Suddenly, Everybody’s Ready For Ja Morant To Get Back On The Court
3:01 PM EDT on March 16, 2023
Not even a week ago, the idea of Ja Morant being sidelined for the rest of the NBA season seemed to be a real possibility. The fallout from his gun-flashing IG Live fiasco was still being felt when photos of his strip-club visit were released and another report about his habit of angrily confronting teens was published. There was a lot of noise around Morant, who went to Florida for a few days of counseling, and in-the-know reporters kept making vague allusions to there being more to his troubles. Everything being said or reported about Morant indicated very serious measures needed to be taken in order to rectify his tumultuous year.
So it was a bit of a shock yesterday when the NBA announced a retroactive suspension of eight games for the Grizzlies star, allowing him to be back on the court as early as March 20. It was just as surprising when ESPN, later the same day, released a teaser for a sit-down interview with Morant conducted by Jalen Rose. The full interview aired on last night's SportsCenter. Morant apparently only needed a two-day visit to Florida in order to fix whatever issues had ailed him. That's barely enough time to get through all the rides at Universal's Islands of Adventure, let alone counseling.
If there is anything to take away from Morant's interview, it's that he's ready to end this whole controversy so he can get back on the court. Though he alluded to having trouble dealing with stress and needing to talk to a therapist about what he'd been feeling, most of the interview was spent explaining that although he made mistakes with how he was moving with his friends and on his own, he is not the guy the media has made him out to be. He was unwilling to admit to anything related to the various reported confrontations he's had with people, other than saying that he just shouldn't have been in those positions.
Morant assured Rose that he's talking about his feelings now and working on "anxiety breathing," but it's pretty clear that his main focus was on preserving the brand power of Ja Morant, and on getting back to basketball. While it was nice to see Morant respond to some of the stories that have been reported and shed his own light on his troubling behavior, the interview never stretched beyond its obvious purpose: assuring everyone that Morant is just fine now and there is nothing to worry about. That's a hard sentiment to square with a recent report from The Athletic, which details how the Grizzlies prefer to leave road cities immediately after playing so as to cut down on opportunities to party.
ESPN, as partners with the NBA, has always played a role in helping athletes get their own narratives out there whenever necessary. First Take turned itself over to Magic Johnson after he unexpectedly quit his job as the Lakers' president of basketball operations, and Rachel Nichols once provided a place for Jimmy Butler to continue polishing his personal brand after his infamous practice blow-up with the Timberwolves.
It's no surprise that Rose was brought in to orchestrate things. He very famously had his own life thrown into the spotlight, and more importantly, he isn't an actual journalist. So when Morant did things like deny that the gun he flashed belonged to him, or say that many of the stories about him are not accurate, Rose could be counted on not to follow up. This is not to say that Rose is dumb—he absolutely did the interview he wanted to do—but that he was speaking to Morant as a former player reaching out to a current one in crisis in order to commiserate. This kind of conversation can have its own value, but in a moment when so many are unsure of what's actually going on with this guy and are worried about him, it feels lacking. You can't really go from flashing guns and allegedly trying to fight kids, to then admitting that you need serious help, only to announce a few days later that you're all good and ready to try and win the Western Conference.
Ultimately, this is just the nature of the big business of sports. Morant doesn't want to lose any more game checks or brand value, the Grizzlies don't want to give up on a potential title run, and the NBA doesn't want one of its most bankable stars sitting out when the games matter most. Morant may actually be in a much better place than he was a few days ago, or he may not be. Either way, the show goes on.
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