In June of 2022, someone on Twitter asked NBA star Ja Morant why he was “thuggin” on Twitter and he replied, “Cuz da money won’t ever change me. been on dat, still on dat, forever on dat, won’t ever speak on it.” To those familiar with Morant’s middle-class upbringing, the comment felt performative, as though the basketball whiz was overcompensating. What exactly is he referring to? Allegiance to a “code” hardwired through hardship that he has trouble shedding? Or is it allegiance to an image? Whatever it is, hopefully he decides to let it go, because he’s headed down a dangerous path. 

The Memphis Grizzlies star was dismissed from the team for the foreseeable future after flashing a gun on his Instagram Live on March 4. The incident is only the latest in a year fraught with controversial episodes which are starting to shift the public’s perception of the electrifying 23-year-old talent. On July 6, 2022, Morant signed a five-year contract extension worth up to $231 million, cementing him as the Grizzlies’ franchise leader. Less than three weeks later, the trouble started.

In January, TMZ broke the news that a 17-year-old had filed suit against Morant over an alleged attack that occurred at Morant’s Tennessee home on July 26 of last year. According to court documents obtained by the gossip site, a verbal altercation ensued during a pickup basketball game, and, after the teenager said he threw a ball that “accidentally” struck Morant in the face, the NBA star is alleged to have struck the teen a number of times to the point where officers observed “a large knot” on the boy’s head. 

Earlier this week, a Washington Post story detailed two police reports accusing Morant and his friends of violence. The first police report shed more light on the altercation at his home last July, revealing that Morant is alleged to have punched the teenager (who claimed to be a former mentee of his) “12 or 13 times” before he went into his home and “re-emerged with a gun visible in the waistband of his pants and his hand on the weapon.” Morant said that this was in response to the teen telling him he’d “light his house up” and that Morant and his family were “put in fear by the statement.”  

Another police report in the Post piece claimed that Morant and his associates got into an altercation with the head of security at a Memphis mall. Morant and “a group of as many as nine other people“ ventured to the mall with the intent to confront a Finish Line employee who allegedly got into a verbal dispute with Morant’s mother. Morant’s group is said to have threatened a mall security guard, with one member of his entourage shoving the security guard in the head. No arrests were made in either case.

Ja Morant dunks the ball over Jalen Smith of the Indiana Pacers in the third quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on January 14, 2023, in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Dylan Buell/Getty

These two reports followed a Jan. 29 postgame incident in which Indiana Pacers employees told the NBA that they felt they were “in grave danger” after a car Morant was in allegedly pointed a red laser toward their team bus. Two people onboard the Pacers’ bus told The Athletic that “they did not see who shined the laser from the SUV. They also don’t know if the laser was attached to a gun, but they believed it was. A Pacers security guard in the loading area at the time remarked: ‘That’s 100 percent a gun.’” 

And last May, Morant told a seemingly random Twitter user that “it’s free to see how hollows feel” — presumably referring to hollow-point bullets — after the account called him “pussy whipped.” (He’s since deleted his Twitter account.) The temperature rose to the point where the Grizzlies had no choice but to step in and suspend Morant. 

On March 4, Morant put out a statement saying, “I take full responsibility for my actions last night. I’m sorry to my family, teammates, coaches, fans, partners, the city of Memphis and the entire Grizzlies organization for letting you down. 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.”

Morant is treading dangerous ground with his antics, which seem perplexing to those who’ve closely followed his story. Morant grew up in small-town Dalzell, South Carolina, where his father Tee put his own basketball dreams on hold in Europe to stay home and raise his son alongside Morant’s mother Jamie. Tee built a basketball court in their backyard, and trained Morant year-round in order to help hone his craft. Under-recruited out of high school, Morant eventually landed at Murray State, leading the mid-major to the second round of the NCAA Tournament during his sophomore year. He was subsequently chosen No. 2 in the 2019 NBA Draft, and instantly established himself as one of the brightest young stars in the league, taking home Rookie of the Year honors followed by two All-Star selections. None other than Draymond Green called the hyper-athletic high-flier one of the smartest players in the game, able to conduct “a chess match” on the court. He should know better than to go around menacing people. 

But this isn’t just about one young man’s immaturity. What’s happening here is a sign of a sick culture. Morant is a wonder on the court, but perhaps he isn’t above the temptations of embodying the tough-guy persona that so many young men grapple with. America subsists on systemic inequality, which has engendered communities full of people living in survival mode. In Nathan McCall’s autobiography Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, he noted that during his youth in 1960s Portsmouth, Virginia, more than being called intelligent, or funny, or nice, the boys in his neighborhood longed to known as a “crazy n*****” who’ll go to any lengths to assert their dominance. He wrote that the term defined “someone who had an explosive temper, someone who took flak from no one-man, woman or child. We regarded craziness as an esteemed quality, something to be admired, like white people admire courage. In fact, to our way of thinking, craziness and courage were one and the same.” 

American pop culture lionizes these outlaw figures, from cowboys to mobsters to gangsters. It’s a deeply American story that many are compelled to emulate, even if they’re like Morant, a preternaturally gifted athlete shrouded by familial support, opportunity, and now riches. One can look to former NBA player Javaris Crittenton as an example of a worst-case scenario. He was a model student who served as his high school’s class president, worked at a law firm, and was a member of the Future Business Leaders of America. After a standout freshman year at Georgia Tech, Crittenton made it to the NBA, but fell into the wrong crowd and ended up in a career-ending guns-in-the-locker-room altercation with his Washington Wizards teammate Gilbert Arenas. In 2015, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison for the killing of Jullian Jones, a 22-year-old mother of four, who was shot when Crittenton opened fire on someone who allegedly robbed him in Atlanta. 

Arenas, whose own career was derailed by their locker room incident, told The Washington Post, “I heard he became more hard… some people turn over a new leaf when something bad like that changes their life. I heard Javaris went the other way — he became more ‘hood,’ more hardened.”

Sometimes access to millions isn’t a deterrent, but intensifies one’s sense of power as the alpha breadwinner, surrounded by a cadre of yes-men and hangers-on ready to commit actions that can fall back on the star. Former NBA star Paul Pierce spoke up for Morant over the weekend when he tweeted, “I don’t care what y’all say about Ja I carried a gun after I was stabbed y’all don’t know what he going thru everyone got something to say until u really know what’s really going on in someone life when u black and rich u a target period.” 


Some of Morant’s defenders have an understandable urge to protect him from the optics of being criminalized simply for having a gun, but the “nothing to see here” energy doesn’t hold water in light of the other violent accusations against Morant. This is no mere Second Amendment issue. If Morant had posted a video of himself at a gun range or hunting, there would be nothing to speak of. But in the wake of him allegedly beating up a teenager, threatening a Twitter user, claiming you’re “on dat” when asked about “thuggin,” and dangerous incidents with mall security and the Pacers’ team bus, the clip of him shirtless and waving a gun at a club feels like a precursor of more trouble. Or maybe the fallout is the wake-up call he needs before making a life-altering mistake. 

There have been times when an athlete’s violent behavior could to some degree be considered a byproduct of their harsh formative years, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Ja Morant is not a “product of his environment” who lacks agency. He is playing a part. This is deeper than Morant becoming a respectable NBA player or struggling with fame. Kids across the country are grappling with the same identity crises without receiving televised pleas to get it together from the likes of Jalen Rose and Shannon Sharpe. It’s a sign of our country’s predilection for violence that even a multi-millionaire sports star with no good reason to hurt anyone is playing out their mob-boss fantasies in the public eye. Maybe once the conditions that create these characters no longer exist, we’ll all be better off. 


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