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“Is A Basketball A Lethal Weapon?” And “Is Pulling Up Your Shorts A Fighting Stance?” Among Stupid Questions At Issue In Ja Morant Hearing

3:48 PM EST on December 12, 2023

Ja Morant demonstrates check ball situation for his attorney.
Screenshot: WMC-TV

Ja Morant doesn't dispute that he punched a teenager at a pickup basketball game the Grizzlies star hosted at his family home in the summer of 2022. The punched teen, Joshua Holloway, 17 years old at the time of the incident, sued Morant last September. Morant filed a countersuit this April, accusing Holloway of assault, battery and slander. Morant's legal team is now arguing that the case should be dismissed under Tennessee's "self-defense immunity" statute, which a Shelby County Circuit judge ruled last month could apply to a civil suit.

Morant is serving out the final week of his 25-game suspension for flashing a gun in an Instagram Live video. But he squeezed some drills in on Monday at the civil immunity hearing, where he educated the courtroom on the assorted codes and risks of pickup basketball, complete with demonstrations. The hearing promised thrilling action from the start. Reporters covering the case noticed each legal team walk into the courtroom with their own basketball. Keenan Carter, Morant's lawyer, brought a Grizzlies-branded ball, black and white with gold seams. Rebecca Adelman, an attorney for Holloway, went old-school with an orange Spalding.

In his testimony, Morant described a typical pickup game at "211," the address of the house next door to his, where his parents and sister now live. (Morant previously lived in 211, he said, which is why the Morant family's full-sized basketball court is there, and not at his current residence, 220.) "I think the word that we use now is a vibe," he said. Music played, the assembled friends and/or local teens could grab drinks from a cooler stocked with water and Powerade, and Morant's parents served a meal to everyone at the end of the night. "Pickup," Morant explained to Judge Carol Chumney at Carter's request, "is, I would say, kind of similar as a normal NBA game or organized basketball game. It's just kind of held different. I feel like the only difference is, it's no referees, so you pretty much call your own fouls. You actually set a target score for the winner. You have rules when it's a tie, when it's close to winning. Then you have check ball situations that pretty much happens at any dead ball, so foul call, ball go out of bounds, someone get hurt, pretty much all that stuff."

Check ball etiquette is the very silly matter in question, and the focus of Morant's testimony, which I have transcribed in small part here:

Carter: Why do you check the ball? What's the purpose of it?

Morant: Pretty much just to make sure everybody's ready to go, ready to play before you resume the game.

Carter called on Morant to demonstrate, handing him the Grizzlies basketball, and asking him some questions about the logistics of checking the ball before the two exchanged chest passes.

Carter: I'm assuming I'm guarding you. Once you throw the ball at me, what should I do?

Morant: You should turn to look and make sure everybody's ready on the court, especially your teammates.

Carter: I should just check. That's why it's called a check ball?

Morant: Yeah.

[...]

Carter: So at 211, once I play the ball back to you, is it live or do you have to pass it to a teammate?

Morant: At 211, we pass it to a teammate.

Carter: How do you normally—bounce pass? Chest pass?

Morant: You can do it either way. Bounce pass or chest pass.

Morant said later on the stand that Holloway did it neither way in the moments before the punch. The teen had been guarding him that day and seemed frustrated by the way the games had been going, Morant said. When it was time for Holloway to check to start a new game, he instead placed the ball at Morant's feet, which Morant considered a sign of disrespect. Morant rolled the basketball to Holloway, who rolled the basketball back to Morant. Morant then chest-passed the ball to Holloway, and Holloway lobbed the ball into the left side of Morant's face. "Getting hit in the face with a basketball hurts," Morant's countersuit says. "For a professional point guard like Mr. Morant, an injury to the eyes or nose could be career ending." Morant said that when Holloway made no attempt to apologize for the hard pass, Morant asked him, "What you on?" and Holloway pulled up his shorts. "Him pulling up his shorts, where I'm from, that's a fighting stance," Morant said. And so, as the countersuit says, Morant "hit Counter-Defendant once in self-defense, attempting to protect both his person and his career."

In her cross-examination, Adelman asked Morant whether a basketball was "a lethal weapon," requiring some kind of defense from Morant. She set up her own check ball demonstration, and Morant walked her through the incident again. Per the Memphis Commercial Appeal's account, Adelman repeated the passing sequence, each time faster than the last. She committed to the bit by then asking Morant to punch her, which he declined to do.

Adelman had been feeling it since her opening statement, when she demonstrated "the type of force that came at Holloway" by sharing an image of Morant dunking over Kevin Love and playing a highlight video of Morant's best dunks. "Look at that arm," she said. "That’s what he does, Your Honor."

The hearings continue today and Wednesday, with some of Morant's relatives and Holloway expected to testify. If the suit is not dismissed, a trial could begin in April.

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