Ja Morant’s skyrocketing basketball career is on hold following a series of off-court decisions by the young NBA star involving a gun in a strip club, actions which have temporarily derailed his meteoric rise.
Morant is the target of a second NBA investigation in weeks with no timetable for his return to the Memphis Grizzlies. The two-time All-Star will miss his second game Tuesday night when Memphis visits the Los Angeles Lakers.
His benching after showing an apparent gun while at a strip club hours after a loss to Denver comes amid a sealed lawsuit alleging he punched a teenager during a pick-up game at his home last summer along with drinking and partying.
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins says the 23-year-old Morant is a young man that has to “grow and get better.”
Morant is the face of a young team with no player 30 or older, in a city that has been the center of the country’s gun issues.
In November 2021, a rapper who had performed at a Grizzlies’ halftime show was shot dead while buying cookies in Memphis. In 2010, a 34-year-old former Grizzlies’ center was found dead riddled by bullets in a swampy field in southeast of the city.
Morant and the Grizzlies provided a much-needed respite in January while Memphis grieved the death of Tyre Nichols following a brutal attack by five police officers.
All that made Morant’s Instagram livestreaming himself shirtless holding an apparent gun next to his left cheek in the early morning hours Saturday at a Colorado club simply stunning.
Reverend Earle Fisher of Abyssinian Baptist Church spoke at both Young Dolph’s memorial and funeral and has talked with Morant’s father since the viral video. Fisher said a broader conversation is needed about open carry gun laws with some cultural context applied.
“There are some ways to interpret what Ja did in a way that holds him accountable, but also gives him the grace and the space that’s needed to continue to mature as somebody who is the face of the franchise,” said Fisher.
Morant has beaten the odds after being an overlooked, faceless college prospect playing summer basketball, taking a road less traveled to become an NBA All-Star and league MVP candidate. Morant signed a five-year, $193 million contract last summer, but missing too many games this season could cost him a potential $38 million bonus.
This is only the latest in a series of questionable incidents involving Morant.
A close friend of Morant’s was escorted from the arena after arguing with Indiana Pacers’ players in January. Morant said the NBA banned his friend from the arena for a year.
Last summer during a pick-up basketball game at Morant’s home, a 17-year-old accused him of assault. Investigators said in January that “there was not enough evidence to proceed with a case.”
Of all the scrutiny, this video is the most serious threat yet to Morant’s career and the Grizzlies’ pursuit of their first championship.
“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,” said Morant in a statement Saturday released by the agency that represents him.
The young talented player with tremendous earning potential has plenty of support.
A screen grab of the livestream from the strip club showed Morant wearing the diamond pendant with his Ja 1 shoe logo Nike gave him at last month’s All-Star Game. The shoe company is backing him for now, saying in a statement: “We appreciate Ja’s accountability and that he is taking the time to get the help he needs.”
Morant also has reached out individually to former coaches and teammates, including current LSU’s Matt McMahon.
“I love him,” said McMahon, who coached Morant at Murray State. “I, and my coaching staff, are always going to be there to support and help him navigate these challenging times.”
Morant’s basketball prowess is unquestioned. He was the No. 2 pick overall, 2020 Rookie of the Year and finished seventh in MVP voting last season. He ranks ninth in the NBA averaging 27.1 points a game and fifth with 8.2 assists a game for a team second in the Western Conference.
Now the Grizzlies’ coach knows he may be without his best player for an extended period of time.
“He’s got huge responsibilities not just for the team, for the city,” Jenkins said. “But I know how he’s built with that care factor and what steps he’s now taking. It’s a step in the direction of really being the best version of himself.”
Morant appeared to have the perfect support system coming into the NBA with his parents repeatedly hitting the road to watch him during his two seasons at Murray State. They followed him to Memphis from South Carolina, and now live near him.
His father, Tee, became a postseason sensation last spring as he made bets and trash-talked with Karl-Anthony Towns’ dad. He narrated his son’s new Powerade commercial that debuted just last week and refused to excuse his son’s actions in a Facebook post.
NBA investigators will want to know if that really was a gun and whether Morant carried it on the team plane. The league could suspend or fine Morant, and he also could face misdemeanor charges in Colorado if police find he was under the influence while holding a gun.
The Grizzlies aren’t saying what help Morant is getting, or how long he will be away from his teammates.
No one can at this point.
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds and AP Sports Writer Beth Harris contributed to this report.