I admit it: I had the same visceral response to news of Ja Morant’s latest infraction as many others.
“Dumbest motherf**ker on Earth,” I wrote on Facebook.
But, despite the mess I see posted daily on social media that makes me weep for humanity, the internet can be an insightful and thoughtful place on occasion. A comment on someone else’s post caused me to recognize that empathy is the best approach in Morant’s situation — not ad hominem attacks.
Now that I’ve evolved after, like, three days, I’m here to spread the good word.
In case you’ve been trapped under a late-winter snowstorm pile, Temetrius Morant, aka Ja Morant, is the Memphis Grizzlies point guard who has dominated news headlines all week over an Instagram Live video featuring him dancing and rapping while brandishing a pistol. As of press time, the NBA suspended Morant indefinitely while the league determines what to do with him next.
As Morant had the pistol in a Denver club following a Grizzlies-Nuggets game, there’s a distinct possibility that he brought the pistol on the team airplane. If this is true and discovered, it’s expected that the league will bring down a storm on his head that’ll likely go well past a suspension for a few games.
The pistol dance is only the latest Morant incident that’s made headlines. The Washington Post released a report about Morant being at the center of two incidents of assault in summer 2022, including punching a teenager in the head during a pickup basketball game in Memphis. (Since when do NBA stars do pickup games with teens ... ?)
At the end of January, members of Morant’s entourage tangled with members of the Indiana Pacers team following a Pacers-Grizzlies game at FedExForum in Memphis. Afterward, someone allegedly trained a laser on the Pacers bus from an SUV in which Morant was a passenger. Everyone believed then the laser was attached to a gun, and they probably believe it more than ever after the Instagram video.
I’ve yet to read or hear a valid defense for Morant’s foolishness. Former NBA player Paul Pierce attempted one when he admitted to carrying a gun during his playing days, writing on Twitter, “when you black and rich u a target period.”
Pierce isn’t wrong, but Morant flashed a piece for kicks. That’s manufactured goonery, not self-defense. Besides, with a nearly $200 million contract not counting endorsements, Morant has the resources to move safely without ever touching a piece of steel.
I’m sure there’s also a hefty amount of people (likely bereft of pigmentation) who look at a dreadlocked 23-year-old Black man in the NBA and assume that the hood is just baked into him like a ziti. Nope. He grew up in a two-parent, working-class household, and both parents were college athletes. They weren’t rich, but Morant wasn’t out there slinging weight and battling for his life in the concrete jungle. (Let Fat Joe tell it, Tee Morant, Ja’s father, should shoulder some blame.)
Far from the only NBA player to do dumb stuff off the clock, Morant’s spate of infractions matters because of his profile. I’m not a sports expert by any stretch, so I leave it to my journalist ilk to tell me that Morant is essentially a basketball wunderkind — a once-in-a-generation talent with the potential to become the LeBron James-esque face of the NBA. He’s a record-setting NBA All-Star and exists in the rarefied air of players with their own Nike shoe, which is set to drop this spring. All before being old enough to rent an Enterprise vehicle.
Talent notwithstanding, the NBA doesn’t play around when it comes to guns. Its code of player conduct demands it do something, especially with a marquee player like Morant. Messages need to be sent. Any situation involving an NBA player headed down a path of self-imposed career destruction would be unfortunate considering how many aspirants will never make it to the league, but the amount of loss Morant could endure in relation to his current earnings and trajectory would be seismic.
That potential fall has become the theme of many of the (admittedly hilarious) memes created about Morant and his apparent wish to leave the NBA and “make it to the hood.” I believe he deserves this digital ass-whipping: as a fan of negative reinforcement, I’m hoping a nice shame sandwich serves as one of the tools to help crystallize just how ridiculous he’s being.
But I can acknowledge that the circumstances surrounding Morant don’t make dismissing him as simply “stupid” entirely fair. First, I give a bit more grace to humans who either didn’t exist for or don’t remember 9/11; there’s a default dumbness to folks under 25, and who’s to blame for that is a topic for another column. If LeBron James — who has a son just a few years younger than Morant — were dancing in a video with a gun, I’d bring out the pitchforks myself.
I also acknowledge that Morant is a product of a gun culture and a hip-hop subculture that still stubbornly champions gunplay, and that there’s a keen attraction for a 23-year-old who can go on jewelry shopping sprees with a rapper-turned-convicted felon and receive name drops in tracks from rappers caught up in their own gun-related legal drama to attempt to co-opt a “baller thug” persona. Someone needs to remind Morant that any real street cat would sell out his mama to trade places with him.
There’s also a high likelihood that Morant keeps rank idiots in his entourage, and that he’s still impressionable enough to be impacted by these idiots who have everything to gain by being yes-men while serving as negative influences. Yeah, I get the whole “day-ones” piece, but he needs to understand that there’s probably more than a few folks around him who’d fall off like dandruff if he squandered it all and moved back to his mama’s house.
None of this is a defense of his actions ... just context that suggests the need for empathy over draconian punishments. Fortunately, it seems like a lot of people wish for him to get the guidance he needs in lieu of bouncing him out of the league and creating what would be in the running for the NBA’s most tragic fall from grace. The media is generally being kind to him, and Nike delivered a boilerplate response to the video without openly threatening his endorsements.
I hope the NBA shows Morant some grace, and not just because they wish to get paid. I also hope whoever is pulling his collar during his suspension is driving home that he has mountains to lose on his own, and that he has the room to become a redemption story before ever becoming a tragic one. Imagine if he course corrected and went to schools to talk to kids about the path he was on.
If conversations with OGs, coaches or a therapist don’t get him there, hopefully he’ll decide he no longer wants to be a meme … because they really are damn funny.