The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.
Dunks die in the air all the time. Sometimes it’s obvious when they’re going to fall short. Other times it catches you off guard. Those are my favorite misses. I fondly remember LeBron James’s failed slam against the Warriors in Game 7 in 2016, despite it ricocheting off the rim; the same applies to Russell Westbrook’s reckless aeronautic venture against Rudy Gobert in 2017. There’s a fearlessness that borders on foolishness behind these attempts, a disregard for safety, an indifference to 7-footers. Such impetuous dunks are the closest some basketball players will ever get to godliness. So yeah, mortals. I couldn’t care less if the ball sticks the landing.
Ja Morant, the Grizzlies’ Rookie of the Year front-runner, tried to dunk over Kevin Love in December, but the ball violently bounced off the rim. That Morant was willing to go head-to-waist with a big man wasn’t all that surprising. Earlier that month, he collided with (and conquered) 6-foot-10 Aron Baynes. Baynes might be the most dunked-over and dunked-through man in the NBA, but this posterization was especially insulting. Yet the Love dunk was unbelievable in its own right, a distinctive part of Morant’s story and aura, even if it didn’t count.
I had to look up which team won on December 20 (the Cavs did). They should’ve called the game right after Morant attempted to assassinate Love in the first quarter. It began with Dillon Brooks pushing the ball in transition. He was too eager, which set up Collin Sexton to deflect it. The ball flung right to Morant, who was waiting behind the 3-point line. He met the ball before it reached him and drove inside.
Morant planted his right foot a step inside the free throw line and shot upward like an acrobat pulled into the air by wire. There Love stood, 6-foot-8 and 251 pounds, stationary as a marble statue, waiting to draw the charge. I never watched the show Jackass because I was never a teenage boy entertained by self-inflicted harm, but I imagine the undaunted energy that it took to try those stunts also courses through Morant. But even the most famous daredevils’ exploits are premeditated. Morant, on the other hand, tried to jump Snake River Canyon on a whim.
Whatever disregard he showed for his own body turned to disregard for Love’s career midair. Morant’s right arm was cocked backward while his left was placed on Love’s shoulder, reducing a star with a max contract to little more than a prop. To add insult to injury, Morant’s crotch plowed into Love’s face, while the ball not in Love’s face plowed off the back of the rim.
The landing was one of the scariest moments of the season, just behind the way Morant returned to Earth when he dunked on Baynes.
See that white blur that’s inches away from Tristan Thompson’s face? That’s Morant’s right leg, leaving his left leg responsible for the weight of his entire body crashing down. Luckily, Love’s face was there to help break the fall.
For all the power dunks that Morant finished this season, it’s this miss that I’ll remember most. It’s the sheer gall leading up to the attempt that makes the sequence so memorable. Morant seems unaffected by potential danger. In the grand scheme of things, it matters less that he missed the dunk over Love than it does that he desired to try something so remarkable. Watching the video again now, at a time when I’m desperate for basketball and its beloved characters to return healthy, it strikes me that celebrating Morant’s recklessness might be a soft form of enabling. It’s a secondhand rush to see him soar toward the rim, the kind of highlight that I could draw from memory months after the fact. It’s so spectacular that the clip may make the B-roll the day my life flashes before my eyes, the way I imagine Morant’s does each time he launches toward the basket.