Testifying for the first time in a lawsuit roughly one week before he is expected to return from a 25-game NBA suspension, Grizzlies guard Ja Morant took the stand Monday in Memphis and said he acted in self-defense when he punched a teenager at his home in July 2022.
Morant, testifying during the first day of an immunity hearing at Shelby County Circuit Court, said he "swung first" at Joshua Holloway, then 17, "to protect myself" during an altercation that led to Holloway filing a lawsuit in September 2022 that accused Morant of assault.
The altercation, which attorneys representing both sides questioned Morant about at great length, came during a pickup basketball game at Morant's Memphis-area home after Holloway, allegedly frustrated by losing several games, was accused of throwing a one-handed pass at Morant during a check ball situation. The ball hit Morant in the left side of his face, Morant testified Monday.
"You testified that this basketball was a weapon, yes?" Morant was asked by Holloway's attorney, Rebecca Adelman, during the cross-examination part of his testimony.
"Yes," Morant replied.
"A lethal weapon?" she asked.
"It hurt," Morant said.
Morant testified that during the altercation, he asked Holloway, "What you on?" Then, Morant said, Holloway didn't reply but instead pulled up his shorts.
"Him pulling up his shorts, where I'm from, that's a fighting stance," Morant said.
Morant said Holloway took a step toward him and that he then stepped forward and punched Holloway.
"I hit him first -- to protect myself," Morant said.
After that blow, Morant's close friend Davonte Pack, who also was in court Monday, punched Holloway.
The lawsuit has dragged through the legal system for more than a year, and Pack, who admitted during a deposition to hitting Holloway, was arrested in July for misdemeanor assault. (The charge against Pack was later dismissed.) A trial could begin in April.
In the immunity hearing, which is expected to last through at least Wednesday, Morant's lawyers aim to have the case dismissed by arguing that he acted in self-defense.
Morant's father, Tee, testified Monday that his son frequently held pickup games at his house and that the one in question was "highly competitive," with Morant and Holloway guarding each other and talking trash to one another. Tee Morant is expected to resume testifying Tuesday morning when the hearing continues, and he presumably will face questions about the altercation.
Other family members, friends and witnesses of the altercation also are expected to testify, including Pack and Morant's mother, Jamie. In addition, subpoenas have been sent to law enforcement officials who investigated the incident.
Morant's appearance on the witness stand came about a week before he is eligible to return -- potentially Dec. 19 at the New Orleans Pelicans -- from a 25-game suspension issued by the NBA for conduct deemed detrimental to the league.
That suspension came after a video circulated on social media in May showing Morant brandishing a firearm. He previously had been suspended eight games, in March, after he was on Instagram Live holding up a handgun while at a Denver nightclub.
In opening arguments Monday, Will Perry, one of Morant's attorneys, echoed a point that Morant's camp argued in a court filing Friday: that Morant's version of events is consistent with eyewitness accounts that Holloway grew frustrated with losing several games, hit Morant in the face with a basketball then balled his fists as if to strike Morant, after which Morant punched him once.
Morant's lawyers contend that Holloway's account of that day has shifted over time and that, under Tennessee's self-defense immunity statute, if it is found that Morant acted in self-defense, as they argue, then he is immune to the lawsuit and it should be dismissed.
In her opening arguments, Adelman referenced Morant's off-court troubles and his "propensity for risk-taking behavior," at which point Morant's attorney objected, calling it "totally inappropriate." When Adelman resumed her opening argument, she centered on the power imbalance between Morant and Holloway.
"We're in this court," she said. "We're not on a basketball court. In this court, we're all equal. Nobody's above the law."
Adelman showed highlights of Morant dunking to demonstrate the strength of his arm and "the type of force" that came at her client. She argued that Holloway didn't throw the ball at Morant in a menacing way nor did he "square up" with his fists.
Morant testified that when Holloway left his property, he heard him yell, "I'm going to light this place up like a firework show."
Asked what he thought of that remark, Morant replied, "It sounded like guns to me."
Attorneys for both sides sought to demonstrate with Morant how a check ball works and used a basketball in court to recreate the incident. Morant said he had rarely -- if ever -- been hit with a ball in a check ball situation. Adelman asked Morant whether there was time before he punched Holloway to choose another approach, such as pushing him or asking him to leave the property. Morant agreed that there was time and said the altercation lasted about 10 seconds.
Adelman asked Morant whether he knew if Holloway was injured, and he said no. She asked him whether he would apologize to Holloway if he were in the courtroom.
"Probably not. I was protecting myself," Morant said.
When he wasn't on the witness stand, Morant sat next to Pack, whom he testified lives with him and is paid to be his assistant. Morant also said he pays his father to be his chef and barber.
During cross-examination by Adelman, Morant agreed he is "one of" the faces of the NBA's next generation, after players such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry retire. Morant agreed that he wants to be a role model in Memphis and that his conduct affects his brand and reputation. He also agreed that he receives a lot of media attention and that it is hard for him to play pickup basketball away from the court at his home.
"I can't go nowhere," he said. "I can't go grocery shopping."
Morant's testimony came days after comments from Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins and NBA commissioner Adam Silver about his impending return.
"I've got to say, he's been unbelievable with the process," Jenkins told reporters Friday. "I mean, it's been a lengthy process, but in every stage and every phase of the return to play and getting the opportunities with his teammates to practice, he's getting more of those. In the last couple of sessions, he's been playing 5-on-5. We've got a schedule in the next couple of weeks to get him those opportunities, whether it's in our practice settings, it's outside of that, play groups like we talked about. He's been awesome, I expect him to be full go come Game 26."
Silver told reporters Saturday he planned to speak to Morant in the coming days, ahead of his planned return to play.
"I have been monitoring the situation closely, and him. In fact, we intend to have a check-in this week directly, Ja and I," Silver said during his news conference ahead of the NBA in-season tournament championship game in Las Vegas. "But folks in the league office, together with Ja and his team and the players' association, have been in regular contact, essentially weekly. There have been those checkpoints.
"We've, together, laid out a program for him over the last several weeks, and to the best of my knowledge, he's complied with everything he's been asked to do. As I said, we'll talk at least once this week before he comes back, and we will review the program and make sure the conditions are in place for him to be successful going forward."
After Morant left the witness stand Monday, Judge Carol Chumney, who is presiding over the case, remarked, "Go play basketball."
A smiling Morant replied, "Still got a while."
Soon after court adjourned for the day, Morant tweeted "8 days, 4 games" -- a nod to how much time before his return to the hardcourt for the Grizzlies.
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