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‘A quagmire situation’: What Ja Morant’s return means for a teetering Memphis Grizzlies season

"WHAT IS YOUR occupation?" a lawyer by the name of Keenan Carter asked. "I play professional basketball for the Memphis Grizzlies," Ja Morant replied. It was 1:45 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 11, and Morant was testifying from the witness stand in the century-old Shelby County Courthouse in downtown Memphis.

Wearing a black jacket and a white shirt, Morant faced a wood-paneled wall lined with portraits of robed judges while sitting next to the one presiding over a lawsuit accusing him of assaulting Joshua Holloway, then 17, in July 2022.

Less than a mile away -- but practically a world away -- was FedExForum, where, in better times, Morant's occupation would be on display. But, on this day, he was serving a 25-game suspension by the NBA -- one that was set to expire in a matter of days.

In the courtroom's gallery, family, friends and witnesses to that 2022 altercation on the basketball court in the backyard of Morant's Memphis-area home looked on. Reporters and cameras tracked his every move, as they've done since he arrived that morning to Tennessee's largest courthouse, an ornate neoclassical compound stretching across a city block and featured in the 1991 horror film "The Silence of the Lambs."

Early in Morant's testimony, his attorney, Carter, retrieved a basketball from under a table and tossed it to his client. Morant tossed it back. Carter again passed it to Morant, who passed it back. It was, naturally, a Memphis Grizzlies basketball.

The point of the exchange, manifesting itself as legal inquiry, was to demonstrate a typical check ball during a pickup basketball game.

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Because, in their telling of what transpired, Morant's lawyers contended Holloway, frustrated with losing several games, rifled a one-handed pass that hit Morant in the face. Morant's attorneys have sought to dismiss the case by arguing that Morant acted in self-defense.

"What you on?" Morant said he asked Holloway. Holloway didn't respond, Morant said, and instead pulled his pants up.

"Him pulling up his shorts, where I'm from, that's a fighting stance," Morant said from the stand.

Holloway then took a step toward him, Morant said, and the two met chest-to-chest.

In the courtroom, Carter re-created the moment and stood chest-to-chest with Morant.

"I hit him first -- to protect myself," Morant said.

During cross-examination, Rebecca Adelman, the attorney representing Holloway, asked Morant if he was one of the future faces of the NBA. He said yes. She asked if he wants to be a role model for youths in Memphis. He said yes.

"Your conduct and how you behave impacts your brand, it impacts your reputation?" Adelman asked. Morant said yes.

She tossed Morant a different basketball, and he passed it back, another demonstration of a check ball.

"You testified that this basketball was a weapon, yes?" Adelman asked Morant.

"Yes," Morant replied.

Later that night, at nearby FedExForum, the Grizzlies faced the Dallas Mavericks -- again without Morant. And, again without Morant, the Grizzlies came up short, dropping them to 6-16 overall and 1-10 at home.

Without Morant, losses have mounted for the Grizzlies. Injuries have ravaged a team designed to withstand a suspension of its star. Scenes of frustration and embarrassment have gone public. Through 24 games, the 6-18 Grizzlies, the team Morant has led for four seasons, are simmering with tension -- and on the precipice. Under the cloud of litigation and a pierced reputation, it's unclear which Ja Morant is set to return Tuesday night -- and whether, on the court this season, it will ultimately even matter.

THE GRIZZLIES OPENED the 2023-24 campaign with six straight losses. On Nov. 10, in one of the first signs of frustration, Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins ripped the officiating after a loss at home to the Utah Jazz that dropped his team to an NBA-worst 1-8. It was Memphis' sixth straight loss.

"Saddle up," Jenkins told reporters. "One of the most poorly officiated games I've ever seen. Record it. I'm fine with it. F---ing atrocious." (He was fined $25,000 for his remarks.)

It was hardly the only sign of a team teetering.

Sixteen days, two wins and four losses later, the Grizzlies faced the Minnesota Timberwolves in Memphis. Newly acquired guard Marcus Smart was watching the game from the sideline -- a microcosm of the Grizzlies' injury-plagued season -- with a sprained foot. After a Naz Reid dunk stretched the Timberwolves' lead to 20 with 7:58 left in the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies called a timeout to stop the bleeding, and Smart exploded.

In a rant fans several rows away could clearly hear, even over the thumping music at FedExForum, he waved his arms widely. He pounded his fists.

"This is f---ing embarrassing!" Smart yelled.

After nine seasons in Boston, Smart was acquired in June by the Grizzlies, who hoped his leadership -- and that of veteran Derrick Rose -- would shore up a backcourt missing Morant, who was suspended after an Instagram Live video in May showed him brandishing a firearm for the second time in as many months.

Both said upon their arrival in Memphis that they were happy to share their veteran wisdom with Morant, but they weren't there to chaperone.

"Look, I'm not here to babysit," Rose said on media day.

The Grizzlies hoped they could stay afloat with their superstar sidelined, just as they'd done in the past. Entering this season, the Grizzlies had gone 142-106 (.573) in games Morant played and 37-24 (.607) in games that he didn't.

When Morant returned, the thinking went, the Grizzlies -- who had earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference in consecutive seasons -- could surge.

Marcus Smart was acquired by the Grizzlies from the Boston Celtics in June as part of a three-team deal involving Kristaps Porzingis and Tyus Jones. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

But the plan derailed before it even began. On Oct. 22, three days before the season started, the team announced veteran center Steven Adams would undergo season-ending right knee surgery. He'd originally injured the knee in March, after which the Grizzlies announced he would miss three to five weeks.

That timetable extended to the rest of the regular season and then all of the playoffs, and his absence was sorely felt as the Lakers dominated the Grizzlies on the glass and eliminated Memphis in the first round. The hope was for Adams to avoid surgery, rehab the knee and be ready for training camp. It didn't happen. Adams participated in camp and even played in a couple of preseason games, but his knee wasn't right. He needed surgery. The Grizzlies' starting center, their enforcer, was gone for the season.

The Grizzlies had already anticipated that backup center Brandon Clarke could miss the entire season. Clarke suffered a torn Achilles during a March 3 loss in Denver, hours before Morant's infamous Instagram Live video from a Denver-area nightclub called Shotgun Willie's, which resulted in the superstar's first suspension.

Smart, Rose and 3-point specialist Luke Kennard are among other key Grizzlies who have had extended injury absences. Rose missed eight of the first nine games in November due to knee soreness and is currently considered week-to-week with a hamstring strain. Kennard spent three games in the league's concussion protocol during the first week of the season and hasn't played since a Nov. 14 loss to the Lakers, during which he injured his knee. Smart sprained his foot in the same game and also hasn't played since.

To add insult to all the injuries, fiery former Memphis mainstay Dillon Brooks has thrived with the Houston Rockets, gleefully drilling a dagger 3 Friday night to seal another Grizzlies loss in his return to Memphis. And a series of recent first-round picks (Ziaire Williams, David Roddy and Jake LaRavia) have failed to fill the glaring void left by Brooks' free agency departure.

Friday, Dec. 18Wizards at Warriors, 10 p.m.

Monday, Dec. 25Bucks at Knicks, 12 p.m.Warriors at Nuggets, 2:30 p.m.Celtics at Lakers, 5 p.m.76ers at Heat, 8 p.m.Mavericks at Suns, 10 p.m.

All times Eastern

"A quagmire situation," Rose told ESPN. "Just the whole thing that's surrounding the team. I don't need to say the whole thing, but yeah, when you have that and are missing guys, the Steve-O thing -- I mean, come on, bro. Come on. You can't make any excuses, know what I mean? The other team is not going to care. The league is not going to care, so it's all about trying to pull together."

Back in Memphis, Smart's fourth-quarter rant continued with more intensity than the Grizzlies had shown all night.

"What can I do for somebody to compete?" Smart implored his teammates. "What can I do? This is unacceptable. Man, just play! If you don't want it, then sit down. Please. Do you all want to win, man? This is f---ing embarrassing!"

The Grizzlies went on an 11-3 run after the timeout, but they couldn't overcome the deficit, dropping Memphis' record to 3-13. Afterward, Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards noted how quiet FedExForum was, a departure from its raucous reputation.

​​​​"The fans was dead," Edwards said. "I've never played in Memphis like this. This is my first time being in Memphis and not having the crowd into the game."

A reporter asked if he was surprised by the atmosphere.

"I was super surprised. They usually be amped up, for sure," Edwards said. "I'm guessing because Ja out, probably."

Smart's rant eventually worked -- temporarily, at least -- with Memphis managing to cobble together its first consecutive wins of the season right after, defeating a 6-12 Jazz team and a Mavericks team missing superstar Luka Doncic.

The victory in Dallas featured another animated discussion between Memphis teammates. With four seconds left in the first half, Kyrie Irving blew past Grizzlies forward Santi Aldama on the right wing. Desmond Bane, who'd taken a step away from Grant Williams on the left wing to help, didn't rotate back and watched Irving fling a pass to a wide-open Williams, who drained the 3-pointer at the buzzer. Pacing toward the tunnel at the other end of the floor, Aldama shouted at Bane, who walked in front of him and didn't turn back. As Aldama continued, backup center Bismack Biyombo stepped in to separate the two. Just as the team reached the bench, Bane turned to a passing Aldama and barked back at him.

"As long as both of our hearts are in it and we're trying to help each other do the right thing, a little back-and-forth is healthy," Bane told ESPN that night. "We were both in the wrong. Both of us made a mistake. We talked about it and got through it. We're better because of it."

Jenkins considered the heated exchange proof that the Grizzlies cared, that their competitive fire still flickered despite their place near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Dillon Brooks agreed on a four-year, $80 million contract with the Houston Rockets in July after the Grizzlies declined to re-sign Brooks in free agency. Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

"I love it," Jenkins said postgame. "We need it. It's what we've been talking about as a team, that if we're going to push each other to have sustainable winning habits and a winning recipe, we got to be able to call things out."

Morant's absence loomed as the team fell further, week after week. During the suspension, he largely avoided headlines. He was spotted at a concert in late November. He was spotted at some Memphis-area high school basketball games. Beyond that, Morant has remained in the background, which some team sources said they've appreciated.

"He's a hardworking motherf---er. I know that," Rose told ESPN. "I'm proud of him, very proud of him. Never complains. He's there early, there after, at shootaround, practices. He's doing everything the team wants him to do, and I'm just happy that he's creating his own reality and his own bubble. You can just see it. You haven't heard anything about him. And that's a great thing."

BACK INSIDE THE Shelby County courthouse, Morant's testimony continued. The franchise's cornerstone, trying to extricate himself from a series of off-court incidents that have led to multiple suspensions, public apologies and an ongoing lawsuit, spent hours recounting, in excruciating and frequently absurd detail, the events of an incident from last summer.

Some five hours earlier, during her opening statement, Adelman alluded to Morant's off-court lifestyle, saying he has "struggled with risk-taking behavior."

Later, standing near Morant, Adelman asked him to show her how he hit Holloway.

"Punch me," she said.

"Nah," Morant said.

"Well, show me how you punched him," she said.

"Nah, I'm all right," he said.

"No, you need to show me how you punched him," she replied, and Morant extended his arm and held his fist toward her face.

Morant's father, Tee, who had testified that morning and recounted his son's journey growing up in South Carolina to becoming a superstar in Memphis, looked on. A tattoo on his right wrist revealed his son's jersey number -- 12 -- and the closeness of their relationship was evident. During his own testimony, Morant said he pays his father, who lives on the same street, to serve as his chef and barber.

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Also looking on, and set to testify the following day, was Morant's childhood friend Davonte Pack, who has been closely linked with Morant's public missteps. Morant remains close with Pack, who helped launch and manages Morant's clothing brand "My Brothers No Others." During his testimony, Morant said Pack lives with him and is paid to be his assistant.

At one point, Adelman asked Morant if the conflict could have been avoided, if there had been time to ask Holloway to leave the property before hitting him. Morant acknowledged the possibility.

"You would have this court believe that you feared Holloway would punch you?" she later asked.

"Yes," Morant said.

"And that would hurt?" she asked.

"That's what a punch does," Morant said.

Following three hours of testimony, Morant left the stand, and Judge Carol Chumney remarked, "Go play basketball."

Morant smiled. "Still got a while."

Court adjourned at roughly 5 p.m., and both parties headed for the exits. About 30 minutes later, Morant tweeted exactly how long he had until his season debut. Eight days and four games away: Dec. 19 at New Orleans.

TWO DAYS AFTER testifying, Morant joined his teammates at a morning shootaround in Houston ahead of their game that night against the Rockets. He took shots, joked with teammates and playfully snapped photos after grabbing a team social media staffer's camera.

But per the terms of the suspension handed down by the NBA, Morant couldn't be with the Grizzlies later that night at the arena. Instead, he had to remain at the Post Oak Hotel in uptown Houston, where the team was staying. Keeping a close eye on Morant was Kevin Helms, the Grizzlies' head of team security, whose duties this season focus almost solely on shadowing Morant, team sources said.

After the Grizzlies lost to the Rockets, dropping them to 6-17, the team returned to Memphis. And, on Friday, Morant participated in shootaround and -- for the first time since last season's playoffs -- met with the media. The main interview room at FedExForum was full, with Jenkins and Memphis general manager Zach Kleiman standing near the door.

As he sat upon the dais, wearing an orange-and-black Nike sweatsuit, Morant said he'd been counting down the days until he could play again. He expressed gratitude for the support from his family, his "partners" and the organization. He said he had a "good" check-in conversation with NBA commissioner Adam Silver that week. He spoke vaguely about learning about himself and personal growth. Asked for specific steps he had taken, Morant said, "Just protecting my peace."

When the NBA announced Morant's 25-game suspension in June, it stated that Morant would be "required to meet certain conditions" before returning to play. While it remains unclear exactly what those conditions were, Morant has been engaged in periodic check-ins with the league office about his well-being and efforts to improve, as well as therapy.

But Morant's past continues to shadow him. The hearing for the lawsuit accusing him of assaulting Holloway resumes Wednesday and could drag into January. If the case is not dismissed after the hearing, a trial could begin in April.

Inside the Grizzlies organization, frustration has simmered about the trajectory of the season. And Morant said he takes blame for contributing to it.

"Yes, it's definitely some guilt in that," Morant said on the dais. "Obviously I'm not on the floor. Nobody likes losing. ... I take full responsibility of that even though I'm not on the floor. Decisions I've made didn't allow me to be out there to go to battle with my team."

Ja Morant is set to return after a 25-game suspension against the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 19. Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Without Morant, the Grizzlies rank 30th in offense and 28th in assists per game. They're off to their worst 25-game start since Morant's rookie season in 2019-20.

But the reality is inescapable: Morant remains their greatest -- and perhaps only -- hope of trying to salvage the season.

"As far as where we stand, I'm not worried at all," Morant said. "I say I don't think it'll be long before we find it."

Privately, the Grizzlies hope that Morant has learned from the suspensions, the public apologies and the embarrassment. They hope this time away from playing has allowed him to mature and be the leader the franchise expects and needs. But uncertainty still looms.

"I honestly feel like I can't go away from being Ja," Morant said. "I feel like that's the most important thing, not trying to lose myself or be somebody that I'm not or act totally different, but the change will be my decision-making and how I go about my daily life of being a NBA player, a father, a role model, a brother, a son, and just focusing in on that being the best Ja I can be."

Following the last Instagram Live incident, Kleiman, the Grizzlies' GM, took a stronger stance.

"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."

Morant harked back to that sentiment Friday. He has previously vowed to be better only to disappoint those who believed in him. Why would this time be any different?

"I can't make nobody believe me outside of my actions," Morant said, with Kleiman looking on. "So me answering this question with just words probably won't mean nothing to nobody."

    

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