Despite not knowing Ja Morant, Mary Wainwright worries about him, prays for him, and wishes she could have a conversation with the troubled young NBA player to “set him straight.”
Grandma Wainwright, 64, is a pillar of the Smokey City community in north Memphis, which has been repeatedly shelled by gunfire. It is only a short distance from FedExForum, where Morant has excelled as a point guard for the Grizzlies throughout his four illustrious NBA seasons.
Morant rose to the top of the NBA firmament during that time with little turbulence — until recently, that is.
Morant, 23, has been suspended for his problematic off-court behavior, which peaked two weeks ago with the release of a video shared to social media showing him brandishing what seemed to be a weapon at a Colorado strip club. His team was competing for a playoff spot at the time.
When is he due back? The Grizzlies stated that he may return to the court on Friday against the San Antonio Spurs, but N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver, who is understandably protective of his league’s reputation, might have other ideas.
Few, if any, of the group of young players hailed as the league’s future faces possess Morant’s daring on-court style, which includes his jigsaw dribbling past bewildered opponents and his shimmying, vaulting, and dreads-flying dunks. His playing style and confident, “beat the odds” demeanor have helped him gain a growing following throughout society.
Because of this, it’s crucial to consider Morant’s predicament in ways that go beyond quick judgments about the games that were missed or how his team will perform going forward in the playoffs. In America, gun violence affects every aspect of society. But in Black and Brown neighborhoods, where Morant’s influence is strongest, it has a disproportionately large impact.
And for the same reason, I got in touch with Wainwright, a Black woman with strong ties to her neighborhood.
Wainwright, who regularly attends church, keeps a close eye on events in Smokey City, and attends two or three Grizzlies games annually, primarily to support Morant, said, “Now you got young kids out there who are stirring up trouble, and they see him flashing a gun, and that just does more to convince them doing that is cool.”
“We’ve just been through so much in this city,” she said, referring to the ongoing crime that blights the streets and the January murder of Tyre Nichols by a squad of Memphis police officers. “The Grizzlies and Ja have been nice things to hang onto. But this now.
Her speech became halting.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Morant’s reputation has been damaged over the past few months, and the Colorado controversy was the most recent slip-up.
Verbal altercations between some Indiana players and Morant’s father and a friend disrupted a tense February game between the Grizzlies and the Pacers. Following, there was a claim that someone in Morant’s car pointed a red laser at the Pacers bus, possibly from a gun.
In-depth accounts of a run-in with a security guard at a Memphis mall and a brawl with a teenager during a pickup game at Morant’s house were published in The Washington Post. The fight stopped when Morant left and returned with a gun, the adolescent informed the police. Morant refuted the charge and informed the authorities that the child yelled the following threat as he rushed away: “I’m going to come back and light this place up like fireworks.”
Of course, none of this is good. Normalizing hostility with weapons is not the message being sent. Not in the best interest of Morant, his team, or the NBA.
In a written apology last week, Morant stated, “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.”
I shivered when I thought about this essay and the wounds that violence has left on my extended family. I thought back to my time spent as a city reporter investigating some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in America. I’ve seen more than my fair share of bodies with bullet wounds, and I’ve spoken with more than my fair share of grieving families. I witnessed a man who shot and killed a housewife and a store owner be executed at San Quentin.
I have a deep personal rage against anyone who shamelessly flashes a gun.
When I was looking for details regarding Morant, I got in touch with the Rev. Earle Fisher of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis. We discussed how some people have criticized Morant in the worst ways possible. He is now referred to be a thug and worse in some circles.
It’s all one-dimensional for so many onlookers, Fisher remarked. “You are either a thug or you are an athlete, performing at the highest levels, with no bad days or mistakes.”
“Fans celebrate Ja for that brashness on court, that chutzpah, that edge,” he continued. But how does it make sense that this 23-year-old with millions of money is expected to sharpen that edge quickly and constantly present himself as a dignified gentleman who never displays signs of his age?
It is undeniable that being young, Black, and prominent today means being always alert to risk. Numerous reports of teenage sportsmen being robbed at gunpoint have surfaced recently. Paul Pierce, a former Celtics great, recently acknowledged that he had carried a revolver, as is legal, because he thought that he required the protection after almost being fatally stabbed in a Boston nightclub.
Young Dolph, who was shot to death outside a cookie factory four miles from the FedExForum last year, was one of the talented young rappers who have fallen victim to gunfire over the previous few years.
Morant may not have merely used rough, harsh, and brash behavior as a way to relieve pressure, but rather as a type of proactive “don’t mess with me” self-defense.
I’m not trying to clear Morant; rather, I think it’s vital to highlight the complexity of his predicament and the potential effects of his decisions on individuals who look like him.
A former gang member in Watts known as Big Mike who is now praised for his efforts to bring peace to his neighborhood was the subject of our conversation last week. Big Mike told me the truth.
He continued, “What Ja did in Colorado makes my job much more challenging. Many of the young kids I’m attempting to influence hear Ja say, “See, Mike? He still had some hood in him and succeeded as a professional baseball player. See, Mike? I don’t need to alter. Why can’t I keep my firearm?
I wish that Morant understands that everything he says and does, however difficult and burdensome, has a profound impact. I hope he reads that quote, just as I hope we show mercy to him.