One day soon, Ja Morant will emerge from a tunnel with his teammates flanking him as he takes the floor of an NBA arena for the first time in his new reality.
He’ll address the media, take the repeated questions about his activities and habits that led to his eight-game suspension and treatment in Florida — probably statements that will feel rehearsed and very un-Ja like.
It’ll be the first day of being an NBA grown-up, the sheen of innocence gone. The days of the devil-may-care attitude won’t come as easy once you’ve danced with the devil that is NBA mortality, and he’ll probably be better for it as opposed to it hardening him.
It’s one thing to toe the line of danger, especially with the public. Most NBA stars are buttoned up and family-friendly, so Morant was taking a different road. But until now, the general thought was he was harmless, energetic and reflective of the culture the NBA now embraces — for better or worse.
That doubt is removed now, temporarily.
The NBA doesn’t want Morant to fail. It didn’t benefit the league to throw the book at him for what “could’ve” happened — not even the justice system goes that far. Besides, it knows how important he is to the future and its present.
The Gilbert Arenas comparison is certainly salacious to chew on, even if it’s so bad it’s enough to rot one’s teeth. But the league concluded he didn’t bring a weapon onto team premises — a huge delineation from Arenas’ incident nearly 15 years ago. That cost Arenas 50 games from then-commissioner David Stern, who was free to suspend him however he saw fit.
Stephen Jackson is probably a little closer to precedent for Morant, sources told Yahoo Sports, from a 2006 incident outside an Indianapolis strip club. Jackson fired a gun in the air trying to break up a fight and was hit by a car in the aftermath — the league determined his role was worth a five-game suspension at the start of the 2007-08 season, months after the legal case ran its course.
Raymond Felton, then of the Knicks, pleaded guilty to felony gun charges in 2014 before going to Dallas. His suspension was four games.
Unlike those examples, Morant wasn’t charged with anything, but the pattern of behavior was trending toward a dangerous place. Thus, the statement from commissioner Adam Silver was as pointed as any he’s made in years.
“Ja’s conduct was irresponsible, reckless and potentially very dangerous,” Silver said. “It also has serious consequences given his enormous following and influence, particularly among young fans who look up to him. He has expressed sincere contrition and remorse for his behavior. Ja has also made it clear to me that he has learned from this incident and that he understands his obligations and responsibility to the Memphis Grizzlies and the broader NBA community extend well beyond his play on the court.”
Morant, at the tender age of 23, has been noted as a mentor to younger players in his orbit, most notably Detroit rookie point guard Jaden Ivey. Ivey’s mother, Niele, was an assistant coach with the Grizzlies before becoming head coach for the Notre Dame women’s team, and that’s where the relationship started.
And if it seems like Morant is too young to mentor, think of a high school senior taking a freshman under his wing — peer-to-peer.
Morant will get pulled aside by every old-head he comes across for a decent period now, whether it’s a current player, former player or otherwise.
They’ll tell him he’s got the world in front of him, even with this first public strike, and he can rebound from it. They’ll also tell him the information that’s been laid bare to the public makes him an even bigger target for provocation, especially in Memphis, unfortunately.
He won’t be put in a cocoon, even though there are many who would probably love to do so. In the under-25 category, there are only so many bankable American-born stars, and if you don’t think that’s important, look no further than MLB’s dwindling popularity among the youth, simply because many of its stars aren’t stateside.
The league will likely wait before throwing him back on the marquee. Then again, America loves nothing more than a story of redemption and humility — particularly from one whose persona is of defiance.
Who knows if Morant will make formal apologies to those who’ve tried to pull him from looking over the edge, the people who’ve confronted him about his behavior — those in the Grizzlies organization, and some close to him, sources told Yahoo Sports. His behavior may have been aimless, but it was noticed as time went on and he was probably too far gone to listen.
That is, until he flashed a gun on Instagram Live.
It wasn’t some investigation that revealed this particular instance — he put it out for the world to see. In an interview with ESPN’s Jalen Rose, he said it wasn’t his gun — thus making the decision even more puzzling in the moment.
Either he was too careless, negligent or unaffected by the things swirling around him to care, but this self-made roadblock seemed necessary.
The trip to Florida for “counseling” appeared more necessary, even if the wording has been purposely murky. Even if he hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt on that level of privacy, one wonders if a week or two of counseling will fix whatever’s wrong with him.
If it’s decision-making, being thrust into the NBA’s grown-up world will certainly amplify the work — or reveal the lack of it.
If it’s something greater, something more dangerous, then the work will have to be twice as strenuous and even more transparent. The slightest slip-up will bring out a crowd Morant doesn’t want to hear from and more importantly, a segment the NBA would love to keep at bay.
The NBA doesn’t want Morant to fail. Ja also better not allow Ja to fail.