Watching Ja Morant Fly Again

It was hard not to see, and to feel, the joy. To judge from the swell of sound at the end of the Memphis Grizzlies’ last-second win over the New Orleans Pelicans, as cries of “Defense!” gave way to a low roar, it was hard even for some in the opposing New Orleans crowd. Joy is infectious, and it tends to spread when Ja Morant is on the court. Earlier this month, during his first game back after a twenty-five-game suspension from the N.B.A., Morant puffed on an inhaler, then gave his team life, scoring twenty-seven of his thirty-four points in the second half, including the two that won the game. Loping up the court, with seconds left and the score tied, he lowered his dribble to face off against Herb Jones, the New Orleans Pelicans’ standout defender. He sped up, feinted, and spun as he drove into Jones, then he flew into the space that his spin had created. Midair, he switched the ball from his right hand to his left, then floated it toward the basket as he fell back to earth. The shot dropped through the hoop, the buzzer sounded, his teammates surrounded him and celebrated. Morant flashed a smile.

Basketball is a joyful game. Some of that joy derives from spontaneous collaboration—think of the extemporaneous ball passing of the recent Golden State Warriors dynasty, or of the San Antonio Spurs a decade ago, or the Lakers and Celtics a couple of decades before that. But there is also the joy of watching one man fly free. No one flies like Morant.

Morant is twenty-four years old. A few years ago, he was an unheralded small-college recruit from a tiny town in South Carolina. He was small and seemed smaller, with a left arm longer than his right. But he had springs for legs, and he became an N.C.A.A. sensation, then the second pick in the N.B.A. draft. Success only sped up from there: he was Rookie of the Year, then the face of the Grizzlies, then the new face of the N.B.A. By 2022, his third season in the league, he was starting in the All-Star game. In April, Nike released Ja Morant signature shoes. Other N.B.A. players look superhuman; Morant looks like a regular man until he jumps. Then it seems, during that long time in which he rises, as if he might not come down.

He did, though, and with equal speed. There were reports of a confrontation with a mall security guard. A teen-ager sued Morant for punching him during a pickup game at Morant’s house. (Morant claims self-defense; the lawsuit is still pending.) After Morant waved a gun in a night club—and posted a video of it, on Instagram—he entered a counselling program in Florida and was suspended for eight games. It’s an old story: a young man tastes wealth and fame and makes bad decisions. What was new was the N.B.A.’s perhaps performative emphasis on Morant’s remorse, including a ritualized apology in the form of a soft-pedalled TV interview with the N.B.A.’s broadcast partner ESPN—which was already embarrassing even before Morant did essentially the same thing again, two months later, flashing a gun in a video on a friend’s Instagram account. After that came the twenty-five-game suspension.

As Morant’s defenders have been eager to point out, he does not appear to have broken any laws in either of the gun-related incidents. Meanwhile, another N.B.A. star, Miles Bridges, was suspended for thirty games—twenty of which were credited to last season, when he was not signed to any team—after pleading no contest to felony domestic violence. But an estimated twenty-five hundred children and teens are killed by guns every year, and the N.B.A. has good reason not to want one of its showcase stars associated with firearms. And it’s hard to dismiss the second video as a minor offense or a stupid mistake, given that Morant had faced consequences that seem to have had little effect.

Morant is hardly the first young man to make bad decisions. But there’s something particularly painful about the incongruity between his troubles off the floor and his play on it. As a player, he is unselfish with affection and praise, and his obvious pride rarely shades into arrogance. He is even unselfish with the ball, though it usually belongs in his hands. Before he scored the game-winning basket against the Pelicans, he tried calling a play for a teammate, but another teammate, Morant said afterward, told him, “Fuck no—you get the ball.” Morant added, “So, at that point, I pretty much just had to lock in and go deliver. And I did.” Before Morant’s return, the Grizzlies’ record was 6–19. After he came back, the team won four in a row. On Thursday night, he missed a game against the Denver Nuggets, with illness, and without him the Grizzlies lost in a blowout. He’s averaged nearly twenty-nine points a game, to go with eight and a half assists and five rebounds. He was named the Western Conference Player of the Week.

“I kept receipts, too!” Morant bellowed as he left the floor, victorious, at the end of that first game—a way of suggesting that he had kept track of those who had criticized his off-court behavior. After his game-sealing dunk in another game against the Pelicans, he lit up the Internet by making what looked like a quick gun gesture; he claimed he was just teasing a popular local dance. The N.B.A. likely would have preferred for Morant to come out of his suspension modelling humility and speaking out against the scourge of gun violence; it will presumably be enough for the league if he can stay in the highlight reels and out of the news. Meanwhile, even for a man who seems to fly, receipts can be heavy to carry. In his terrible TV apology, Morant explained that he’d pulled out the gun because he was “pretty much just trying to be free.” He plays basketball like he’s after the same thing. The difference is, on the court, he seems to find it. ♦

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