In his first media appearance since his suspension from the Memphis Grizzlies two weeks ago, Ja Morant toggled between multiple selves. There was the spindly, 170-pound combination of flesh and bones who reflected on his past, fielding questions from ESPN’s Jalen Rose about his behavior. And there was the future projection Morant referred to in the third person, the “Ja he was going to be.”
Ever since he was a 20-year-old rookie sensation, Morant has been both a person and a persona. Posterizing the giants of the game with electrifying highlights that stole hearts in Memphis and all over YouTube, he became the face of the Grizzlies and was tapped as a future face of the NBA—a gateway to the South, and to younger fans everywhere.
All that momentum came grinding to a halt two weeks ago when he waved a gun while he was at a strip club streaming on Instagram Live, testing forces much more dangerous than the 7-footers he challenges on the court.
The next day, Morant announced he would “take some time away to get help and work on learning better methods of dealing with stress and my overall well-being.” He checked himself into a counseling facility in Florida, and eventually received an eight-game suspension from the NBA that included the six games he’d already missed while away from the team. On Monday, he rejoined the Grizzlies, who’ve held down the West’s no. 2 seed in his absence, and will reportedly return to play Wednesday against the Rockets.
But Morant is accountable to more than himself, his family, and his team. He has a max contract worth up to $231 million, a signature shoe with Nike, a sponsorship with Powerade, and a brand the NBA and everyone else wants to sell. So while he embarks on his journey toward healing and playing basketball again, he’s also navigating an image reconstruction that’s already underway.
It’s an oversimplification to think that Morant’s recent actions are at odds with the Ja the NBA world knew before these developments. People are more than their most visible qualities, and all public images are a mix of truth, artifice, and showmanship. For the first few years of his career, Morant’s loyalty, fearlessness, and self-belief unanimously drew fans to him.
Morant comes across as a different kind of star. He seems humble and grounded. He is a family man, and his relationship with his father, Tee—often seen courtside in his patent sunglasses, doling out high-fives—is both fun and heartwarming. Instead of palling around with his peers on opposing teams, Morant challenges established stars (on Twitter and on the court), showing camaraderie only to his teammates and Memphians, who see something of themselves—and the beloved Grit and Grind teams of the 2010s—in him. Maybe the kid from Dalzell, South Carolina, can carry a different small, Southern city to the NBA’s promised land.
And the defining characteristic of Ja always has been his game. He is one of those rare athletes who communicates something essential about himself in the way he moves, crashing into defenders double his weight, pirouetting around them in midair, unconcerned with his landing. He creates the illusion that he’s impervious to gravity, finding new ways to muster the ball into the basket, riding the tension between fearlessness and recklessness and expanding our sense of what’s possible.
But now Morant finds himself at the culmination of a year of self-destructive behavior. Eight weeks ago, there was palpable buzz around Morant and the Grizzlies, who as a team reflected Morant’s gritty, prideful, plucky ethos and were trying to win a franchise record 12th straight game. Outside Crypto.com Arena, teal and blue jerseys popped out of the usual sea of purple and gold, and fans and cameras congregated inside before the game to watch the young savant warm up. But just after the halftime buzzer sounded, a verbal altercation between Tee, Shannon Sharpe, and Grizzlies players escalated into a scuffle. At the time, it felt like Memphis’s never-back-down mindset had simply spilled off the court; in hindsight, it was an omen.
A week later, Tee and Davonte Pack, Morant’s childhood best friend, got into a shouting match with Indiana Pacers players and staff. The Athletic later reported that after the game “someone in a slow-moving SUV—which Morant was riding in—trained a red laser on [members of the Pacers traveling party]” and that two members of the traveling party said they believed the laser to be coming from a gun.
A month after that, The Washington Post reported that, this past July, Morant assaulted a teenager in a pickup game after he threw the ball at Morant’s face. The teen also stated that Morant flashed a gun at him. In September, police investigated an argument in which Morant, alongside family and friends, reportedly confronted another teenager who had called his sister a “bitch.”
As the wallpaper on Morant’s image started to peel, he tried to keep plugging along. Morant issued a strong denial of The Athletic’s report on Twitter. His agent, Jim Tanner, called The Athletic report unsubstantiated gossip. In regard to the incident reported in The Washington Post, Morant told the police he punched the teenager in self-defense. Meanwhile, Powerade released an ad about Morant’s rise from an unknown high schooler to a fringe MVP candidate, with Tee narrating. In the ESPN interview, Rose referred to most of these reports as digging up old news, while Morant called them “lies” that he couldn’t wait to clear up once he can speak freely.
At the beginning of March, Grizzlies elder statesman Steven Adams called a players-only meeting to address the team’s poor road record. He told his teammates they needed to show better discipline on road trips, a suggestion The Athletic reported was indirectly intended for Morant. But instead of heeding Adams’s advice, Morant went to a strip club in Glendale, Colorado (for the second time in two days), after a loss to the Nuggets, and flashed a gun on Instagram Live.
This was the moment the public began to question the very traits that it had once valorized in Morant. Had his fearlessness teetered into carelessness? Did his self-belief turn into an arrogant, false sense of his own invincibility? Did his loyalty lead him to trust old friends who were leading him astray? Did he accept too much responsibility while underestimating the pressure?
Maybe more importantly, it was also the moment Morant reversed course from his denials. On March 4, Morant apologized and announced he’d be taking time away from the team. He deleted his social media accounts and checked himself into a counseling center in Florida. Nike and the Grizzlies issued measured, supportive statements. Powerade pulled the ad.
Twelve days later, Morant sat down with ESPN. The interview seemed designed to convince us that in less than two weeks Morant had reflected, repented, relearned, and reconstructed his coping mechanisms. He talked about therapy, anxiety breathing, reiki, and other tools he’s using to release his emotions from his body. He said his time in counseling taught him to “be there for myself” and “that it’s OK to be able to express my feelings.” That’s something Morant discussed in a 2021 interview with Taylor Rooks too, a reminder that, as Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said after Morant’s suspension, you can’t put a timetable on this kind of growth.
But the PR machine doesn’t have that kind of time. ESPN is already asking Morant to give advice to other people who are struggling with their mental health. It behooves the NBA to have one of its most popular players available for the playoffs, fresh off the redemption trail. And so Ja is once again left to toggle between person and persona, between taking accountability for his actions and growth and being who the league and its fans immediately want him to be. Morant, for his part, seems to understand this process will take time. “I’ve been there for two weeks, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely better,” Morant said Tuesday in his first press conference since returning to the team. “So that’s an ongoing process for me that I’ve still been continuing since I’ve come out.”
Even so, he has no choice but to live much of this out in public, to sell the idea of Ja 2.0—a perfectly well-adjusted version of himself—while he’s still working to become that person. These days, even Ja Morant seems to be projecting Ja Morant’s future potential, giving him another image to uphold while he’s still figuring how to manage the pressure he’s already living with.
It is a beautiful, dangerous thing to be as young, talented, and inspiring as Morant—to have a city, a team, a league, pin their hopes on who you could be while you’re still trying to figure out who you are. Even when you screw up, people will strain to see you how they want to see you. They will look for reasons to give you another chance, partially because they stand to benefit from your betterment, but also because they really believe in you.
No one knows, at this juncture, how things will unfold for Morant and the Grizzlies. We haven’t seen anything like this before—a superstar suspended from a contending team and checking himself into a counseling facility and returning two weeks later, for infractions that bent but didn’t break the law.
Morant got in just enough trouble to elicit concern while avoiding tragedy or arrest. Maybe that’ll be a silver lining. Morant sounds like someone who knows the steps he needs to take, but the recklessness of celebrity derives, in part, from often being inoculated from consequences.
Multiple things can be true: Ja screwed up. He has started to hold himself accountable. He is also still the gritty, prideful, plucky talent who fans across the world fell in love with, and his path to becoming “the Ja he [is] going to be” might differ from what the NBA PR machine wants. Morant, a dribbling representation of hope and perseverance, can make people believe in the inevitability of his progress, but the process of progress can’t be performed.