Looking around the victorious locker room, Ja Morant has a smile that may never go away.
Morant, with his NBA Finals MVP trophy in one hand and the Larry O’Brien Trophy declaring the holder the NBA Champion in the other, took in the scene playing out around him. There was a glorious stench of cigar smoke and champagne in the room that was both intoxicating and invigorating. Empty bottles and soaked shirts and towels were strewn about the floor. The last of Ja’s teammates to leave the locker room, Jonas Valanciunas, smiled back at Morant and shook his hand before leaving. No words were said - the smile of a debt finally paid spoke volumes. Years ago, Valanciunas was traded away from the Toronto Raptors before their title run.
Now? He had had his own.
Ja began to pack up for the night to head home when all of a sudden he felt a long arm go across and around his shoulder. It was his buddy Jaren, whose game clinching block of a Trae Young three point attempt to try to send the 2025 NBA Finals to a Game 7 sent FedExForum in to a frenzied state the likes of which had never been seen before. Ja hugged his friend, and Jaren sat down next to him.
“Hey Ja, remember early in that first year when you balled out against Kyrie?”
Morant laughed. A lot of life had transpired since that time. Marriages, more children for both of them, teammates that had come and gone, wins and losses and playoff successes and failures. Yet through it all, they had each other. Like Mike Conley and Marc Gasol before them. Only now they sat there, at the age of 25, entering the primes of their respective careers and achieving a level of success Gasol and Conley never did together.
“Yeah, I remember”, Morant said. “What about that night against the Bucks where you thought you’d do your best Klay Thompson impression? Eight threes, right?”
“NINE, MAN...don’t you forget it, either”, Jaren chuckled.
“Hey, at least we won the games I balled out in in 2019”, Ja stated proudly, chucking a champagne-soaked towel at Jaren.
Jackson Jr. tossed the towel in the laundry bin to his right and took in the same scene that Morant had prior to his sitting down. He remembered playing alongside Gasol and Conley, but was proud of how he and Ja, and their teammates, had taken Memphis to new heights. But he knew that the road to get to the trophies next to his bud Ja hadn’t just begun that season. Nights like this were perfect for reflection.
“Remember that night in D.C.? Your first triple-double?”, Jaren said. “That was so hype, man...everyone was so happy for you. Even Gorgui Dieng, man...and he had just gotten there!”
“Yeah, that was cool,” said Ja, “But my favorite game was actually the one after that.”
“Was that Bron and the Lakers?”, Jaren asked.
“Nah, the Blazers. Before the Rising Stars game and All-Star Weekend”, Ja replied.
“Oh YEAH...that was awesome”, remembered Jaren. “The atmosphere was crazy, the fans were so hype...what was your favorite part?”
“That was the first game here at home that we were all together”, Ja said smiling.
Jaren nodded in agreement, looking at the locker of Justise Winslow across the way next to Dillon Brooks, and Tyus Jones, and Kyle Anderson, and De’Anthony Melton, and Jonas, and Brandon Clarke.
“That’s true. We kind of became whole then, didn’t we?”, said Jaren
“The family became whole”, replied Ja.
Moments like the one in front of the young Grizzlies tonight are important, regardless of what the future holds. Whether a parade on Beale Street eventually awaits this version of the Memphis Grizzlies after an NBA Finals victory or some other fate befalls them, no one can truly understand what is to come for the young men currently making up the roster for Memphis. As we prepare for whatever February 12th brings, we can all say assuredly that the Grizzlies have set us all up for a moment we did not see coming.
One with so much to play for so soon.
One with a squad slightly revamped for a long road ahead, still with eyes for the short sprint upcoming.
One with an opponent that was supposed to be where the Grizzlies are in the Portland Trail Blazers, yet looking up at Memphis in the standings entering the biggest game of both team’s campaigns up to this point.
The front office of the Memphis Grizzlies has said in media availability and through their actions that their end goal remains sustained success and the pursuit of it. So while trading away Solomon Hill and Jae Crowder to help facilitate the acquisition of Justise Winslow - the currently injured Justise Winslow - in theory hurts the short-term viability of the team, Zach Kleiman and company see the value in Winslow beyond the immediate future. Memphis is one wing injury away from depending on Yuta Watanabe and John Konchar more than they should be at this stage of their careers and the Grizzlies season. Having Crowder and Hill would help in this matchup.
But long-term? The sights are set beyond just this one moment.
The Grizzlies want to be set up for the multiple chapters ahead. The wins and losses, the heartbreaks and the triumphs. Memphis wants to build a young core of players and allow for them to grow together. Hurt together. Live life together. For real chemistry is established not just on the court, but off of it. Relationships that matter beyond basketball are the type that make moments like the one in front of the young Grizzlies that much more meaningful both now, and in the future.
They now have 12 players on their roster 25 or younger, 75% of the current Grizzlies. Of those 12, eight are near locks to be in Memphis next season and even beyond barring some unforeseen trade - Morant, Jackson Jr., De’Anthony Melton (a restricted free agent that is surely in their plans) Brandon Clarke, Tyus Jones, Winslow, Grayson Allen, and Dillon Brooks. There are others, like Marko Guduirc or Jordan Bell, who also could be in the long-term plans for the Grizzlies. Add in vets like Kyle Anderson and Valanciunas, and the Grizzlies of right now figure to be the Grizzlies of the future as well.
Which makes games like this one, against Portland, all the more meaningful.
This is a moment where both the present and the future of the Grizzlies will be on full display, at home in Memphis for all to see. A moment for continued emotional investment in Morant and Jackson as they continue to take full ownership of their franchise and keep establishing the culture of their version of the Grizzlies. At this stage of their story, to be in this place where they can legitimately play in the most important game in Memphis in almost three years...this is where you begin to stake claim to your place in history.
It’s both a launching point and a preview. A chance to strengthen both 2020 playoff hopes and the personality of an organization establishing its identity entering a new decade with renewed hope and energy. It will be remembered regardless, whether in victory or defeat, because of the magnitude of the occasion. The weight of the stage. Our first glimpse, before a long All-Star break, at what this group is capable of when the lights are bright and the stage, and moment, is theirs.
All they have to do is take it.
Jaren and Ja walked towards the door of the locker room, exchanging ideas for parade music and vacation spots for their families to go to together once things calmed down. Before they exited the victorious space, Jaren handed Ja a non-smoky Champions hat and a shirt not drenched in alcohol. Ja took the chance to look it over, smiling big. A lifelong dream realized, in his adopted home, with one of his best friends...it all seemed too good to be true.
The trip down memory lane, through that first season together in Memphis, really drove home just how meaningful the journey to the present really was. From blocking an All-Star to competing for a supposedly unlikely playoff seed, the images and sounds racing through the minds of the friends came to them as if they had just happened yesterday. But regardless of outcomes or the end game of that individual campaign, the lessons learned and friendships forged in the fires of those early battles and challenges led them to this point. And made it all that much more special.
“Hey Ja, we did good, didn’t we?”, said Jaren.
“Yeah man, we did. And we’re just getting started.”
The two left, walking out of one chapter of their story in Memphis and in to a new and exciting one together, just as they had all those years ago.