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Whitlock: Ja Morant and Jalen Rose star in ‘Hustle & Logo,’ the NBA’s crime-to-riches drama

NurPhoto / Contributor | Justin Ford / Contributor | Getty Images

The Ja Morant saga is the much-anticipated sequel to “Hustle & Flow,” the 2005 rap movie drama.

In 116 minutes, moviegoers watched Terrence Howard’s character, “Djay,” transform himself from low-level Memphis pimp to budding rap superstar. A cult classic, the film canonized, popularized, and normalized the crime-to-rap-to-riches motif Hollywood established for young black American men.

In need of a star to replace 38-year-old LeBron James, the NBA, Nike, and ESPN desperately want Ja Morant to be the league’s Djay. But it’s hard out here for a simp. That’s why the league has made Morant the star of "Hustle & Logo," a basketball spin-off of the original movie.

Last night, former NBA player Jalen Rose played the role of “Skinny Black,” the made-it-big rap star Djay sought out to help elevate his career. Rose conducted an “interview” with Morant that aired on “NBA Countdown” and “SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt.” The alleged interview was more a commercial trailer than interrogation intended to reveal what possessed Morant to conduct himself in such a foolish manner in the last year.

A dozen days ago, Morant livestreamed himself flashing a gun inside an infamous Denver strip club. That incident came directly on the heels of a Washington Post story that detailed other allegations of Morant’s misbehavior. The Memphis Grizzlies immediately shut down Morant. Three days ago, ESPN reported the 23-year-old star had checked into a counseling facility in Florida. Yesterday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced he’d met with Morant and issued an eight-game suspension.

“Ja’s conduct was irresponsible, reckless, and potentially very dangerous,” Silver stated. “It also has serious consequences given his enormous following and influence, particularly among young fans who look up to him. He has expressed sincere contrition and remorse for his behavior. Ja has also made it clear to me that he has learned from this incident and that he understands his obligations and responsibility to the Grizzlies and the broader NBA community extend well beyond his play on the court.”

Shortly after exiting his meeting with the commissioner, Morant sat down for what appears to be a very brief “interview” with Jalen Rose. Aired late last night, Morant’s interview lasted a little more than four minutes.

“I realize what I have to lose, and for us as a group, what we have to lose,” Morant told Rose. “It’s pretty much just that being more responsible, more smarter, and staying away from all the bad decisions.”

When asked about his “counseling” experience, Morant mentioned doing Reiki and anxiety breathing.

“I feel mentally good – like I haven’t been in many years since I really got dropped into the league,” he said. “I’m in a space where I’m very comfortable. I took those days to be able to learn how to pretty much be there for myself and learn different ways to manage stress in a positive way.”

How is this not a scripted movie? Ja Morant is all better now. In a 12-day whirlwind, Morant dropped $50K at a strip club, flashed a gun, got a Reiki and Tantra massage in Florida, sat down with Adam Silver and Jalen Rose, and now he’s ready to play basketball again.

Last night, I sat stunned watching Rose and Stephen A. Smith sell this "Hustle & Logo" happy ending on the NBA pregame show. This is all wrapping up way too neatly and quickly. The NBA wants this to be a movie and for everyone to go home and wait for the next sequel.

But what gets accomplished in a few days of counseling? Morant doesn’t have to answer any real questions about where he got the gun? Why did he flash it on Instagram Live? Was he drunk? High?

The NBA just wants to play the credits. ESPN is good with sending a basketball player (Rose) to do a journalist’s job.

This is the curse of modern professional sports. Content takes priority over competition. Content can be controlled and manipulated. Content is inorganic.

Before social media, the essence of sports was organic and relentless competition. The leagues sold great competition. “Come see the best in the world compete for something important. Come see Magic Johnson and Larry Bird fight over the biggest piece of chicken. Come see Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas maul each other for bragging rights in Chicago.”

Now, professional sports, particularly the NBA, are all about packaged content. Highlights. Storylines. Narrative. Politics. Branding. Fashion. Tattoos.

The main thing isn’t the main thing.

The last decade of the NBA has been about LeBron James building a brand to challenge Michael Jordan’s brand. James isn’t competing against his peers. He’s competing against a narrative Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, Kendrick Perkins, and Shannon Sharpe control.

Damian Lillard, the Portland star, pointed out this problem in an interview with JJ Redick.

“I feel like I play for the love of the game,” Lillard said. “I want the competition. I want to know what it feels like to win. I want to see my teammates do well. I want to see my teammates get paid. I enjoy the bonding part of it. We spend more time with each other than anybody. But now that don’t count, the regular season don’t count any more. ‘Get a ring. This guy is the MVP. This guy did this.’ What is this stuff? What is this?”

It’s a content league. It’s a league dedicated to feeding ESPN, Fox Sports, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook content. It’s a league built on gossip, opinion, and narrative. It’s a league with no respect for competition or integrity.

It’s the kind of league that would act no differently from Hollywood and the music industry. It would embrace selling black men and black culture as a crime-to-riches motif. Ja Morant visited Adam Silver’s casting couch and was given a script. Morant read his lines to Jalen Rose.

It’s "Hustle & Logo."

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