Ja Morant’s trying week (and his long road to redemption)

Dr. Garrison sat at the bar with his brother, both Memphis fans, both wearing Memphis shirts, cheering on their beloved Grizzlies as they faced the best team in the West: the Denver Nuggets.

The confident young Grizzlies led by eight points at halftime.  A victory in Denver would most assuredly be momentum-building for a team that doesn’t lack confidence.   The late-season win would also remind the top-seeded Nuggets that, if these two teams met in the playoffs, the Grizz would have the psychological upper hand. 

The Grizzlies lost that night by 14 points.  If you do the math, that means they got outscored by 22 points in the second half.  Something was suddenly amiss in Memphis.

With the Grizzlies still leading comfortably in the first half, fully aware of their bias, I asked the good Dr. Garrison and his brother who they felt would represent the Eastern and Western Conferences in this year’s NBA Finals, hinting that a SportsChump contest would be forthcoming. (Note: it will be.  Stay tuned.)

Neither of them hesitated, both proudly proclaiming that the Grizzlies would represent the West, and why wouldn’t they?  Such a response, while homer-like, seemed perfectly conceivable, all the while discounting last year’s champions, the Golden State Warriors; discounting the Phoenix Suns, who had just landed Kevin Durant; discounting the Dallas Mavericks, who had just landed Kyrie Irving and discounting the Denver Nuggets who, within a few minutes would turn the tide on their Memphis Grizzlies.

At that very moment, such a conclusion sounded perfectly reasonable.  This was around 11 pm on a Friday night with all seemingly right in Memphis. 

What a difference a half makes… and an Instagram post.

I woke to Dr. Garrison’s text the following afternoon.  It read…

“I take back what I said last night.  Grizzlies not winning anything.  Ja is too stupid and young.”

I wasn’t sure what prompted this text from the good doctor.  Sure, giving up a twenty-point lead is never recommendable but it’s not entirely uncommon in the NBA these days.  (Live wagerers take note!)

That’s when I heard the news.  It wasn’t until later that evening that I saw the video, thanks to the good doctor’s brother.  Suddenly, the Memphis Grizzlies had more than just a loss to the Nuggets to worry about.

Professional sports these days is as much about branding as it is about winning.  Branding and winning go hand in hand when looking to build an image, a fan base, and a career.  An athlete can be unsuccessful on the field and still do quite well for himself financially.  If you look at any of the top tier names in sports, LeBron James and Tom Brady included, capped-sport athletes make their living more from endorsements off the field than from salaries on it.

That’s why maintaining an image or lifestyle, at least perceived, helps pay the bills.  That’s why making even the smallest mistake that sways the opinions of fans and advertisers can do exactly the opposite. 

Two days ago, Ja Morant was as rising a star as there was in the NBA.  Heck, twelve of us organized a trek to Orlando and paid $200 a pop just for the chance to see him play live.  He’s a nightly dunk poster waiting to happen and a young man who seemed destined to lead a franchise for years to come.

Then we’d heard news of an altercation with a 17-year-old where he’d allegedly hit him 12 to 13 times.  Then we saw him posting a video of him drawing a gun on his social media outlets.  None of this made any sense.  What was an NBA superstar doing in a pick-up game with an underaged stranger that resulted in violence?  Why was he packing heat and why the hell is he posting about it on his Instagram account? 

The video of Morant holding the gun was the exact opposite of good optics.  Within two days, Morant went from being a top young talent and potential MVP to providing America with an image we will never unsee and another reason for people to hate young NBA superstars.

The dejected Dr. Garrison, who had fully believed in this young man, could not hide his disappointment.  All anybody who had ever rooted for Morant could do was shake their heads, as if in one fell swoop and one horrible decision, he had reshaped his image forever.

The Morant camp has issued a formal apology and said he will seek help.  The Memphis Grizzlies have given their superstar time off to reflect.  There is no timeline for his return. 

No one is denying Ja Morant his constitutional right to carry a weapon, although the league forbids players to travel with firearms or bring them into NBA arenas.  That is not the issue here. 

It’s unfortunate that no matter what happens, this is an incident that Morant will be unable to put behind him, like Kyrie posting antisemitic links on his social media, like Kobe Bryant’s indiscretions in Eagle, Colorado, like Allen Iverson at that bowling alley in Hampton, Virginia.  We forgive mistakes but we don’t forget.  Ja Morant is 23 years old and quickly learning that lesson.  Redemption is available, however, it is never given.  It must be earned.

After clearly doing the wrong thing, Morant did the right one.  He has owned up to his actions and apologized for them.  His eventual return to the NBA and Memphis will come with a groundswell of support, a support he will need as he takes a good hard look at what’s important in his life. 

The NBA is far better with a headstrong Ja Morant in it.  I think I can safely speak for the brothers Garrison, and a million other basketball fans, when I say I look forward to his healthy return. 

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2 Replies to “Ja Morant’s trying week (and his long road to redemption)”

  1. “…exact opposite of good optics.” But slugging a kid a brandishing a firearm in a night club is the unexact opposite of a felony.

  2. We’ll see what happens with this, Dubs.

    Word has it that the young Grizzlies were partying a little too hard on the road, prompting veteran Steven Adams to try to reign in his crew.

    Apparently, his advice was not heeded and here we are.

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