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The NBA says no to the ‘Wild Wild West’, lays down marker in Ja Morant, Draymond Green episodes

Time out: Green is reportedly in counselling — part of the process in his bid to return to the court after an indefinite suspension. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Paying the price: Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant was suspended for 25 games without pay for showing a firearm on social media. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Paying the price: Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant was suspended for 25 games without pay for showing a firearm on social media. | Photo credit: Getty Images

The script could not have been written any better. Returning from a lengthy 25-game suspension for being filmed on two separate occasions displaying a gun, Ja Morant sunk a tough last-gasp bucket to give Memphis Grizzlies a thrilling 115-113 win over New Orleans Pelicans.

On the last play of the game, Morant provided the exclamation point when he drove through the lane, made a spin move, jumped and dropped a floater to deflate the Pelicans.

Immediate impact

The clock ran out, and Morant was immediately surrounded by his jubilant teammates. The Grizzlies were over the moon to have their star back on the court, having slipped to a 6-19 losing record during his absence.

Morant finished the night with 34 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds — a spectacular effort which galvanised the Grizzlies into action when the side trailed the Pelicans by 24 points in the second quarter. After Morant’s return, the Grizzlies strung together four successive wins. There are still miles to go before the unit can think of making it to the playoffs, but hope abounds.

At the post-match media conference, Morant said, “It was the perfect ending to the day. Over this time [suspension period], I put a lot of trust in god. I’m letting him lead me.”

It has been an emotional rollercoaster for Morant’s family, too. “It’s a lot of emotions going through my whole family,” he said. “We were all pretty excited about my comeback, but also sad in a sense. Having my father courtside, seeing him root for me and my team — it was big for me.”

Morant believes that the team is now well poised to go on a grand run. “I do feel like with me being back, we should be a good team. We should keep doing the good things, but the number one thing is holding each other accountable on the court,” he said.

The 24-year-old explained that during the game, a teammate chastised him for not attempting a rebound. This type of constructive criticism makes the team better. “It helped me lock in, and I finished with six rebounds,” Morant said.

Warnings unheeded

There is a dark undercurrent that runs through this otherwise inspirational tale. The long suspension in itself could have been avoided, had Morant taken his warnings seriously. 

In March, Morant received his first punishment when he was banned for eight games after an Instagram Live video showed him displaying a firearm in a nightclub. Morant spent time at a counselling facility, and said that he had learnt his lesson. But just a couple of months later, Morant blundered when he was filmed with a firearm in a car.

The repeat offence did not go down well with the league. “Ja Morant’s decision to once again wield a firearm on social media is alarming and disconcerting given his similar conduct in March for which he was already suspended eight games. 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 behaviour with guns will not be tolerated,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.

Some former players, like four-time NBA All-Star Rasheed Wallace, believe that Morant got away with a light sentence. “He only got 25 games because he is a good talent showpiece for this league. He is the face of Memphis. If Morant was not an All-Star talent, he would have been kicked out of the league permanently,” Wallace said on the Underdog NBA YouTube channel.

Gun-related incidents involving NBA players are not without precedent. In the 2009-10 season, Washington Wizards teammates Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton got into an argument and reportedly drew firearms on each other in the locker room. This resulted in both players being suspended for the rest of the season. While Arenas eventually made it back to the NBA, Crittenton’s life derailed. In 2011, Crittenton was charged with the murder of Jullian Jones, a 22-year-old mother of four, and received a 23-year prison sentence.

The NBA has a zero-tolerance policy towards behaviour that paints the league in a bad light. The reason for this strict stance can be traced back to the 1980s and 1990s, when many hoopsters were hooked on drugs, alcohol and the violence it brought. The league was also perceived to be associated with thugs and gangsters, which made it tough to find sponsors.

It was David Stern, Silver’s predecessor, who took up the task of cleaning up the league. He even introduced a formal dress code for players entering the arenas and came down heavily on anyone who strayed from what was expected from professional athletes.

Unsportsmanlike acts

It is in this context that Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green finds himself indefinitely suspended for striking Phoenix Suns centre Jusuf Nurkic in the face during a game earlier this month. The punishment also took into account Green’s repeated history of unsportsmanlike acts, which included putting Minnesota Timberwolves centre Rudy Gobert in a headlock in November.

These confrontations were commonplace in the old era, when fights broke out often and repercussions were mild. In modern-day NBA, however, things are vastly different.

Green apologised to Nurkic. “He was pulling my hip and I was swinging away to sell the call. I made contact with him. As you know, I’m not one to apologise for things I meant to do, but I do apologise to Jusuf, because I didn’t intend to hit him,” Green said.

Nurkic believes that Green “needs help”. “What’s going on with him, I don’t know. Personally, I feel like that brother needs help. I’m glad he didn’t try to choke me… That had nothing to do with basketball. I’m just out there trying to play basketball,” Nurkic said.

Green is reportedly in counselling — part of the process in his bid to return to the court.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr believes that the NBA did the right thing by suspending Green. “To me, this is about more than basketball. It’s about helping Draymond. I think it’s an opportunity for Draymond to step away and to make a change in his approach and his life. And that’s not an easy thing to do,” Kerr said.

“Because the one who grabbed Rudy, choked Rudy, the one who took a wild flail at Jusuf, the one who punched Jordan [Poole] last year, that’s the guy who has to change and he knows that,” Kerr, a nine-time NBA champion as player and coach, said.

The Morant and Green episodes lay down a marker for the enforcement of the standards set by the NBA. Players must remain consummate professionals, or risk facing severe sanctions. The Wild Wild West NBA era, which some older fans still yearn for, is long gone.

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