Granderson: NBA has a chance to take on gun culture, not just Ja Morant

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant sits on the bench during the first half of Game 5 in a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday, April 26, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant on the bench. (Brandon Dill / Associated Press)

Are we still hungry for NBA star Ja Morant?

Nike is about to find out.

Since being drafted No. 2 overall in 2019, the 23-year-old Morant has electrified NBA fans with a must-see combination of athleticism and charisma. Nike was sure counting on that when it signed Morant to a rare signature shoe deal before he was drafted. But now, with a week to go before the first shoe from that deal was supposed to appear in stores — “The Nike Ja Hunger 1” — the Morant buzz is about guns, not shoes.

Over the weekend he appeared on Instagram (again) flashing a handgun, after being suspended for eight games for brandishing a gun at a club in March.

“I know I’ve disappointed a lot of people who have supported me,” Morant said in a statement. “This is a journey and I recognize there is more work to do. My words may not mean much right now, but I take full accountability for my actions. I’m committed to continuing to work on myself.”

After that second video surfaced, Morant’s team, the Memphis Grizzlies, immediately suspended him from all team activities. On Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he was “shocked” about the video, adding he’s “assuming the worst.” On Thursday, Nike pulled the Hunger shoe from its app.

Nike and the NBA could not be more unhappy about the timing. I’m sure they’d rather have the playoffs be the topic of discussion, not Morant’s affinity for flashing guns.

But this story doesn’t have to be about wasted talent and a messy break-up.

This story could be something more.

Because the stakes are so much higher than whether Morant’s career recovers.

Did you know that at the beginning of this NBA season, a 17-year-old basketball player by the name of Shayma Roman was fatally shot in the face, while standing outside with friends near her grandmother’s house in New York? Two people just walked up to them and started shooting. Roman wasn’t even a target. The next month, 16-year-old Letrell Duncan, a high school basketball player out of East Orange, N.J., was shot and killed after school.

“He was one of the ones who was really going to make it," one of Duncan's former teammates was quoted as saying. "There was a few people who you can say got it. He was one of those." And maybe he was. We’ll never know.

In December 2022, 20-year-old college basketball player Phillip Urban was shot and killed in Connecticut. Robbery. Two teenagers — 16 and 17 — charged with his murder.

School massacres get national media coverage, but they aren’t the only kind of shooting that robs us of young promise.

I’m not opposed to Morant being suspended by the league for a significant time. I understand why Nike pulled his shoe from the app and would understand if it scrapped the shoe.

We know why the NBA and Nike would take those actions, but they have a responsibility to do more: They need to talk about it. Not just to react to commercial pressure, but to actually engage in a conversation about America’s gun culture.

Back in 2010, the NBA suspended Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas for 50 games for storing guns in his locker. The league did the right thing, but it didn’t do enough. That was a missed opportunity. Ja Morant’s intractable love for handguns, and casual disregard for gun violence, provides another chance to speak up.

But let’s not make it all about Morant. It’s easy to say he was a role model and his attitudes are the real danger. But he's just one person.

In the Instagram videos, Morant is engaging in an aspect of gun culture that some white members of Congress model for Christmas pictures: Showing off the weapon. Each scene disturbs certain people, for different reasons. My hope is that the NBA and Nike will talk about those reasons. And the subcultures that celebrate guns. The league and the brand have huge and diverse audiences, and if they could change a few minds, they could save untold lives.

At the start of this season, Chicago renamed a street after Ben Wilson, who was gunned down in 1984. He was 17 and the best high school player in the country. He might have made it to the NBA. But we’ll never know.

Ultimately Morant is just a passing headache. The problem is a lot bigger than one gun-toting player.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.