Beneath all his appeal, he’s reckless enough to blow it.
The appreciation of Morant’s skills now comes with concern about his decisions. The Washington Post obtained police documents that suggest he is more immature than the recent folly with the Indiana Pacers showed. That incident began with an on-court altercation and ended with postgame allegations that someone in Morant’s SUV pointed a red laser believed to be from a gun at members of the Pacers organization. A league investigation led nowhere, 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 altercations over the past year. They include punching a teenage boy “12 or 13 times” during a pickup basketball game at Morant’s home in Memphis last summer and later revealing a gun in his waistband. Four days earlier, Morant and a group of about nine others allegedly 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 security manager telling police that Morant “threatened” him and that one of the people with Morant pushed him in the head.
NBA star Ja Morant accused in police reports of hitting a teenager and making threats
Morant was not punished for any of these incidents. Just as the NBA could not confirm 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, fueling claims by Jim Tanner, the player’s agent, that all this smoke amounts to “baseless rumors and gossip” coming from “people motivated to tear down the Ja and spoil him. reputation for his 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 get involved in. Perhaps an allegation can be dismissed as inconsequential. Maybe even two, if they were spread over a longer period of time. But three conflicts in less than a year, with different settings and circumstances, all apparently displaying the same kind of dangerously fierce instincts? The pattern cannot be ignored.
There are certainly people out to test and exploit Morant. It is an inevitable fame. And it must be acknowledged that Morant, who spoke passionately after the “amazing, scary and frustrating” video of police killing Memphis resident Tire Nichols became public, is now an obvious target for law enforcement simply for being a black celebrity who screamed for Fairness. But while it made it easier to open his closet, Morant is responsible for the skeletons inside.
This shame is also his warning. He needs to relax before he goes too far for his celebrity to protect him.
Morant is a 23-year-old superstar who is experiencing the first bad look of his career. These are terrible things to be accused of: beating the crap out of a kid he was supposedly tutoring over a stupid basketball argument, playing with guns, acting like an idiot in public, and becoming hostile to security. Morant should not dismiss the criticism he receives just because authorities refused to charge him with a crime. He shouldn’t be 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 a survey and saw that they were doing it. Still let an article come out to paint this negative picture of me and my family. And they banned my brother from home games for a year. Unbelievable.”
This time he should learn the lesson. He is Ja Morant, a famous basketball artist with his own Nike shoes. He signed a maximum contract extension last July worth $193 million that will rise to $231 million after he joins the NBA team at the end of the season. He looks set to make north of $500 million in NBA salary alone. If he plays everything right, he can make basketball a billionaire. He came from nowhere, from the winding roads of Dalzell, SC, to stardom. He has a lot to lose now, and while the competitor in him is focused on stopping those who can take it from him, he must realize that he can 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 must live up to expectations now. Because he plays with an all-out intensity that could scare 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 dealing with his emotions.
There is stake in every decision Morant makes. He used to be the teenager who fought over pranks with his peers and it was just boys being boys, with his father still having enough authority to de-escalate. Now, if he can’t control himself, he’s the petty millionaire thug who needs a lawyer on speed dial to fend off legal action. As young athletes become richer and more pampered, the NBA can be a difficult place to mature because the culture of accountability diminishes with each generation. During crucial years of growth, they are more isolated 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 forces them to bring all their old baggage into their new lives, creating the strangest alternate universe where everything is the same, except coated in abundance, entitlement and a false sense of invincibility.
Morant is caught 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 disturbing and controversial than how he’s known now: as a delightful late bloomer from Murray State University who dances the Griddy and embraces all challenges with trash-talking determination.
He is on a bad path. Defiance is part of his basketball charm. Accountability should have been part of his development. For the sake of longevity, Morant needs to start acting, at all times, like the star he longed to be.