For the past month, basketball fans have been waiting for the NBA to come down hard on Ja Morant. In May, two weeks after Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies were knocked out of playoff contention, the 23-year-old superstar went on Instagram Live and, while dancing to an NBA Youngboy song, accidentally flashed a gun on-camera. It was a major-league offense; not only is Morant a young-fan favorite with a contract worth almost $200 million but this was merely his latest breach of the law, or NBA rules, or both.
In the end, Morant’s penalty was bad but not as bad as many expected. On Friday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that Morant would be suspended for 25 games at the beginning of next season. “For Ja, basketball needs to take a back seat at this time,” Silver said. “The potential for other young people to emulate Ja’s conduct is particularly concerning. Under these circumstances, we believe a suspension of 25 games is appropriate and makes clear that engaging in reckless and irresponsible behavior with guns will not be tolerated.”
In March, Morant was caught on-camera at a Denver strip club holding a gun. (Security-photo screenshots from the weekend in question are about as debaucherous as it gets.) That was on the heels of a few related acts of near violence from Morant and his camp this season, which dented Morant’s previous status as the possible future of the league. After his eight-game suspension over the first gun incident, he promised to be “be more responsible, more smarter, and don’t cause any of that no more.”
With Morant’s second offense less than two months later, Silver was clearly furious. “I don’t think we yet know what it will take to change his behavior,” Silver said. To avoid a messy situation, the league announced it would wait until the end of the NBA Finals to announce Morant’s suspension. Fans expected a harsh penalty, given the repeat offense and Silver’s claim in early June that the investigation “uncovered a fair amount of additional information.”
The early consensus among NBA fans is that considering all this history, Morant’s penalty was less severe than expected. It was much more lenient than the punishment doled out to Gilbert Arenas, who was suspended for a year in 2010 after he brought a gun into the locker room, though Arenas actually broke the law and Morant did not. Still, NBA fans reflexively point out that the league appears to coddle stars who bring the money in. One can only wonder what would have happen if a guy who didn’t have one of the league’s top-selling jerseys screwed up like this (Or maybe not: Miles Bridges, an above-average player on a really bad team, was effectively suspended for only ten games for allegedly breaking his wife’s nose.)
Moran will be docked more than a quarter of his salary, and the Grizzlies may struggle to find their footing after being on the wrong end of a playoff upset. But teams go without their star players all the time during the regular season. And Morant still has a long time to rehabilitate his image, turn things around, and make a lot of money in the NBA. In a statement on Friday, he said he was sorry “for the harm I’ve done. To the kids who look up to me, I’m sorry for failing you as a role model. I promise I’m going to be better.”