my pride and admit that I’m not good, then can’t nobody tell you nothing. I still talk to my therapist to this day, and I’m still unpacking a lot of the crazy sh*t that I’ve been through. I’m never going to stop doing it, because I really don’t know when the darkness could come back. Right now, though? I’m feeling better than I’ve felt in years. I feel like I’m breathing fresh air again. I feel a sense of peace. I get to wake up in the morning and do what I love to do — play basketball for a living, be a good father to my sons, and carry on the legacy and the light of Frances Ann Pulley.
went into his closet and I just buried my face in his clothes.
That was the first thing I did when I got home after my dad died.
I stuffed myself in his shirts and I breathed in deep and I thought of him and sobbed.
There’s a certain smell that everyone has, you know? It’s not cologne or anything like that. It’s something indescribable. It’s what you smell when they give you a big hug. It’s in their favorite sweatshirts, embedded in the fibers forever. You can’t wash it out. It’s eternal.
I just wanted to smell his smell. I wanted to hear his voice. I wanted to remember everything — everything.
He left us without warning. An accident. A tragedy. Like something you see in the movies and you cry your eyes out and you think, “God, that’s so sad. But that’ll never happen to us.”
Then one day, out of the blue, we were living the movie. Me and my mom were in Italy. I had training early, so we watched half an episode of Schitt’s Creek and called it a night. Right as my mom went down the hall to her room, my brother called me, and he never calls me — not like that. It was weird.
“Hey, I need to talk to Mom.”
“Mom went to her room. Why do you need to talk to Mom?”
“I need to talk to Mom.”
“What’s going on?”
“Dad had an accident.”
Dad had an accident. Ha. O.K., did he cut himself doing something stupid? Did he burn his legs making a fire pit again? What did he get himself into this time?
“I just need to talk to Mom right now.”
When you hear those words, you just know. When I got to my mom’s room and handed her the phone, I immediately broke down in tears in the corner of the room. I was hysterical. But Mom went into full Nurse Mode. It’s an old reflex. She calmly told my brother that he had to follow the ambulance to the hospital. He had to get as much information as he could. And he just had to stay by Dad’s side, no matter what. We were coming.
The last thing the doctors told us before we got on the flight was, “We’re going to do everything in our power to keep him alive until you can get here.”
For a period of 10 years, I was never home. I made maybe one or two family Christmases. Skiing was not just my life, it was our life. My mom traveled everywhere with me as my coach, and my dad handled everything else — literally everything else — as Command Central for Team Shiffrin. When my dad traveled with us, he always had his camera with him. He would record everything — back before people were doing stuff like that. To this day, I don’t understand why he did it, but he was not just capturing what I did — my skiing — he was capturing me. Us. The little moments. Someone laughing. Someone rolling their eyes. All the memories that end up getting lost to time.
You know what’s funny about that?
The moments that everyone always asks me about … they’re a blur. They’re more than a blur, actually. When I won my first gold medal, in Sochi, I honestly can’t tell you much about how it “felt.” Or even what was going through my mind when I did it. When I saw the results, I could not process it. When I stood on the podium, I could not process it. Even 48 hours later, I could not process it.
It’s … it’s two minutes of your life.
You train for four years for two minutes.
Actually, you could say that every single day since I'd started sleeping in my purple suit had been kind of leading up to those two minutes in Sochi. From the outside, it would seem like the greatest moment of my life. And maybe it was. Or maybe it will feel like it was in 30 years. But when it happened, I just felt kind of dumbfounded. What I actually remember, though, and what I will never forget as long as I live, was that the first person I hugged after I won the gold was my dad.
He was crying.
He pulled me tight, and he was so proud. I can still feel that hug.
And it’s funny, because I was talking to my brother the other day, and he brought up the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, and he said, “You know what? I literally cannot even remember what event you got the gold in. What I really remember is us being all together. We were in the hotel hanging out and watching Justice League. Just us all together, laughing.”
The thing that hurt me the most was just randomly picking up my phone to call her, and realizing that there was nobody on the other end. My whole life, I used to call her six or seven times a day, every day. So when she died, I kept calling her number six or seven times a day just to hear the voicemail. I’d be talking to her, even though she was gone.
That was when I started going to a really dark place. The thoughts would be playing in my head like….
“My best friend is gone. I can’t play the game I love. Everybody just got their hand out. Nobody is checking on me for me. It’s always coming with something attached. Who’s there to hold me down now? What’s the point of being here?”
And listen, I know how fortunate I am. I know what it’s like to be hungry. All I can tell you is that when I was in my darkest moments, the money and the fame were the furthest things from my mind. Money and fame don’t mean sh*t if you don’t have peace in your life.
In the midst of it all, the trade rumors started. The franchise I had sacrificed my blood, sweat and tears to represent for 10 years decided they wanted to move on. I was devastated, I’m not gonna lie. That was when I started debating — literally debating — whether I wanted to go on, almost every night.
From the outside, you never would’ve thought anything was wrong. I wasn’t telling my circle anything, even my right-hand guy. I was partying a lot, trying to mask all the pain. I always had my people around me, and when we were chilling at the house, I could just forget. But when everybody goes home at the end of the night, and your head hits that pillow? There’s no forgetting. There’s no more mask.
One night, after all my homies had left and it was just me sitting there all alone with my thoughts running wild, I got about as close as you can get to making an unfortunate decision and leaving this earth. Only by the grace of God, and the love of my sons, am I still here to tell my story.
The one thing I always held on to, in the darkest times, was the thought of my boys — just the little things, like wanting to be around for their first day of school, or their first vacation. Or wanting them to see their dad play in an NBA game for real, and not just on some highlights from back in the day. Those thoughts held me down during a lot of hard nights. But if I’m being honest, even the thought of being a father wasn’t enough for me to get help. That’s how depression lies to you. That devil on your shoulder is whispering to you, “Well, maybe they’d be better off without you here.”
I was praying to God just to give me the strength to wake up the next morning. Then, one night, my mom came to me in a dream. It was like she was standing right next to me. She looked me in the eyes and said, “You have to keep going for your children. There’s more for you to do on this earth.”
It felt like a sign from God. It took a while, but I eventually reached out to somebody in my circle and said the most important words you can say….
“Yo! I need some f***ing help!”
Those six words changed my life.
When I look at my youngest son, and the way he be sticking his bottom lip out and smirking, I’m like: Damn. That’s just like my mom. A little piece of her is still here.
When my older son comes running into the room to jump up on me like, “Raaaahhhhh!!!!! My daddy JOHNWALLLLLLL!!!!!!!”
That’s my purpose now.
And I know y’all heard me say it not too long ago, when I was playing pickup with PG and them…. “I’m BACK.”
And it’s true. I am back. But it’s also something way, way deeper. It’s bigger than basketball, what I’m talking about. It’s LIFE, right?? I’ve been through some of the darkest times you can imagine … and yo….
I’m still here.
PHOTOS BY CELESTE SLOMAN/THE PLAYERS' TRIBUNE
It’s extremely hard to relive this pain, but the reason I’m doing it is because maybe it can help someone else. I’m doing it because someone did it for me. A stranger, as a matter of fact.
When my dad died, the outpouring of support was stunning. I somehow got more letters from people in my lowest moment than I did when I was on top of the world. This one letter was from a man who volunteered at an orphanage in Portland, and he talked about all the things he’d learned from the kids there who had lost parents.
It resonated so deeply with me, because he talked about anger.
When someone dies, we hear endlessly about sadness and happiness. The endless sadness of losing that person, and the “celebration” and happiness of remembering their life. But grief is so much more complicated than those two emotions. A lot of the time, you just feel incredible, relentless anger. You’re ashamed of your anger, so you bury it. Deep down inside, you’re mad at that person for leaving you alone. You’re mad at the world that you can’t hug them anymore. You can’t get advice from them anymore. You can’t finish your favorite TV show together — you’ll never be able to, for as long as you live. You can’t even enjoy the fleeting happy moments in your life, because they exist in a reality where that person isn’t there anymore. Being happy makes you feel guilty, even if it’s just an instant.
He can’t eat anymore, so why should I?
He can’t ski anymore, so why should I?
It’s like you have an injury in your soul. There is no timetable. There is no rehabilitation. Some days you wake up and think, What’s the point?
And the most intense part of it is that you actually start to develop a sadistic kind of pleasure in experiencing that pain. Because it’s like: Even if these memories are excruciating, at least I am still having the memories. At least, through the memories, it’s like I’m keeping my love for my dad alive, and so in some way he’s still with us.
It wasn’t until I got this letter from a stranger that I started to process these emotions and even appreciate them, in a way. The letter said a lot of things, but I remember that it said…
“You may need to tell stories about your dad that everyone has already heard 100 times, but that’s O.K. Keep telling them.”
It said, “Remember, grieving is not an intellectual process.”
It said, “It’s O.K. to be mad at your dad for leaving you.”
And it said, “You grieve as much as you love.”
“Yo! I need some f***ing help!”
Those six words changed my life.
Money and fame don’t mean sh*t
if you don’t have peace in your life.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 support for people in distress.
If you or anyone you know is ever in need, their number is 1-800-273-8255.
PHOTO BY Alex Brandon/AP
“Yo! I need some f***ing help!”
Los Angeles Clippers
Sept. 22, 2022
by JOHN WALL
PHOTOS BY Taylor Baucom/THE PLAYERS' TRIBUNE
PHOTO Courtesy Wall family
by JOHN WALL