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How It Feels to Watch Ja Morant Fly: “A Wizard Up There”

Sarah Bolton maneuvers in the air to make a living, using silk and hammocks to defy gravity at altitudes of up to 25 feet. The feeling of being in the air is often a sense of empowerment, an extension of childhood fantasies becoming adult reality.

Bolton runs the High Expectations aerial arts school in Memphis, where Ja Morant is also a high-flyer as the NBA Grizzlies All-Star point guard. Bolton said she could appreciate the similarities between her livelihood and Morant’s, particularly his windmill dunk to end an alley-oop against the Orlando Magic last season.

“To do that while he’s in the air and doesn’t mind is incredible,” Bolton said.

An aerial artist can certainly recognize another.

Morant’s Grizzlies going up against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs has been one of the brightest surprises of the season. Memphis finished second in the Western Conference, 56-26, with an exciting young core competing at a frenetic pace. They’re a far cry from the popular grit-and-grind grizzlies of the 2010s, who pounded the ball in to post mainstays like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

Morant is the lofty, dynamic centerpiece of Memphis’ makeover, a Guardian suspended in the air and executed in a manner arguably unvisited since the rising starts of Vince Carter and Michael Jordan.

Not many people in the world – including NBA players – know what it’s like to soar and seemingly soar like Morant. He recorded a 44-inch standing vertical jump before the Grizzlies drafted him 2nd overall in 2019 behind New Orleans selection Zion Williamson.

“Think it’s just sheer skill,” Morant said. “I don’t know too much what to say about it. It’s just a matter of course for me.”

But some in Memphis and West Tennessee, such as Bolton, who often operate in the air, recognize and praise Morant’s vertical skills.

“I enjoy the look on his face when he has those moments,” Bolton said. “He’s doing these things that you think are physically impossible, and it’s just this pure joy.”

The 6-foot-3 Morant is a few inches shorter than his vaulting predecessors, the Carter and Jordan, making his gravity-defying exploits all the more impressive.

He’s an air dynamo set in an era where most players his size are stretching the game horizontally by expanding their shooting range. He does that too, but he lives in the air.

There was his immerse everywhere Jakob Poeltl, the 7-foot-1 center of the San Antonio Spurs, in February, and his high-flying left-handers Alley-oop finish against the Boston Celtics in March. In January, Morant used both hands (and banged his forehead against the board) against the Los Angeles Lakers to block Avery Bradley’s attempt. “Instinctively,” Morant said of his elevation efforts.

And those are just some of his shows from this season.

“Like how do you bang your head on the back wall,” said Aaron Shafer, a California transplant artist now at Society Memphis, an indoor skate park and cafe. “I do not get it.”

Even Morant’s misses make for highlight-worthy clips due to his athleticism and the boldness of his imagination.

Morant didn’t start dipping regularly until late in his high school career in Sumter, SC. By then, Williamson, a former AAU teammate, had long since become a national dunking sensation.

For a time, Morant had the ambition but not the ability.

“It’s a trained intuition,” Shafer said. “It’s something he’s put so many hours into over the course of his life, starting as a kid. You have the right to have that intuition, it’s not something you just get.”

Sawyer Sides, a 14-year-old BMX rider at Shelby Farms in Tennessee, equated Morant’s ability to anticipate moves before his jumps with competing in a motocross race.

“Let’s say I’m second or third,” Sides said. “I have to get where other people aren’t if I want to overtake. You can see a window open 10 seconds before it even starts. It’s like he’s thinking about the game, like he’s already on the other side of the pitch.”

SJ Smith, who trains as an instructor at High Expectations, said Morant’s successful vertical forays begin when he directs his swing into a strong plié and bends his knees before lifting.

“To gain altitude, you have to set that up,” Smith said. “He’s so kinesthetically intelligent and intuitive that he’s internalized and practiced a lot to establish himself up there as a magician.”

A former dancer, Bolton entered aerial arts to enjoy the freedom of working in the air.

Like a morant dunk, aerial acrobatics involve a blend of control and technique through core and upper body strength and the constant interplay between muscle activation and relaxation.

“You really have to understand where your body is in space before you can use the momentum,” Bolton said. “By using momentum, you almost subject your body to the whim of this outside force, but you must learn to control it. When I watch Ja what he does, it’s similar. He’s so strong, but there’s also that momentum and release that he’s finding.”

Bolton thought back to last season’s game against Orlando, when Morant appeared to pause in the air to control the basketball before continuing his rise.

“He’s using the scissoring action of his legs to basically pass the power up to himself,” Bolton said. “It’s like he’s using his body to create a drag in the air. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a basketball player on this scale.”

Alex Coker, a tandem instructor for West Tennessee Skydiving, compared Morant’s ability to adapt under duress to what his job requires of getting people thousands of feet in the air before jumping out of a plane.

Coker likened each of Morant’s leaps to an emergency, forcing him to make a crucial decision in milliseconds. Just as Morant adjusts in the air to respond to an oncoming defender, Coker’s job requires him to be nimble in a crisis.

“There are malfunctioning sites of all the ways that could happen and it’s very important that every 90 days we look at these contingency procedures or scenarios that we can run like second hand,” Coker said. “If it happens, you know how to react immediately.”

Of course, not every jump is the same for Morant, and neither is Ezra Deleon’s, a BMX racer and trainer at Shelby Farms. His jumps can range from 20 to 30 feet, he said.

“In a way, it’s a kind of controlled chaos,” Deleon said. “You know what you’re doing, but you always have a few variables, like wind, other riders, how the incline of your jump has a different weight and throws you up in the air.”

While most air lovers focused on Morant’s jumping ability, Shafer emphasized his descent.

Landing well is crucial for Morant, just like it is for Shafer in skateboarding.

A few years ago, Doran, Shafer’s son, who was 10 at the time, attempted to dunk a basketball after spinning 360 degrees in the air on his skateboard. He broke his tibia and fibula when he failed to land properly.

“A lot of skateboarding is about knowing what to do if we don’t get that trick,” Shafer said. “How do we get out of there?”

Referring to Morant, Shafer added, “He has to do that every time he makes a basket. How do I get out of this traffic jam once I’ve reached my destination?”

Morant has been lucky so far while on the rise and vulnerable.

“I’m just worried about finishing the play,” he said.

Morant missed two dozen games with knee injuries but returned for the final game of the regular season, allowing for the frequent starts that even those who spend significant time in the air can only fantasize about.

“I’d like to hang in the air for an extra second or two without any gadgets like him,” Smith said. “The way he moves makes me think of being in a dream and moving in a way that we can’t in real life.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/15/sports/basketball/ja-morant-nba-playoffs.html How It Feels to Watch Ja Morant Fly: “A Wizard Up There”

Mike Fahey

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