The Washington Post
It’s time for Morant to act like the icon he wants to be
You just want to marvel at his game, his spellbinding talent. Ja Morant plays as if rockets are attached to his sneakers. He may be the most explosive point guard in the breathtaking history of basketball. As a core of young international mavens captivates the NBA, Morant’s no-star-to-allstar tale is the most charming American success story of this new generation. His face belongs on the sport’s present and future — unless he blows it.
Beneath all his appeal, he’s reckless enough to blow it.
Appreciation of Morant’s skills now comes with concern about his decisions. The Washington Post obtained police records that suggest he’s more immature than the recent foolishness with the Indiana Pacers showed. That incident began with an argument on the court and ended with postgame allegations of someone in Morant’s SUV pointing a red laser thought to be from a gun at members of the Pacers organization. A league investigation didn’t lead anywhere, and you figured the
altercation would go down as one of a handful of NBA urban legends with little significance beyond perpetuating the sport’s reputation for drama.
But take a closer look, and the Memphis Grizzlies star has been accused of being involved in other violent squabbles over the past year. They include allegedly punching a teenage boy “12 or 13 times” during a pickup basketball game at Morant’s home in Memphis last summer and later exposing a gun in his waistband. Four days earlier, Morant and a group of about nine others were alleged to have escalated a situation at a mall, responding to Morant’s mother, who had called her son after a dispute with an employee at a Finish Line shoe store. The encounter resulted in the mall’s head of security telling police that Morant “threatened” him and that one of the people with Morant shoved him in the head.
Morant was not punished for any of these incidents. Just as the NBA could not corroborate the Pacers’ claims of wrongdoing, police did not arrest Morant or anyone with him. The teenager and his mother filed a lawsuit against Morant over the fight, which fuels the claim of Jim Tanner, the player’s agent, that all this smoke amounts to “unsubstantiated rumors and gossip” coming from “people motivated to tear Ja down and tarnish his reputation for their own financial gain.” The punches were thrown in self-defense, and Morant did not have a gun during the altercation, Tanner said.
Still, this is too much reckless nonsense for a professional — an elite, franchise player — to be entangled in. Perhaps one allegation could be dismissed as inconsequential. Perhaps even two, if they were spread out over a longer period. But three conflicts in less than a year, with different settings and circumstances, all apparently displaying the same kind of dangerously impetuous instincts? The pattern cannot be ignored.
For certain, there are people out to test and exploit Morant. That’s an inevitability of fame. And it must be recognized that Morant, who spoke passionately after the “mind-blowing, scary and frustrating” video of police killing Memphis resident Tyre Nichols became public, is now an obvious target of law enforcement simply for being a Black celebrity who screamed for justice. But even if that made it easier to open his closet, Morant is responsible for the skeletons inside.
This shame is also his warning. He needs to chill out before he goes too far for his celebrity to protect him.
Morant is a 23-year-old superstar experiencing the first bad look of his career. These are awful things to be accused of: beating the mess out of a kid he was supposedly mentoring over a silly basketball argument, playing with guns, acting a fool in public and getting hostile with security. Morant shouldn’t reject the criticism he is receiving just because authorities declined to charge him with a crime. He shouldn’t turn defiant like he did after the Athletic detailed his run-in with the Pacers in late January.
In response to that controversy, Morant posted on Twitter: “Did an investigation and seen they were cappin’. Still let an article come out to paint this negative image on me & my family. And they banned my brother from home games for a year. Unbelievable.”
This time, he ought to absorb the lesson. He’s Ja Morant, a famous basketball artist with his own Nike shoe. He signed a max contract extension in July worth $193 million that will rise to $231 million after he makes the all-nba team at the end of the season. He seems certain to earn north of $500 million in NBA salaries alone. If he plays everything just right, he could leave basketball a billionaire. He came out of nowhere, from the winding roads of Dalzell, S.C., to stardom. He has plenty to lose now, and while the competitor in him is focused on stopping those who might take it from him, he needs to realize that he could steal it from himself if he doesn’t grow up.
Morant is no longer the unknown South Carolina kid desperate to grow taller and defy expectations. He has to meet expectations now. Because he plays with an all-out intensity that could startle a young Russell Westbrook, the concern had been whether he could stay healthy. But it seems that maintaining his body will be nothing compared to managing his emotions.
There are stakes for every decision Morant makes. He used to be the teenager fighting over nonsense with his peers, and it was merely boys being boys, with his father still enough of an authority to de-escalate. Now, if he can’t control himself, he’s the petty millionaire bully who needs a lawyer on speed dial to stave off legal action. As young athletes become richer and more coddled, the NBA can be a difficult place to mature because the culture of accountability diminishes with each generation. During important years for growth, they are more sequestered from real life than ever, and this can stunt their development in two ways: It banishes them from remembering where they came from, or it compels them to bring all their old baggage into their new lives, creating an odd alternate universe in which everything is the same, except coated in opulence, entitlement and a false sense of invincibility.
Morant is trapped in the latter. Only he can break free, but first he must realize the need to break free. If he keeps this up, his reputation will be more troubling and controversial than how he is known now: as a delightful late bloomer from Murray State who dances the Griddy and embraces all challenges with trash-talking determination.
He’s on a bad path. Defiance is part of his basketball charm. Accountability had better be a part of his evolution. For the sake of longevity, Morant needs to start acting, at all times, like the star he longed to be.