‘Then the alligators got him’: Inside Ja Morant’s 18-month downfall


ON FEB. 18, 2022, Memphis Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant was on a private jet en route to Cleveland for the All-Star Game, surrounded by friends and family. The occasion was momentous, and he decided to chronicle it.

Before taking his seat, he began streaming on Instagram Live. He settled in, stretched his legs and inquired about a deck of cards. He bantered with his grandmother.

Then, Morant grabbed a bottle of Clase Azul Tequila, one of the most expensive tequila brands in the world. With 10,500 people watching, he propped up his phone near a window, held the oversized white bottle at his side with both hands and aimed it at the phone, cocking the bottle back and forth, like a machine gun. He then did the same with a bottle of Casamigos tequila.

“Choose your poison,” he said.

Soon after, Morant panned the camera toward Kevin Helms, the Grizzlies’ head of team security, who is often by Morant’s side. “Kev, say what up Kev,” Morant said. Helms, sitting in a different row, flashed a peace sign.

“Y’all see my dog rocking that MBNO,” Morant said of Helms, referencing the logo on his hooded sweatshirt. Those letters are tattooed on Morant’s stomach and stand for “My Brothers No Others,” a moniker for those in his inner circle and a clothing brand led by his childhood friend Davonte Pack, who sat nearby.

The livestream continued, as tequila was passed around the plane.

“Y’all babysitting that bottle?” Morant asked the group behind him.

Morant then asked viewers to come to the MBNO pop-up in Cleveland, which the Grizzlies’ verified Instagram account commented on with four flame emojis.

Bottles continued to be shared. “I’m trying to get the bottle,” Morant said. “They’re babysitting the bottle.” He’s handed one, and he takes a long pull.

“Oh man, we was lit,” Morant later said of the flight.

It was that weekend, multiple sources in and around the Grizzlies organization said, that some early warning signs became habitual. When concerns around the team and league deepened. And it is when, sources said, Morant’s misconduct accelerated, becoming more frequent and public.

In the 18 months since, more serious allegations have surfaced. Lawsuits and subpoenas have been filed and remain open. It is a period in which a 22-year-old rising superstar struggling with the excesses of fame has become a 24-year-old man whose actions are jeopardizing his career.

“He went to that first All-Star Game,” one team source said, “and then the alligators got him.”

THE JA MORANT now mentioned in court documents and police reports, and the subject of multiple NBA suspensions, is not, according to Grizzlies insiders, scouts and Memphis business owners who interacted with him frequently, the Ja Morant who entered the league just four years ago.

Before being drafted by the Grizzlies with the No. 2 overall pick in 2019, scouting reports on the high-flying point guard out of mid-major Murray State revealed little in the way of red flags.

“Zero,” said one veteran NBA scout who scouted Morant for a lottery team in position to draft him. “He was the consummate coachable teammate, a choirboy. Underrecruited. Didn’t have many scholarship offers. Played with a chip on his shoulder. Glowing stuff. Nothing. There was absolutely nothing.”

Said a second veteran NBA scout: “I studied him inside and out. There was not one person who had a bad thing to say about him. Very much a late bloomer. Good family. Had a work ethic. Humble. He checked every single box.”

In their Morant scouting reports, which were reviewed by ESPN, his coaches in high school and at Murray State offered glowing remarks on the court and, notably, away from it. His high school coach, Dwayne Edwards, of Crestwood High School in Sumter, South Carolina, said that Morant had no off-the-court issues. An AAU coach of Morant’s said Morant’s father didn’t interfere and would always support his son. A Murray State assistant coach, James Kane, said Morant didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and created no issues. Murray State head coach Matt McMahon said he’d had no problems with Morant. Others around the team praised his work ethic, commitment in the weight room and the film room. They said he was respectful, humble, tough, coachable. That he could be silly but nothing problematic, a leader, a gym rat, unfazed by fame.

They missed him.

During his first season in Memphis, there were positive returns, with Grizzlies staff passing along intel to scouts that the eventual Rookie of the Year was always asking questions and great to work with. Morant established himself in just his third NBA game, scoring 17 of his 30 points in a comeback fourth quarter, blocking a potential winning shot from Kyrie Irving and tallying the winning assist on a buzzer-beating overtime winner over the Brooklyn Nets.

“It’s just my edge,” he said then. “The chip I have on my shoulder from what I had to go through to get to the NBA. My dad always told me that I was trained to go, basically that I’m built for the moment. And my mom always told me I’m beneath no one.” After that game, he went home to watch film with his mom and dad, as he often did.

Around Memphis, some who interacted often with Morant and his father, Tee, felt similarly. “They were very humble and respectful people,” said one longtime Memphis business owner whose establishments Morant and his father frequented. “They would never overstep the boundaries. Easy to talk to. The customers enjoyed them. It started like that.”

Said another Memphis businessperson who frequently interacted with Morant: “He would always kind of come off very humble. He would ask questions, ‘Man, if you don’t mind, can I have a seat right there?’ Very courteous.”

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.”

On the court, though, Morant was electrifying, almost single-handedly fueling the Grizzlies into contention. He led the team to a 22-win improvement by just his third season — while authoring high-flying acrobatic dunks that lit up social media on an almost nightly basis.

By February 2022, Morant made his first All-Star appearance and became just the second Grizzlies player ever to be named an NBA All-Star starter.

Five months later, Morant signed a five-year, $194 million deal, the biggest contract in franchise history.

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.”

ZACH KLEIMAN AND Taylor Jenkins stewed as they walked into a hotel room in early February 2023. Before them was Ja Morant, their superstar, the hope and future of the Memphis Grizzlies — and a man on the precipice, his very career swirling in question.

Days earlier, 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. The NBA had launched an investigation.

For too long, years even, Kleiman, the Grizzlies’ general manager, and Jenkins, the team’s head coach, had — along with others in the organization — struggled to get through to Morant. But his conduct had become increasingly troubling, moving far beyond early concerns of their star enjoying the nightlife too much.

Now, they had reached a tipping point.

Inside the hotel room, the two men tried to convey to Morant how his conduct had become a major concern, how it had impacted the team he was supposed to lead. Facing the then-23-year-old, their message, said one team insider, was simple:

You’re f—ing up.

Grizzlies brass believed there had been more than enough incidents already to warrant such a meeting and such a message.

Like the July 22, 2022, altercation at a Memphis mall, where a sneaker store salesperson and Morant’s mother allegedly engaged in a heated confrontation, after which the salesperson said that Morant and several friends showed up and threatened him. (Later, the mall’s head of security alleged that Morant threatened and shoved him in the parking lot.) Or an altercation less than a week later at Morant’s house, where a 17-year-old was allegedly struck by Morant and a friend, leading to an ongoing civil lawsuit. Or a Sept. 22, 2022, incident, when Morant’s sister engaged in an argument in the stands of a high school volleyball game, after which Morant, his family members and others arrived, leading to an altercation in which witnesses allege that one of Morant’s associates threatened a student. Or the Jan. 29, 2023, postgame confrontation with the Pacers — after which the NBA’s investigation “could not corroborate” that a gun had been involved. There had been four public incidents in the past six months.

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.

The Grizzlies declined to comment for this story. Privately, some in the organization believe they have taken consistent, direct action within the limits of the collective bargaining agreement to address Morant’s off-court behavior. However, other team employees said those efforts didn’t go far enough. Teams walk a fine line with superstars, and the Grizzlies were keenly aware of that reality.

“He’s the biggest star we’ve had since Elvis,” said Geoff Calkins, a longtime Memphis columnist.

Back inside that hotel room, the pleasantries were over. “Sometimes you have to have hard conversations,” said another team source.

Morant looked at Kleiman and Jenkins and expressed disinterest — then apathy.

The meeting ended as uncomfortably as it began, a superstar unwilling to acknowledge conduct his employer had spent years attempting to manage.

“As everyone is aware, Ja and the Grizzlies have had several meetings throughout this year,” Morant’s agent, Jim Tanner, wrote in a statement to ESPN. “In each of these meetings the Grizzlies have been clear with their expectations while being supportive of Ja’s efforts to work on himself on and off the court. … It is grossly inaccurate to say that Ja’s response to any meetings with the Grizzlies has ever been dismissive.”

Morant’s response, multiple team sources said, deepened fear across the organization that the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant problem would not only continue — but worsen.

“When you have a superstar, you make a deal with the devil,” said a team source. “You sign up for them, and everything that comes with them.”

WEEKS AFTER THAT meeting, the Grizzlies saw their concerns explode onto the national scene.

After beating the Rockets in Houston on March 1, the Grizzlies flew out that night for Denver. Once they landed, Morant headed to a nightclub named Shotgun Willie’s in Glendale, Colorado.

A club source told the New York Post that Morant arrived with a friend and two security guards at 1:30 a.m., and photos provided to the Post showed a stripper straddling Morant and cash spread across almost every surface in the room.

After the Grizzlies lost to the Nuggets on March 3, Morant returned to the club, where he broadcast himself on Instagram Live, starting at 3:19 a.m. local time while appearing to hold a handgun. By 7 a.m. ET, the blowback was so serious, Morant was on the phone to his agent trying to figure out how to save his career.

Within hours, Morant deactivated his social media accounts, put out a statement taking responsibility for his actions and apologized to his team, community and fans. Instead of traveling to Los Angeles on the team plane, Morant packed his things from his hotel room and flew to Florida, according to sources, where he began an 11-day stay at a private counseling facility.

“Ja’s conduct was irresponsible, reckless and potentially very dangerous,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a statement.

The NBA issued an eight-game suspension to Morant, which included the six games he had already missed. Morant had been away from the team, though the Grizzlies didn’t categorize the absence as a suspension. Morant returned to action with the Grizzlies later that month.

The day before his return, he addressed the media and his time away. Standing in front of a Grizzlies backdrop, Morant cut off a question about how alcohol had influenced his decision-making. “I don’t got an alcohol problem, never had an alcohol problem,” Morant said.

The NBA’s statement that Adam Silver put out concluded you were intoxicated in Denver … is that something that came up in your conversation?

“I just … I don’t have an alcohol problem, never had an alcohol problem,” Morant repeated. “I went [to the Florida facility] for counseling, to learn how to manage stress, cope with stress in a positive way, instead of ways I’ve tried to deal with it before that caused me to make mistakes.”

Beyond what happened in Denver, you and your friends have been accused of a couple of things that do involve a gun … is there an issue that needs to be addressed within you and your circle?

Morant smirked. “No,” he said. “Not at all.”

While Morant was away, the team made changes. The rap soundtrack played during the team’s layup lines was replaced by R&B songs, prompting Jaren Jackson Jr. to playfully complain in the locker room postgame about being forced to “warm up to love songs.” The pregame hype video played before starting lineup introductions was edited to remove lyrics of the Trippie Redd song “Psycho,” playing only the bass-thumping beat.

The original version of the video showed fast-paced highlights, beginning with a spectacular Morant dunk over an opposing big man, during the hook of the song.

Goin’ dumb, goin’ crazy (goin’ crazy)
Goin’ dumb, goin’ crazy
Goin’ dumb, yeah, goin’ crazy
Goin’ dumb (Goin’ dumb), out my mind (Out my mind)
Chasin’ dollar signs (Dollar signs), sippin’ red wine (Red wine)
We all losin’ time (Losin’ time)
Bae, don’t lose your mind (Lose your mind)

In Trippie Redd’s music video for the song, he’s partying in a strip club, throwing cash that covers the floor, a scene reminiscent of Morant’s night at Shotgun Willie’s.

When the suspension ended, Tee Morant returned to his courtside seats, across from the Grizzlies’ bench, wearing a hoodie that featured a picture of his son with the word “REDEMPTION” written across it. By 2023, Morant had bought such seats at home and on the road for his father, uncle and friends, but it was his father who became the most visible presence.

Tee moved to Memphis a week after his son was drafted and enjoyed the spoils of his son’s rise to superstardom, hosting VIP events and parties at nightclubs, with television cameras often panning toward him. Tee also confronted former NFL player Shannon Sharpe at a Jan. 20, 2023, game in Los Angeles, and he argued with Pacers players during a Grizzlies’ Jan. 29 home game. Tee’s presence, and the spate of incidents, dismayed some in the Grizzlies organization, team sources said.

Attorneys representing Tee Morant did not respond to a request for comment.

“Tee has been a major driving force in all of this,” one team source said. “He never made the NBA, but this was his chance to live like he’s an NBA superstar. That’s been a problem from the beginning.”

ON SATURDAY, MAY 13 — some 10 weeks after the Instagram Live video from Shotgun Willie’s — Morant was back with Pack, in a car, the two swaying side to side while music from the rapper NBA YoungBoy — a favorite of Morant’s — blared.

Live on Instagram, Morant occupied the passenger seat, with Pack behind the wheel, and the two seem lost in the music, heads bobbing, reciting lyrics, posing for the audience of 111 viewers. Pack, streaming the scene, panned toward Morant, who appeared to be holding a gun.

Almost instantly Pack pointed the phone toward the floor of the car. But the image of Morant went viral, even after the video was deleted from Pack’s account. By Sunday morning, the Grizzlies announced that Morant would be suspended indefinitely from all team activities, while the NBA announced that it was in the process of gathering more information.

It was the second incident of its kind in less than three months, the seventh overall in 10. On June 16, the league announced that Morant would be suspended for the first 25 games of the season. With a yearly salary of approximately $34 million, or roughly $309,000 per game, Morant will forfeit nearly $7.7 million.

When the punishment was handed down, Silver put out a blistering statement, calling Morant’s conduct “alarming and disconcerting” and “reckless and irresponsible,” specifically noting the kids who look up to him. Silver said basketball needed to take a back seat for Morant, and that for him to return to play, he’d be required to fulfill a program with the league that addressed the circumstances that led him to “repeat this destructive behavior.” The same day, Morant issued another statement to the league, the Grizzlies, his teammates and the city of Memphis, apologizing for the harm he’d caused.

“To the kids who look up to me, I’m sorry for failing you as a role model,” the statement said. “I promise I’m going to be better. To all of my sponsors, I’m going to be a better representation of our brands. And to all of my fans, I’m going to make it up to you, I promise.”

The Grizzlies, in a statement of their own, said they supported the league’s decision to suspend Morant for more than a quarter of the season. In June, Kleiman, the Grizzlies’ GM, called the suspension “appropriate.”

“At this point, it doesn’t matter until he follows through,” Kleiman said then. “I couldn’t care less about words. Ja has to prove it.”

A MEMPHIS BUSINESS owner sat inside an air-conditioned restaurant on a sweltering late June weekday in the city where he was born and raised. Over an hour and a half, he tried to convey the damage Morant’s actions have caused his struggling city.

Morant represented hope, he said, but waving a gun on social media in a city on pace for its highest crime rate since the FBI began publishing nationwide crime reports in 1995? The businessperson, who has interacted with Morant on several occasions, shook his head, dismayed at the example it sets. He called Morant’s demise “devastating” and commented on Morant’s 25-game suspension.

“Not enough,” he said.

“I’m not against Ja. I’m just against the foolishness,” he continued. “Like, why? That’s my problem. I would love for him to become a billionaire in our city, because I know what it would mean in our city. You don’t get these kinds of draft picks every time you turn around. … At this point, he knows he’s richer than we are and he feels he’s bigger than we are … but the opportunity you have is a great one. Time is not on your side. I can only see, at the end of this thing, that he’ll have a lot of regret.”

Three months later, on Sept. 5, a nearly minutelong video from Morant’s close friend and photographer/videographer Jnie Williams, from his social handle, Shot by Nie, showed Morant working out in a white T-shirt that reads “gratitude” — and previous posts of his showed Morant in shirts that read “rebirth” and “accountability.”

At the end of the video, Morant was seated between Pack — who was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault in late July — and his father, Tee.

MORANT DIDN’T PARTICIPATE in the Grizzlies’ Oct. 2 media day, the cloud of his public absence hanging over every conversation. Morant, a two-time All-Star, will, according to the organization, be permitted to practice and travel with the team during his suspension. But Marcus Smart and Derrick Rose, veteran guards the Grizzlies acquired to play key roles and hopefully be positive influences on Morant, both plainly stated they are willing to “push” the franchise’s star but “not here to babysit.” Team sources said the organization remains concerned about Morant’s lifestyle.

When asked to outline the Grizzlies’ plans to prevent any additional off-court problems for Morant, particularly on the road, Kleiman demurred.

“On Ja, everything else I’m going to keep internal [regarding] what the approach is going to be,” he said. “I would again just say I think he’s taking meaningful, healthy, positive steps in the right direction. We’re going to continue to give him the structure to be able to follow through on that, and we can’t wait to have him back.”

In a statement to ESPN, Tanner, Morant’s agent, wrote, “Ja and the Grizzlies have been working together to help him develop on and off the court. He’s in constant communication with the team and will continue to be as involved as possible. Instead of focusing on the past, I hope people will give him a chance to move forward.”

For now, though, Morant is sidelined, his future uncertain. His five-year contract, set to begin this coming season, could have escalated to a supermax if he had made All-NBA this past season. He did not, costing him about $39 million in future earnings.

Morant’s future with sponsorships — including Nike and Powerade — remains unknown.

“The league office has addressed the issues leading to Ja’s suspensions and continues to assess his progress in advance of his return to the court,” NBA spokesperson Mike Bass told ESPN.

Three days before the Shotgun Willie’s Instagram Live video emerged on March 4, Powerade announced it had signed Morant to a multiyear deal to make him the face of the sports drink label’s largest campaign to date — a $10 million national television effort titled, “From underestimated to undeniable,” which centered on Morant’s journey. He was set to appear in TV commercials, on billboards, in store displays to help lead the rebranding effort for the Coca-Cola product. Morant stood to be Powerade’s first athletic partner in more than five years. But less than a week after the Shotgun Willie’s incident, Powerade pulled videos of Morant from its website and social channels.

Nike had signed Morant to a multiyear deal in 2019, making him Nike basketball’s first Gen Z athlete. The athletic apparel giant was set to release Morant’s first signature shoe — the Ja 1 — on April 1. But Nike instead pushed the release back more than two weeks, to April 19. By May 25, Nike had released the Ja 1 “Hunger” sneaker, the latest version of his signature shoe, and it sold out in 20 minutes, The Wall Street Journal reported. On Sept. 25, Nike released a new version of the Ja 1 that included his catch phrase — “We ain’t duckin’ no smoke.” Two days after images of the shoes surfaced, updated images circulated, showing that the phrase had been replaced with Morant’s signature.

Nike declined to address questions from ESPN about the changes to Morant’s shoe or elements of its partnership with him, instead writing, “We are pleased that Ja is taking accountability and prioritizing his well-being. We will continue to support him on and off the court.”

Meanwhile, Morant’s legal troubles remain. The next hearing in the lawsuit relating to Josh Holloway, the then-17-year-old who was allegedly assaulted by Morant and Pack at Morant’s house in the summer of 2022, is set for Nov. 16 in Memphis. Tee Morant and others, including Pack, have already faced depositions, and so too could Morant and Kevin Helms, the Grizzlies’ head of security, according to Rebecca Adelman, the lawyer representing Holloway. A trial could begin in April 2024.

Before Morant’s conduct became national news, one of the Memphis business owners whose establishments Ja and Tee had visited said he sat down with Tee and warned him of the pitfalls that some Grizzlies players had fallen into in Memphis.

“I said, ‘Listen to me, because I’ve been around a long time,'” he recalled saying. “‘I’ve seen the cycle.’ So when he started putting all that s— in his mouth, all those goddamn chains around his neck, he wanted to be a rapper, and I told his dad, ‘Your son wants to be more of a rapper than a basketball player. It’s going to go bad.'”

The warning, he said, went unheeded.

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