Sarah Bolton maneuvers through the air for a living, using silks and hammocks to defy gravity at heights of up to 25 feet. The feeling of being in the air, she says, is often a feeling of empowerment, an extension of childhood fantasies becoming adult realities.
Bolton runs the High Expectations School of Aerial Arts in Memphis, where Ja Morant is also a high flyer, as the All-Star point guard for the NBA Grizzlies. Bolton said she can appreciate the similarities between her lifeline and Morant’s, especially her windmill dunk to complete an alley-oop against the Orlando Magic last season.
“To do this while he’s in the air with nothing to lean against is amazing,” Bolton said.
One aerial artist can certainly recognize another.
Morant’s Grizzlies, who will face the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs, have been one of the most satisfying surprises this season. Memphis finished 56-26, second in the Western Conference, with an exciting young core battling it out at a blistering pace. They’re a far cry from the popular Grizzlies of the 2010s who hammered the ball to post stalwarts like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Morant is the lofty and dynamic centerpiece of the Memphis makeover, a guard who flies through the air and executes in a way arguably not seen since the ascending takeoffs of Vince Carter and Michael Jordan.
Few people in the world – including NBA players – know what it’s like to soar and seemingly levitate like Morant. He recorded a standing vertical jump of 44 inches before the Grizzlies drafted him No. 2 overall, behind New Orleans selection Zion Williamson, in 2019.
“Think of it as just pure skill,” Morant said. “I’m not sure what I can say about that. It’s just a natural thing for me.
But some in Memphis and West Tennessee, those like Bolton who often operate in the air, recognize and applaud Morant’s vertical abilities.
“I appreciate the looks on his face when he has those moments,” Bolton said. “He does these things that you think are physically impossible and it’s just that pure joy.”
The 6-foot-3 Morant is a few inches shorter than his predecessors Carter and Jordan, which makes his gravity-defying feats all the more impressive.
He’s an aerial dynamo playing in a time when most players his size are stretching the game horizontally by expanding their range of fire. He does that too, but he lives in the air.
There was his to soak everywhere San Antonio Spurs’ 7-foot-1 center Jakob Poeltl in February and his booming southpaw alley-oop finish against the Boston Celtics in March. In January, Morant used both hands (and banged his forehead against the backboard) against the Los Angeles Lakers to block Avery Bradley’s attempt. “Instinctive,” Morant said of his elevation efforts.
And these are just a few of his performances this season.
“Like, how do you bang your head on the backboard,” said Aaron Shafer, a California transplant who opened Society Memphis, an indoor skate park and cafe. “I don’t understand it.”
Even Morant’s misses provide newsworthy clips due to her athleticism and daring imagination.
Morant didn’t start diving regularly until late in his high school career in Sumter, South Carolina. By then Williamson, a former AAU teammate, had long since become a national dunk sensation.
For a time, Morant had the ambition, but not the ability.
“It’s a practiced hunch,” Shafer said. “It’s something he’s put so many hours into in his life, ever since he was a child. You have the right to have that intuition, it’s not something you get.
Sawyer Sides, a 14-year-old BMX rider at Shelby Farms in Tennessee, assimilated Morant’s ability to look ahead to games before his competitive jumps in a motocross race.
“Let’s say I’m second or third,” Sides said. “I have to go where the others aren’t if I want to make a pass. You may see a window open 10 seconds before it even starts happening. It’s like he thinks about the game as if he’s already on the other side of the pitch. »
SJ Smith, who is training to be an instructor at High Expectations, said Morant’s successful vertical forays begin when he directs his momentum into a strong plie and bends his knees before taking off.
“To get high, you have to put that in place,” Smith said. “He’s so kinesthetically smart and intuitive, where he’s internalized and practiced a ton of shit to prepare himself to be a magician up there.”
Bolton, a former dancer, got into the aerial arts for the freedom of flying through the air.
Like a Morant dunk, the aerial art involves a blend of control and technique through core and upper body strength and the constant interplay of muscle activation and release.
“You have to really understand where your body is in space before you can take advantage of the momentum,” Bolton said. “By using momentum, you put your body almost at the mercy of this outside force, but you have to learn to control it. When I watch Ja do what he does, it’s the same. He’s so strong, but there’s also this float and release that he finds.
Bolton thought back to the game against Orlando last season, when Morant appeared to stop in mid-air to control the basketball before continuing his ascent.
“He uses the shear of his legs to transmit power upwards to himself,” Bolton said. “It’s like he’s using his body to create resistance in the air. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a basketball player do that to this extent.
Alex Coker, tandem instructor for West Tennessee Skydiving, compared Morant’s adaptability under duress to what is required of him in his job taking people thousands of feet in the air before jumping out of a plane. .
Coker likened each of Morant’s jumps to an emergency where he was forced to make a critical decision within milliseconds. Like Morant adjusting in the air to account for an incoming defender, Coker’s job requires him to be nimble in a crisis.
“There are pages of malfunctions of all possibilities that could occur, and it is very important that every 90 days we review these emergency procedures of scenarios that we can perform as a second-hand nature,” said said Coker. “If that happens, you know how to react instantly.”
Of course, not every jump is the same for Morant, nor are those of Ezra Deleon, BMX racer and trainer at Shelby Farms. His jumps can range between 20 and 30 feet, he said.
“It’s kind of controlled chaos in a way,” Deleon said. “You know what you’re doing, but you still have a bunch of variables, like the wind, other runners, how the step of your jump has a different weight and throws you through the air.”
While most aerial aficionados focused on Morant’s jumping ability, Shafer shed some light on his descent.
Sticking the landing is crucial for Morant, as it is for Shafer in skateboarding.
Several years ago, Doran, Shafer’s then 10-year-old son, tried to dunk a basketball after it was spun 360 degrees in the air on his skateboard. He broke his tibia and fibula when he didn’t land properly.
“A big part of skateboarding is knowing what to do when we don’t get that trick right,” Shafer said. “How to get out of it?”
Referring to Morant, Shafer added: “He has to do it every time he makes a basket. How am I going to get out of this mess after I hit my goal?”
Morant, so far, has been lucky while being ascendant 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 frequent takeoffs that even those who spend much of their time in the air can only fantasize about.
“I wish I could hang in the air for a second or two longer without any device like it,” Smith said. “The way he moves, it reminds me of being in a dream and moving in ways that we can’t in real life.”