Sarah Bolton maneuvers in the air for a living, using silks and hammocks to defy gravity at heights of up to 25 feet. The feeling of being up in the air, she said, is often empowering, 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 he can appreciate the similarities between his and Morant’s livelihoods, especially his dunk at the windmill to finish an alley-oop against the Orlando Magic last season.
“To do that while you’re in the air with nothing to push against, that’s amazing,” Bolton said.
One aerial artist can certainly recognize another.
Morant’s Grizzlies, who will play the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs, were one of the most satisfying surprises this season. Memphis finished 56-26, second in the Western Conference, with an exciting young core competing at a furious pace. They’re a far cry from the popular Grizzlies of the 2010s who hit the ball to set up mainstays like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Morant is the lofty, dynamic centerpiece of the Memphis makeover, a shooting guard who soars through the air and executes in a way possibly not seen since the ascending takeoffs of Vince Carter and Michael Jordan.
Not many people in the world, NBA players included, know what it’s like to rise and seemingly levitate like Morant. He achieved a standing vertical jump of 44 inches before the Grizzlies selected him No. 2 overall, behind pick Zion Williamson of New Orleans, in 2019.
“I think it’s just skill,” Morant said. “I don’t know much I can say about it. It comes naturally to me.”
But some in Memphis and West Tennessee, like Bolton, who often operate in the air, acknowledge and applaud Morant’s vertical capabilities.
“I enjoy the look on his face when he has those moments,” Bolton said. “He does these things that you think are physically impossible and it’s pure joy.”
The 6-foot-3 Morant is a few inches shorter than his leaping predecessors Carter and Jordan, making his gravity-defying feats all the more impressive.
He’s an aerial dynamo playing in an era where most players his height are stretching the game horizontally by expanding their shooting range. He does that too, but he lives in the air.
there was his soak all over Jakob Poeltl, the 7-foot-1 center for the San Antonio Spurs, in February, and his towering left-hander alley-oop finish against the Boston Celtics in March. In January, Morant used both hands (and hit his forehead on the backboard) against the Los Angeles Lakers to block Avery Bradley’s attempt. “Instinctive,” Morant said of his lifting efforts.
And those are just some of his displays this season.
“Like, how do you hit your head on the board?” said Aaron Shafer, a transplant from California now at Society Memphis, an indoor skate park and coffee shop. “I don’t understand”.
Even Morant’s misses provide clips worth noting due to their athleticism and the audacity of their imagination.
Morant didn’t start dunking regularly until near the end of his high school career in Sumter, South Carolina. By this time, Williamson, a former AAU teammate, had long since become a national dunk sensation.
For a time, Morant had the ambition, but not the skill.
“It’s a practiced intuition,” Shafer said. “It’s something he’s put so many hours into throughout his life, since he was a kid. You have a right to have that intuition, it’s not something you just get.”
Sawyer Sides, a 14-year-old BMX rider at Tennessee’s Shelby Farms, likened Morant’s ability to anticipate plays before his jumps to 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 make a pass. You can see a window that opens 10 seconds before it starts to happen. It’s like he thinks about the play as if he’s already on the other side of the court.”
SJ Smith, who is training to become an instructor at High Expectations, said Morant’s successful vertical forays begin when he directs his momentum into a strong plie and bends at the knees before taking off.
“To gain height, you have to set that up,” Smith said. “It’s so kinesthetically smart and intuitive, where he internalized and practiced a ton of crap to become a wizard there.”
Bolton, a former dancer, entered the aerial arts for the freedom that comes from operating in the air.
Like a Morant dunk, aerial art involves a combination of control and technique through core and upper body strength and the constant interplay between activating muscles and releasing them.
“You have to really understand where your body is in space before you can harness momentum,” Bolton said. “Using momentum, you are putting your body almost at the whim of this external force, but you have to learn to control it. When I see Ja do what he does, it’s similar. He’s so strong, but there’s also this float and this release that he finds.”
Bolton recalled the play against Orlando last season, when Morant appeared to stop in midair to control the ball before continuing his climb.
“He’s using the scissor motion of his legs basically to power himself up,” 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 it to that extent.”
Alex Coker, a West Tennessee Skydiving tandem instructor, compared Morant’s adaptability under pressure to what is required of him in his job carrying people thousands of feet into the air before jumping out of a plane.
Coker likened each of Morant’s jumps to an emergency in which he was forced to make a critical decision in milliseconds. Like Morant adjusting the air to account for an incoming defender, Coker’s job requires him to be agile in a crisis.
“There are failure pages of all the possibilities that could happen, and it’s very important that every 90 days we go through those emergency procedures of scenarios that we can perform as secondhand nature,” Coker said. “If it happens, you know how to react instantly.”
Of course, not all jumps are created equal for Morant, and neither are those of Ezra Deleon, BMX racer and trainer at Shelby Farms. His jumps can span 20 to 30 feet, he said.
“It’s kind of controlled chaos in a way,” Deleon said. “You know what you’re doing, but you always have a ton of variables, like the wind, other riders, how the pitch of your jump has a different weight and throws you up in the air.”
While most aerial fans focused on Morant’s jumping ability, Shafer highlighted his drop.
Getting the landing is crucial for Morant, just as it is for Shafer in skateboarding.
Several years ago, Shafer’s then-10-year-old son Doran attempted to dunk a basketball after a 360-degree rotation in the air on his skateboard. He broke his tibia and fibula when he didn’t land properly.
“A lot of skateboarding is about knowing what to do when we don’t get that trick,” Shafer said. “How do we get out of that?”
Referring to Morant, Shafer added: “He has to do that every time he shoots. How am I going to get out of this bind after achieving my goal?
Morant, so far, has been lucky as he climbed up and was vulnerable.
“I only worry about finishing the work,” he said.
Morant missed two dozen games with knee injuries but returned for the final game of the regular season, allowing for the frequent breakouts that even those who spend much of their time in the air can only fantasize about.
“I would love to be able to just hang in the air for another second or two without any apparatus like that,” Smith said. “The way he moves, it makes me think of being in a dream and moving in ways that we can’t in real life.”