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Cornerstones with Character: Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, and Memphis tradition

What a player does off the court can be just as impactful as what they do on it.

2020 NBA All-Star: Rising Stars Team Photo & Game BTS + Celebrity Coverage Photo by Kena Krutsinger/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Memphis Grizzlies traded for Zach Randolph in the summer of 2009, you would have been labeled as certifiably insane if you believed that Randolph would become the city’s most beloved citizen. Yet that’s exactly what Z-Bo became during his time in Memphis.

And make no mistake, it wasn’t because he became a perfect person in Memphis. Even after he seemed to have cleaned up much of his personal life, trouble still had a way of finding him.

But Z-Bo became so beloved in Memphis because his heart was much greater than his imperfections. He was just as impactful off the court as he was on it, serving the Memphis community in so many different ways. He gave tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the utility bills of struggling Memphians. He would also annually head-up Thanksgiving giveaways and other food drives to help aid poverty-stricken families in both Memphis and his hometown of Marion, Indiana. He and Tony Allen once took 200 kids on a Toys R Us shopping spree around the holidays.

Zach Randolph was absolutely not just a basketball player. He was someone that established a legacy, along with Mike Conley in particular, for how a professional athlete can excel on the court while also exemplifying servant-leadership in their community.

And now Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are continuing that same legacy, seeking to leave their own individual marks on the Memphis community.

In August of this past year, which was nearly two months before Ja Morant ever suited up in a Grizzlies uniform, he began supporting the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis, an organization that aims to enable all young people, especially those who are impoverished, to achieve their full potential. Over a two-day period, Morant matched all donations up to $10,000 to support this Memphis charity’s mission.

Nearly a week later, Morant partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis again through Academy Sports to hold a back-to-school shopping spree. He gave each of the kids from the organization $100 for their personal use in Academy and gifted them all with new backpacks. He also reportedly helped different kids pick out clothes that fit in their size.

As soon as Ja Morant became a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, he immediately began to seek how he could serve his new community. Jaren Jackson Jr. has done much of the same for the almost two years that he has now been in Memphis.

In April of 2019, Jackson hosted an all-girls camp with several local high-school girls teams for them to have personal instruction and skill-training from him. He also pledged to donate $20,000 to the philanthropy of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis.

Earlier that same year, he volunteered to partner with RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality) and act as student leaders with Joakim Noah as they hosted 100 students from JIFF, Bridges, Grizzlies Prep Charter School, and Whitehaven High School. Jackson used that opportunity to facilitate discussion around sports and social justice and how we can each drive change in our communities.

For families who once benefitted from the charity and service of Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, or whomever, I can imagine that they remember them more fondly for the kind and giving people that they were than their actual exploits on the court. Because it’s one thing for someone to say that Conley in particular was a phenomenal player during his time in Memphis, and it’s another thing entirely for someone to say that he “was a blessing to us” because of how he helped raise over a million dollars for Methodist Healthcare Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center.

I imagine that Conley appreciates the latter compliment the most.

As figureheads and among the most famous figures in their communities, professional athletes like members of the Memphis Grizzlies can have an even more instrumental impact in their communities than they can have on the court/field. To be sure, this is a fact that Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. seem to appreciate much like their predecessors Randolph, Conley, Allen, and Marc Gasol did.

During her keynote address to the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis annual tribute luncheon that former Grizzlies beat writer David Cobb attended, Terri Carmichael Jackson, Jaren Jackson Jr.’s mother, spoke about the importance of citizens supporting their communities through their passions and interests. She said, “The best way to learn a community, to learn a new city, is just to jump right in, dive right in. If you can do that through things that are meaningful to you and your family, what better way to do that?”

Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. have certainly jumped right in to support the Memphis community. And the Memphis community should truly appreciate their servant leadership.

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