Ja Morant needs to figure things out before further damaging his potentially brilliant career
You can wonder what in the world Ja Morant was thinking, but it’s clear he wasn’t.
The NBA suspended Morant in March after he was seen in an Instagram Live video brandishing a gun inside a Denver strip club during a Memphis Grizzlies road trip. The team and the league weren’t amused, hitting Morant, whose 5-year, $194 million contract extension kicks in next season, with an eight-game suspension without pay.
Nike, which has its own $12 million deal with Morant, didn’t pile on, but it made it clear it was also concerned.
Everyone was. Morant is arguably the most electric young player in the league, a nightly high-flying highlight reel and an inspiring story of making the big time after being lightly recruited (Murray State) out of his small South Carolina high school.
He’s a star, with the potential for hundreds of millions in career earnings. Yet with that comes responsibility, and the NBA is clear that it will not tolerate images of its players glorifying guns.
Morant said he understood.
“I take full responsibility,” he said — or at least his public relations team said — at the time. “ ... I’m going to take some time away to get help and work on learning better methods of dealing with stress and my overall well-being.”
Well, whatever help he took, it didn’t take. Over the weekend there was Morant back on IG Live with what appears to be a gun in his hand.
The response was immediate. The Memphis Grizzlies suspended him indefinitely.
Another suspension. More lost millions. A shoe deal that's in potentially jeopardy. A ton of embarrassment. A league full of doubt.
In the long annals of self-inflicted scandals this has to be one of the most ridiculous and easily avoidable. How hard is it to not get filmed with a gun?
Apparently too hard for Morant to manage.
Morant has been mocked and scolded in the hours since. He deserves it all. This wasn’t just an act of immaturity. This was just sad.
Plenty of players and coaches and executives stood by Morant the last time. Plenty of them went to bat and put their credibility on the line for him. He stomped on them.
And for what?
The Second Amendment assures Morant’s right to own firearms. It has no power over an employer setting the standards for behavior. The NBA doesn’t want to be associated with gun culture. It doesn’t want weapons at the workplace. That is its right. This is a precious and privileged job. Morant has managed to get in trouble without running afoul with the actual law. It isn’t easy.
Every player is an ambassador of the league and the business of the league though. As much as Morant fills seats with his breathtaking play, he can turn customers off with these images. At least that’s how the league calculates it.
It made the standard clear. It drew a red line in the sand. There could be no doubts about what was and wasn’t expected and acceptable after the last suspension.
And yet he couldn’t resist basically the same action at almost the first chance he could get.
Morant is young, but then again, he isn’t. At 23, he is plenty old enough to know the basics of how the world works. He did two years in college and four now in the NBA.
He is a corporation unto himself, surrounded by agents, lawyers, advisers, trainers and doctors who are there to keep him physically, mentally and legally on the court.
And that doesn’t count the support system inside the Grizzlies organization, which has its franchise invested in his continued success.
This is no clueless kid out on an island. This isn’t a teenager playing for a permissive college program that will ignore red-flag actions just to keep him on the court to win at all costs.
Everyone around Morant is focused on the long term. Well everyone, it appears, other than Ja Morant himself.
This can’t be blamed on who Morant hangs around with. His friends are clearly doing him no favors, but he is the alpha dog of any group. He’s the star athlete. They are the hangers-on. If he’s not capable of standing up for himself and doing the easy (and proper) thing then that is his failure.
Another suspension. More lost millions. A ton of embarrassment. A league full of doubt.
“I’ve heard of NBA YoungBoy,” former NBA player Kwame Brown said on IG Live, citing the hip-hop star. “But you NBA DumbBoy.”
When Kwame Brown is dragging you …
Whatever Morant is chasing, whatever is causing him to barrel headfirst into controversy, whatever is pushing him away from his brilliant future, he needs to figure it out.
The NBA hasn't announced its long-term punishment, but it’s coming. This time Morant needs to turn his downtime into a positive.
He’s got too much to offer. He’s got too much to lose.
And he’s got too many people trying to help save him.