THE JA RULES: ADAM SILVER HAS LOST CONTROL OF AN OVERLY ENTITLED NBA
The commissioner’s delayed reaction to Morant’s thug-life behavior reflects weak leadership in a league where star empowerment — load management, trade demands — makes me long for the college game
Next time he’s in Los Angeles, where he’s a rumored candidate to run the Disney Company once Bob Iger re-re-retires, Adam Silver should visit Pauley Pavilion. I did, on Saturday night. A college basketball game was much more stirring and fun than anything I’ve seen in the NBA this season.
There was passion. There was discipline. There was respect and reverence for the game. And in the end, when a UCLA team eyeing a national title beat Arizona to secure its first unbeaten home season in 16 years, there was joy. Two outgoing seniors, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell, touched foreheads as a sellout crowd shrieked.
“We did it, but at the same time, we’re not done,” said Jaquez, adding, “We are on a mission to put UCLA back on top … where it needs to be and where it should be and where it belongs. Two guys from SoCal, I mean, we’re living a dream right now to be Pac-12 champs, win the way we did on our home court. It’s literally like a storybook to me.”
All just hours after Ja Morant, who not long ago lived the very same March dream, was disintegrating in a strip joint somewhere.
What exactly was Silver waiting for, anyway? Would it require a full-blown tragedy before he intervened in Morant’s ongoing thug-life behavior? Would a handgun have to go off inside a Denver club as the shirtless young superstar, a rap beat accompanying his dancing and singing, showed off the firearm while posting a selfie to his Instagram Live feed at 3:19 a.m. MT?
Was the NBA commissioner nodding off in recent weeks, or intentionally not noticing, when members of the Indiana Pacers traveling party said Morant was riding inside an SUV where a passenger aimed a gun at the team bus? When the Washington Post reported two troubling incidents last summer — a teenager accusing Morant of punching him “12 or 13 times” before revealing a gun in his waistband during a pickup game at Morant’s Memphis home; a mall security officer accusing Morant of threatening him as someone else in his group of shoved him in the head? When a longtime friend of the family, Davonte Pack, was banned from FedEx Forum? When Morant’s father, Tee, was involved in two verbal altercations inside league arenas, one with Fox Sports analyst Shannon Sharpe that spilled onto the court?
Not until Saturday — when the NBA finally announced it would investigate Morant, and the Memphis Grizzlies reluctantly sent him away for a mere two games — did Silver acknowledge the issue in his house. Never mind that one of the guns could have discharged and led to horror. Never mind that arena safety always should be front and center in a league perpetually haunted by the 2004 “Malice at the Palace” melee. The commissioner preferred to let the flurry of incidents slide, which surprises no one following his spineless pattern of leadership lately.
To wit: He has allowed player empowerment to explode into star anarchy, all in the name of making sure nothing disrupts an impending new collective bargaining agreement. The deal with the players will feed into a bidding war for broadcast rights, in a wildly evolving media sphere, and bring unprecedented fortunes to America’s No. 2 sports enterprise. So why wouldn’t Silver brush off the troubles of a prized showman — a 23-year-old money-maker who could be one of pro basketball’s prominent faces deep into the next decade — instead of interceding a while back?
It’s the latest example of how Silver has lost control of his domain, turning in his sheriff’s badge to let the league’s biggest names trample him in the open court. Empowerment has become entitlement on his watch. Not long ago, he was strongly opposed to the concept of elite players demanding trades and forming superteams. He also doubted load management, a cooperative wink-wink agreement between stars and front offices that provides escape hatches to take games off on a whim, never mind the fans who’ve invested big money in advance to see those players. But with 30 owners itching for the national TV deals that will make them filthier rich, the commissioner now says it’s cool to blow off games for “rest,” to hell with the paying customers. And the implosion of the Nets, who were ruined by the wandering eyes that brought Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden to Brooklyn in the first place? He doesn’t care if fans aren’t enamored of the superteam craze, the stone-cold business funk that enables Durant and Irving to demand trades — or wait and flee in free agency, a device repeatedly authored by LeBron James — and turn regular-season games into who-cares scrimmages.
The same league boss who was quick to lead the permanent ban of owner Donald Sterling, whose racist comments were audible on private recordings, slapped the wrist of Irving after his promotion of an antisemitic film. To apply the same lenient approach to Morant — a famous athlete in a country ripped apart by gun violence and an icon in Memphis, one of America’s poorest and most dangerous cities — is an oversight that reveals an alarming lack of social awareness. What happened to Smart Adam? Did he get lost in the impending spree of tens of billions? “We are aware of a social media post involving Ja Morant and are investigating," one of his spokespeople said in a statement.
At least Morant finally spoke up, instead of hiding behind an agent who repeatedly denies that his client possesses firearms. Taking “full responsibility for my actions last night,” the All-Star guard wrote in a statement Saturday, “I’m sorry to my family, teammates, coaches, fans, partners, the city of Memphis and the entire organization for letting you down. I’m going to take some time away to get help and work on learning better methods of dealing with stress and my overall well-being.”
Silver should have spotted the trouble signs many months ago. His powerful predecessor, the late David Stern, would have stepped in and punished Morant long before his irresponsibility reached the handgun-on-Instagram-Live stage. Remember when Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton had guns inside the Washington Wizards’ locker room in 2010? They were suspended without pay for the second half of the season. The NFL suspended Plaxico Burress for the remainder of the 2008 season, then the entire 2009 season — when he brought a loaded gun into a nightclub and shot himself in the thigh, a crime for which he served a two-year jail sentence. Morant didn’t bring a gun into a locker-room workplace. Not did he shoot himself in the leg.
He deserves a stern, Stern-like suspension nonetheless. Where there is smoke, there is gunfire. The NBA needs Morant, appointment TV at its most dazzling when he is engaged, pushing every button on our sensory panels. But in a league where players figuratively get away with murder, don’t expect more than the current two-game patty-cake. This is Silver’s new modus operandi, first witnessed during an All-Star weekend hijacked when Durant defended superteam hitch-hiking and Irving defended load management.
“I don't think it's bad for the league,” Durant said of the mercenary, hunting-for-titles scheme. “It's bringing more eyes to the league, more people are more excited. The tweets that I get, the news hits that we got from me being traded, Kyrie being traded — it just brings more attention to the league and that's really what rakes the money in, when you get more attention. So, I think it's great for the league, to be honest.”
Yeah? I hear many more people talking about the NFL’s quarterback-o-rama and Major League Baseball’s new pitch clock than Durant’s latest move, to the Phoenix Suns, and Irving’s hookup with Luka Doncic in Dallas. Any minute now, Kyrie will be telling Mavericks owner Mark Cuban that he needs time off. Could be a day, could be a week or more. “I don't know who created the term ‘load management’ or guys sitting out games or this narrative that continues to play on about star players or guys not being available I don't know who started the narrative, but it's completely run amok,” Irving said. “I think it's dehumanized some of us in terms of just the way we prepare ourselves day-to-day. This is a 24/7 job. We have cameras on us all the time. It's a high-level, combative sport. It's very aggressive.”
The Old Adam Silver would have fired back. The New Adam Silver wants the players — and their union — to be happy and sign the CBA papers. “I hesitate to weigh as to whether players are playing enough, because there is real medical and scientific data about what's appropriate,” he said. “Sometimes, to me, the premise of a question as to whether players are playing enough suggests they should be playing more — that, in essence, there should be some notion of just get out there and play. Having been in the league for a long time, having spent time with a lot of our great legends, I don't necessarily think that's the case.”
He couldn’t possibly mean Michael Jordan, who nine times played all 82 regular-season games and a dozen times played at least 78. He couldn’t mean Magic Johnson, who played at least 77 games in eight seasons. He couldn’t mean Kobe Bryant or Larry Bird. I could go on. Silver prefers to genuflect to the slackers and franchise bosses who encourage idle time in civvies, protecting investments at the expense of competitive integrity. “The world that we used to have where it was just, ‘Get out there and play through injuries,’ I don't think that's appropriate,” he said. “Clearly, I mean, at the end of the day, these are human beings who are often playing through enormous pain, who play through all kinds of aches and pains on a regular basis. The suggestion, I think, that these men, in the case of the NBA, somehow should just be out there more for its own sake, I don't buy into.”
I’ll respond to his naked embrace of consumer fraud by encouraging sports fans to avoid an arena in downtown L.A., where James and Anthony Davis are injured often while Kawhi Leonard bastardizes the load-management practice with the Clippers.
And I’ll point them to the famed arena on UCLA’s campus, where students waiting hours for tickets ate pizza delivered by coach Mick Cronin. It was worth their time investment. As senior players were honored in a pregame ceremony, Cronin was lifted off the floor by Jaquez’s father and reacted with a kiss on the cheek. Has he ever been bear-hugged and elevated in such a way by another human being? Cronin, 5 feet 7 on his tip-toes, had a quick retort.
“It’s not hard,” he said.
Adam Silver might have enjoyed the innocence. Ja Morant, too, if he would return to Planet Earth.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.