By now, the spiraling behavior of NBA superstar Ja Morant that included multiple gun incidents and alleged physical altercations, one of which resulted in a civil lawsuit that remains ongoing, has been well chronicled by various reporters.
We know that in early March, Morant was filmed on Instagram Live while appearing to hold a handgun in a Denver-area nightclub, which landed him an eight-game suspension. We know that less than three months later, Morant was again caught on film while appearing to hold a handgun while riding in a car with friends, which landed him a 25-game suspension he’s set to serve at the start of this upcoming season, which will cost him nearly $8 million in lost salary.
What we didn’t necessarily know is the extent to which the Memphis Grizzlies were aware of, and troubled by, Morant’s behavior, and how potentially lax they were in addressing it before it was too late.
This is among the new information revealed in a comprehensive report published by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes and Tim MacMahon on Wednesday, which suggests the Grizzlies initially noticed a change, for the worse, in Morant’s behavior almost as soon as he entered the NBA, but didn’t do anything about it.
But some warning signs emerged early in his pandemic-shortened rookie season. Team sources said there were concerns about how frequently Morant, underage and often accompanied by his father, would go out drinking, and at some of Memphis’ seedier establishments and strip clubs, including on nights before games.
Throughout that 2021-22 season, during which Morant was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, a pattern emerged whenever the Grizzlies traveled. After landing, a Sprinter Van would often be waiting at the team hotel to shuttle Morant out for the evening with friends and family, whom he had flown into that city on a private jet, according to team sources. Morant would cover their lodging and foot the bill at establishments they visited. In some instances, team sources said, it wasn’t unusual for Morant to appear hungover, or to be late to team events the next day.
“There was no discipline,” another Grizzlies source said. “They felt like they could do anything they wanted. In my opinion, the enabling was out of control. Just constant. Definitely s— was swept under the rug.”
At this point, Morant was still on a rookie contract. He was rich by any standard, but not absurdly rich. That changed in 2022, when Morant signed a five-year, $194M deal after being named an All-Star starter.
Now, it wasn’t just the Grizzlies noticing a change in Morant. It was the people in the Memphis community, with one business owner recalling an incident in which Morant and/or his entourage threatened the life of a customer with whom they had gotten into a verbal altercation.
More from ESPN:
Around that same time, some in Memphis noticed a change in Morant. “He went from being a nice guy to every time you look up, the kid was always into it with somebody,” said one of the Memphis business owners whose establishments Morant had visited frequently. “A staff member, security, always wanting it his way. It’s just so much. I can’t say all of it. It just went bad, bro — like the way he carried himself. First, he told me he was coming with his best friend. The next thing, he started coming with an entourage. The next thing, he’s got a platinum grill in his mouth. The next thing, he’s into it with parking lot security because they won’t let him park somewhere.”
The second Memphis business owner said they’ve hosted just about every big name NBA player one could imagine. Yet, he said, Morant and his entourage became so challenging that, for the first time, the staff “hated” to see Morant and his group walk through the door. That businessperson recalled witnessing a verbal altercation where Morant and his associates “had gotten very disrespectful to a man’s wife. It got so bad that they actually started to threaten each other’s lives.”
Next up was an altercation at a Memphis mall in July of 2022, when Morant allegedly threatened a sneaker salesman who had gotten into a confrontation with Morant’s mother. According to ESPN, the mall’s head of security further alleged that Morant threatened and shoved him in the parking lot after the incident with the salesman.
Less than a week later, “a 17-year-old was allegedly struck by Morant and a friend.” That incident is still the matter of an ongoing civil lawsuit against Morant.
In September of 2022, after his sister got into an argument at a high school volleyball game, witnesses allege that Morant’s associates arrived with Morant and threatened a student.
And then there was January 29, 2023, when, per ESPN, “a postgame confrontation between acquaintances of Morant’s and members of the Indiana Pacers traveling party had led the Pacers to allege a red laser, perhaps attached to a gun, had been pointed at them from an SUV Morant was in.”
This was four incidents in six months, long before Morant was seen flashing a gun on multiple occasions, and finally, after the red-laser ordeal in Indiana, Grizzlies general manager Zach Kleiman and head coach Taylor Jenkins confronted Morant, telling him, according to ESPN, that he was “f—ing up.”
The Grizzlies had tried sending this message before. One league insider said Morant had been told cautionary tales about Steve Francis and Allen Iverson, legendary players whose off-court actions at times distracted from their talent and limited their NBA longevity.
“The message just wasn’t getting through,” said a former NBA player who said he’s also tried to talk to Morant on several occasions. “He just wasn’t in a place to hear anything.”
Before his conduct began to threaten his availability, the Grizzlies had sought to avoid friction, in part because Morant was playing at an All-NBA level, and the Grizzlies were still winning.
That justification — according to interviews with Grizzlies staffers and sources close to the team — was often used when Morant’s private life spilled into public view.
In other words, Morant and the Grizzlies were playing well. It’s a tale as old as time: when an athlete is performing, he or she can get away with a lot more. Perhaps Morant knew as much, as ESPN’s report notes Morant looking at Kleiman and Jenkins following their conversation and “expressed disinterest — then apathy.”
For Morant’s part, his agent denies Morant didn’t take the talk seriously, calling it “grossly inaccurate to say that Ja’s response to any meetings with the Grizzlies has ever been dismissive.”
Nonetheless, if Morant did take the message seriously, he didn’t change his behavior, which only spiraled from there with the two Instagram gun incidents.
The Grizzlies, perhaps, did the bare minimum in an attempt to reach Morant without upsetting the good basketball vibes and steer him back in a positive direction, but they never punished him. The NBA had to step in and do that, first with the eight-game suspension and now with the 25 games he’ll miss to start this season.
“When you have a superstar, you make a deal with the devil,” a team source told ESPN. “You sign up for them, and everything that comes with them.”