Mary Wainwright does not know Ja Morant, but she prays for him, worries about him and wishes she could sit down with the troubled young N.B.A. star to help “set him straight.”
Wainwright, a 64-year-old grandmother, is a community stalwart in Smokey City, the gunfire-strafed neighborhood in north Memphis. It is a short jog from FedExForum, the arena where Morant has worked magic during his four remarkable N.B.A. seasons starring at point guard for the Grizzlies.
Over that stretch, Morant has risen to the upper reaches of the N.B.A. firmament with little turbulence — until recently.
With his team battling for playoff position, Morant, 23, has been exiled for troubling off-court behavior that crested two weeks ago with the emergence of a video posted to social media that showed him brandishing what appeared to be a handgun at a Colorado strip club.
When will he return? The Grizzlies said he could be back on the court against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, though N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver, rightfully protective of his league’s image, may have other plans.
Among the clutch of young stars touted as future faces of the league, few, if any, have Morant’s daring on-court vibe — the jigsaw dribbling past stunned defenders; the shimmying, vaulting, dreads-flying dunks. The way he plays and his cocksure, beat-all-odds manner has led to a budding popularity in all corners of society.
That is why Morant’s situation is so important to think of in ways that go beyond hot takes about games missed or how his team will now fare in the playoffs. Gun violence touches every part of American society. But it has an outsize impact in Black and brown communities where Morant’s influence runs deepest.
And that is also why I reached out to Wainwright, a Black citizen deeply rooted in her community.
“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,” said Wainwright, who goes to church daily, keeps a watchful eye on the goings-on in Smokey City and attends two or three Grizzlies games a year, mainly to cheer Morant.
“We’ve just been through so much in this city,” she said, referring to the way violence continues to poison the streets and the January killing of Tyre Nichols by a group of Memphis police officers. “Ja and the Grizzlies have been something good to hold onto. But now this….”
Her voice trailed off.
In case you haven’t been paying close attention, the Colorado contretemps was the latest misstep to tarnish Morant’s reputation over the last several months.
A heated February game between the Grizzlies and the Pacers was marred by verbal confrontations between some of Indiana’s players and Morant’s father and friend. After, an allegation arose that someone in Morant’s vehicle trained a red laser, potentially from a gun, toward the Pacers’ bus.
The Washington Post detailed reports of a run-in with a security guard at a Memphis mall and of a fight with a teenager during a pickup game at Morant’s home. The fight ended, the teen told police, with Morant leaving and coming back with a gun. Morant denied the accusation and told police that the boy shouted the following threat as he fled: “I’m going to come back and light this place up like fireworks.”
None of this is good, of course. Not the message conveyed, normalizing aggression with guns. Not the optics for Morant, his team and the N.B.A.
“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,” Morant said in a written apology last week.
Thinking about this column, I shuddered, recalling the way violence has left scars on my extended family. I recalled my years as a city reporter gumshoeing some of the most distressed communities in America. I have witnessed more than my share of bullet-riddled bodies and interviewed more than my share of families shortly after a loved one had been murdered. I have watched the San Quentin execution of a man who shot and killed a housewife and a store owner.
Anyone brazenly flashing a gun angers me in a very personal way.
Searching for nuance about Morant, I reached a remarkable Memphis pastor, the Rev. Earle Fisher, of Abyssinian Baptist Church. We spoke of how some have branded Morant in the most unsparing terms possible. In some corners, he is now called a thug — and worse.
“For so many observers, it’s all one-dimensional,” Fisher said. “You are either a thug or 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 added. “But the idea that somehow this 23-year-old with millions of dollars is supposed to polish that edge in a short span of time and present himself, always, as some distinguished gentleman who never shows signs of his age, how does that make sense?”
It cannot be overlooked that to be young, Black and famous these days is to be ever aware of danger. There have been plenty of recent stories about young athletes being robbed at gunpoint. The former Celtics star Paul Pierce recently admitted he’d carried a gun, as is his right, because he felt he needed the protection after nearly being stabbed to death in a Boston nightclub.
Over the past few years, bright young rappers have been felled by bullets, including Young Dolph, who was shot to death at a cookie bakery four miles from the FedExForum last year.
To Morant, acting rough, tough and brazen may not have been just a form of pressure release, but a form of pre-emptive “don’t mess with me” self-defense.
I am not seeking to absolve Morant, but it is important to show a bit of the complexity of the situation he finds himself in, and the impact his choices can have on people who look like him.
Last week, I spoke with Mike Cummings, a former gang member better known in Watts as Big Mike and now heralded for his work to bring peace to his community. Big Mike gave it to me straight.
“What Ja did in Colorado makes my job much more difficult,” he said. “A lot of these young people I’m trying to reach, they see Ja, and they say: ‘See, Mike? He still got the hood in him, and he made it as a pro ballplayer. Mike, see? I don’t have to change. Why can’t I keep my gun?’”
I hope Morant reads that quote, just as I hope we extend him grace, and just as I pray he comes to grips with the fact that what he says and does carries deep weight, however heavy and burdensome.