SALT LAKE CITY — Memphis guard Ja Morant wishes he could have one decision back from Wednesday’s Game 2. And it had nothing to do with what happened on the basketball court.
Morant had a lot of family members and friends — “double digits for sure” — in Utah for his first games in the playoffs. Sure, they were there to support him as his star continues to rise, but there was another reason he wanted them there. Utah crowds have the reputation of being loud and passionate; they also have a much more negative one, too. That was the side Morant’s family dealt with Wednesday.
Morant knew where his family was sitting; he always does.
“Anytime I get in my groove and get to talking, I always look to them because I know where they are at, and I know they are probably talking just like me,” Morant said. “I actually get a lot of energy from them.”
During the third quarter Wednesday, Morant looked up and saw them talking to arena security. He didn’t know why but he had a message relayed to them: “Chill, sit-down and watch the game.”
Sometime later, he looked up again and saw his family members being escorted to the top.
It wasn’t until later when he met his family back at the team home that he found out the reason: The Morants had been subjected to vulgar and racist comments that caused three fans to be kicked out and banned indefinitely.
“I got kind of frustrated because I was telling them to stay cool, but if I knew what they said, I would have just let my family handle business instead of trying to calm them down,” Morant said. “Obviously, it’s tough on all of us but we move forward. Obviously, we are going to continue to speak up and try and stop it. We are glad Utah did what they did to those fans.”
The wounds of those words — Tee Morant, Ja’s father, told ESPN that one fan made a sexually explicit remark to his wife, Jamie, and another said, “I’ll put a nickel in your back and watch you dance, boy” — were felt by the Jazz, as well.
“It’s beyond unfortunate and needs to change,” Donovan Mitchell said. “What you’re saying about Ja’s mother and father, you’re saying to my mother and father, (Derrick Favors’) mother and father. It’s not like you’re speaking to the Grizzlies, you’re speaking to a Black man, a Black woman. We’re African-American men and women first. When you go out there and say something like that, that’s just terrible and ridiculous.”
Jazz coach Quin Snyder opened up his media availability on Friday by issuing an apology to the Morants.
“No one should have to be subjected to the kind of behavior that they were the other night,” he said. “It’s deplorable and the people that made those comments should be banned for life. I’m sorry for them to have to endure that. It’s deplorable and concerning and should not be tolerated.”
Unfortunately, what happened at Vivint Arena was far from an isolated incident. On Wednesday, a New York Knicks fan spit at Atlanta’s Trae Young and in Philadelphia, Washington Wizard guard Russell Westbrook had popcorn dumped on his head while exiting the court.
“Everyone’s been cooped up with COVID, staying home, clamoring for sports and being back in social arenas and atmospheres, and this is what you do,” Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins said. “It’s at the core of humanity that needs to get addressed, and I’m beyond disappointed.”
Wednesday’s multiple altercations with the Morant family only strengthens the negative reputation of Jazz fans around the league. That reputation is partially why Morant had so many family members come out to Utah in the first place.
“For that support obviously, but I’ve heard about Utah before,” he said.
Jenkins added that he felt those negative interactions were pronounced in Utah more than in other arenas around the NBA.
It’s not all Jazz fans, that’s certain, but the actions of some have led to a national reputation for all fans.
Morant doesn’t know yet if his family will travel back to Salt Lake City for Game 5 due to that reason.
“We gotta protect our players and their families,” he said.