A pair of mercurial point guards embraced at center court recently in Memphis, Tennessee, linked in camaraderie and calamity.
There was the Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant, whose behavior was determined to be detrimental conduct by the NBA, and the Dallas Mavericks’ Kyrie Irving, whose tweet about a book and a movie that repeated antisemitic tropes yielded a multi-game suspension in November 2022.
“There was an overload of judgment with Ja, and there was an overload of judgment of what I had going on,” Irving said in postgame comments after their embrace. “And there’s usually an overload of judgment from the public court of opinion, so with that working hand in hand and we’re such a public league, we’re going to deal with situations that may be very difficult for the person going through it but I think that’s why we stretch our hands out to one another to be there for each other.”
The commentary about Irving and Morant was remarkably, and at times disappointingly, similar. There’s less question about the controversy of their actions, just more of an inquiry about our need to indict them beyond those decisions.
“This would have never happened under David Stern,” some might have said, a nod to the firm rule of the former NBA commissioner. It is also worth noting that the aptly named Stern’s infamous dress code requiring players to wear “business casual attire” to games unfairly infringed upon the rights of players such as Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson, and placed a tag on the players of that era that wasn’t fully removed until they became members of the media, or engaged in other successful endeavors.
When I see Iverson, and similar players of skill and will, I don’t define them by their mistakes. I view them in terms of power dynamics – specifically, how their experiences can be cautionary tales for young brothas.
Being perfectly clear, this country still doesn’t know how to deal with Black defiance. That might be why the responses to the aforementioned point guards were so visceral. The actions of Irving and Morant, while problematic, should not discourage opportunities for reflection and redemption.
Irving’s controversy is a reminder of Black people’s cultural distrust of the establishment, with good reason. Still, we don’t need to encourage Jewish tropes to justify that angst, particularly since the “conspiracy” is right in front of us. American propaganda conceals the subsequent history of slavery – the white violence of the Reconstruction era, the cruelty of Jim Crow, the horrors of prison culture and capitalism.
I wonder if Irving, with his ties to Duke University, has ever crossed paths with perhaps the foremost mind on Black reparations, Sandy Darity, the university’s Samuel DuBois Cook professor of public policy, African and African American studies, and economics. While Irving’s thirst for knowledge lends to the abstract, Darity’s decades of research and notations provide concrete perspective on what systemic repair looks like for the marginalized. A 2019 profile of Darity notes a collection of ideologically motivational texts, including Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
The nobility of actions such as Irving’s $50,000 donation to Third World Press, the world’s oldest independent Black-owned publishing house, suggests a priority of Afrocentric thinking. My hope for Irving, and for Americans in general, is that cultural pride doesn’t lend to disinformation. Instead, we should equip ourselves with a fuller understanding of history that rebukes nationalist propaganda.
People will say that Morant’s troubles correlate to being in Memphis, though I would challenge people to see that city beyond the fates of Tyre Nichols, who was killed after being stopped by police, rapper Young Dolph, who was shot to death in 2021, and others. Morant’s native Sumter County, South Carolina, has its own story.
Sumter was originally a plantation settlement. The city and county were named for Thomas Sumter, the Revolutionary War general. While his legacy and nickname – the “Fighting Gamecock” – have been normalized by the university in nearby Columbia, Sumter’s slave-owning roots perpetuated the racist and oppressive lifestyle of the area.
For as often as we address the trauma of generational oppression, it’s also important to appreciate the determination and defiance that comes with fighting back. That attitude manifests itself in various ways in Black folk.
The Morants’ history of determination and defiance is legendary. There are the tractor tire training sessions, an innovation of Morant’s father Tee, who cut his teeth in hoops at historically Black Claflin University. The same fuel that carried the younger Morant through those sessions, combined with a prep and college career where Morant was largely overlooked, didn’t just firmly place a chip on his shoulder. It programmed him to always look over his shoulder, to the point where he could barely enjoy being named an All-Star in 2022, according to Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto:
“It’s about the night Morant went back to Augusta, Georgia, last month to be with his two grandmothers and watch the announcement of this year’s All-Star game starters. The night Tee Morant described as ‘like the draft again because of the anxiety.’ ”
When overlooked athletes ascend to the professional ranks, they often employ intimidation as a means of reminding opponents and fans that they belong. Former foes, and now former Los Angeles Lakers teammates Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley remind us of this with baby-rocking and “too small” gesturing. Morant’s various dust-ups at his residence and at a Memphis Finish Line might have been chalked up to a man with a Napoleon complex, if not for a certain Instagram Live post.
The responses to that video were wide-ranging, but overall, I thought the unseriousness of Morant’s gesturing, however defiant, were akin to this country’s unserious approach to gun violence. It was, and still remains, difficult for me to suggest that Morant should sit out for brandishing a gun when mass shootings and school shooting tragedies are the order of the day.
An introspective look at gun violence in this country would certainly involve race and even rhetoric, as noted by writer and orator Nasir Jones in “I Gave You Power”:
It’s that s— that moves crowds, making every ghetto foul
I might have took your first child
Scarred your life, or crippled your style
I gave you power, I made you buck-wild
Nas’ words are eerily prescient in a political climate where candidates run on slogans such as “Jesus Guns Babies.” Where some conservatives hold the Second Amendment as a religious tenet, some Black folks see gun ownership as taboo, which flies in the face of the Black Panthers’ legacy of armed self-defense. The Panthers responded to police brutality and government incompetence with programs that provided and protected their community. Decades before the Panthers, famed journalist and activist Ida B. Wells gave a Winchester endorsement in response to rampant lynching: “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
These musings aren’t just the well wishes of a Black man rooting for young brothas to make it. The rise to prominence of Morant and Irving rebukes stereotypical notions about Black fatherhood and remind us of how Black talent can become Black power.
Redirecting priorities through the lens of history makes more sense to me than rooting for people to fail, which not only curates nuanced narratives, but cultivates power.