This week, the Denver Nuggets swept the Los Angeles Lakers in a best-of-seven series to become the NBA Western Conference champs. I know this the same way Ja Morant knows this: I watched the series on television. But, unlike Ja Morant, I was always slated to watch the games from afar. Morant, on the other hand, mighta shoulda woulda coulda been participating in the Western Conference Finals against the Nuggets as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. Except, he never made it to Denver in the postseason.
The last time we saw Morant in Denver, in early March of this year, he was in a strip club holding up a gun, after losing a game to the now Western Conference champs—just one of many acts of career self-sabotage the young point guard has pulled in recent years. After the incident, the Grizzlies suspended him for eight games, the strippers at the club clowned and vilified him, and NBA talking heads—the oft-annoying and condescending peanut gallery of self-important former players, low-key jealous junior varsity rejects, and know-it-all whyte men—spoke about and to Morant in terms that were both caringly avuncular and admonishingly paternal. There were performative pleas and authoritative warnings. It was—in a multi-billion-dollar industry that rewards individual achievement and burnishes ego while revolving around power and control yet masquerading as a wholesome venture of team identities and human stories—the equivalent of the village coming together to put their arms around a straying youngster to guide him back on the path; most notably, the path that keeps the checks flowing from endorsements and sponsors.
We can be honest and admit that the NBA's language of suspending the point guard for “conduct detrimental to the league” means he was f**king up the bag.
Morant's sit-down with Jalen Rose—a former player who won the Most Improved Player Award the same year Morant was learning to walk—was branded as an ESPN "exclusive" and seemed scripted to protect the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies organization, and the young star from legal issues surrounding him flashing a gun in an open carry state. The level of Rose and Morant's relationship outside of this interview isn't something most of us know, but one hopes the two bonded over hair care routines and tips enough to text each other memes and speak in emojis on a regular basis, as opposed to simply acting through a play of indemnity for the cameras. Because we're really talking about Ja Morant all wrong.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we've stopped talking about him, for the most part. We've moved on to the upcoming NBA Finals, with the feel-good team story of the Denver Nuggets earning their first Western Conference Finals championship. We've moved on to the story of the Miami Heat—the eighth seed in the East—being on the cusp of a conference championship. Both of these things are historic "firsts" in the NBA. Historic firsts underscored by the sub-plot that the Boston Celtics will likely join the Lakers in a swift and definitive elimination in the final round before the Finals, leaving the two winningest teams in NBA history on the outside looking in.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because when he received his massive contract extension, he posted an image of a fictional drug dealer and we didn't think about our own enamoration with ego and wealth, with anti-heroes and bad guys.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we aren't talking enough about how quickly last year's Most Improved Player switched lanes from being one of the faces of the NBA's future to being a cautionary tale. We're talking about him all wrong because we aren't investigating our own relationships with how easily we treat our heroes as disposable because the distraction-industrial complex will give us another. If we don't want to embrace one of the rising European faces in whyte (Nikola Jokic, Luka Dončić) or Black (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Wembanyama), we can point fingers at Ja and feel better about ourselves for having been denied a great American hero in an American sport.
We can point fingers at Ja and feel better about ourselves because we would never do such things. We say we would never do such things, as if we haven't stayed in relationships that, from afar, have seemingly outlasted their usefulness simply because we were scared of growing. We act as if we know how we would react if we were given an obscene amount of damned-near guaranteed money in our early 20s for doing something most of us would love to have the time to do for free. We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because when he received his massive contract extension, he posted an image of a fictional drug dealer and we didn't think about our own enamoration with ego and wealth, with anti-heroes and bad guys.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we love rap metaphors about rappers keeping shooters around them like NBA players, but get all concerned when a young NBA player keeps actual shooters around them. We act as if Ja—at all of 23—is not as much a fan of rap songs about infrared beams as many of us are. We are the same people who, less than a year ago, mourned the senseless death of Takeoff without accepting how much of his own lyrics idolized gun-toting activities.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're ducking the hard and uncomfortable conversations.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we want things to be one way, when they're really one way and many others simultaneously. We don't want to contradict ourselves and say it's incorrect to say Ja and his Memphis Grizzlies would have defeated the Lakers. He mighta. They coulda. But NBA games—especially in these postseason series—are things of wild fluctuations caused by strategic adjustments, injuries, ejections, and the wills of the basketball gods. The Grizzlies themselves had been handily blown out by 40 points in Game 6 to end the series. Otherwise, there woulda been a good redemption story in Ja triumphing in Denver over Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and crew in the same city where he most pivotally injured his own career. There mighta been a continuation of the budding—if purportedly one-sided—rivalry between the Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors in the Semifinals.
We love these stories.
We love these stories and we're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're not admitting that the uncertainty of the NBA is what we enjoy. National sports games are a communal social object unlike any other—we can talk our predictive s**t, but the ending of things is not written by anyone but the basketball gods. Especially now—as a Hollywood writers strike is underway and the intermediate future of our scripted entertainment remains to be seen—sporting events are the stories we gather around the digital fires of our screens to share across time zones, races, and political beliefs. The tales of the NBA are not man-made, as the league simply takes what the gods have given them and tries to package it in the most entertaining (and profitable) narrative possible. Sporting events are religion unto themselves.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're not ready to talk about ourselves.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we aren't coming to terms with how we worship trash-talking, and how we let Ja's consistent trash-talking slide because he's an offensive marvel who is beautiful to watch. The league's biggest trash-talkers of this era—the Warriors' Draymond Green, the itinerant Patrick Beverley, and Morant's newly-former teammate Dillon Brooks—are amongst the most annoying players in the NBA because their prowess is on defense. Ja, on the other hand, will get his family jewels in an opposing player's face during a dunk and then talk more ish than Tupac at the end of "Hit 'Em Up." His mix of play and signifying is nigh-holy.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're not collectively recalling why we love the two-time All-Star in the first place.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're so busy being holier than thou that we've stopped talking about how well the young man plays the game of basketball. Well before Ja cryptically announced a break from social media, he had become a trending punchline and meme for his love of guns way more than his actions within the 94' x 50' rectangle of hardwood that hosts his acts of magnificence. We had stopped talking about the ability of his quick feet and springy legs to turn attempts at charge fouls by defenders into posters in the games he's allowed to play (which may be less next season than any other campaign of his professional career) in order to turn his misfortunes into laughs. We don't say as much that we love paying attention to him because he's as reckless and thrilling on the court as he is self-sabotaging and dangerous off of it. We're not talking about how his self-inflicted wounds provide the same sense of self-righteousness that we get from watching reality TV—of watching people with more resources than us waste them.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're mainly condemning and criticizing instead of empathizing and sincerely inquiring.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we were more invested in making jokes about being fine in the West than we are in admitting that those of us who are impressed by beautiful women and want to impress them back have said much more with a whole lot less to back it up to women as beautiful as Malika Andrews.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're busier making memes and jokes for the 'Gram and not seeing that Ja's biggest career L's are coming from him fronting for the 'Gram until it was enough for him to say goodbye with such finality that the police had to show up at his door to make sure he wasn’t intent on gaming himself. I took what some of us saw as a suicide note to acknowledge that Ja's problems may stem more from issues of clout-chasing than gun-brandishing—even if the two are wrapped around his misfortunes like the snakes of a caduceus. We weren't ready for that conversation. And we're still not ready for the conversation about how nine figures of money and the adoration of millions can't fill up whatever is missing inside.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we, like the NBA, are too concerned about f**king up the bag and not concerned enough about the choices we are making while passing judgment on the choices Ja Morant is making. We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're not being honest that our reactions to his choices are largely being filtered in capitalist terms.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're not truly ready to put our arms around him when we aren't willing to look at what our own hands have done. We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're talking about all the wrong things when we talk about Ja Morant—if we're even still talking about Ja Morant. We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're not ready to talk about ourselves. We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're trying to act as if these conversations are clean with one answer and when these things are messy and circle back on themselves and intertwine with our daily decisions, our blind spots, our growing edges, and the things we should be talking about with our therapists.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're not looking at him as someone like us, who sometimes gets overwhelmed by the self-imposed false accountability to strangers that’s demanded by social media.
We're talking about Ja Morant all wrong because we're looking for easy answers and talking about him like he is a thing out there and not a person who, like us, had to watch the Denver Nuggets sweep the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals from a distance.
Editor's note: This essay was written before Instagram posts to Ja Morant's account on May 24, 2023 caused concern for his well-being. It has been amended to include this update.