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Building the legend of Ja Morant

The kid gets better and better

NBA Restart 2020 - All-Access Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies have resumed full team activities in the NBA’s bubble down at Disney World in Orlando. After days of being quarantined upon their arrival in Florida, the fellas are back together playing 5 on 5 for the first time since the season was suspended back in March. Things are - dare we say - getting back to some sense of normal for those that are now on the other side of entering the bubble.

Well, as normal as normal can be in 2020.

Practicing in hotel conference rooms and head coaches rocking the full mask and face shield look at practice (just at that one practice, thanks to “gifts” for the staff from Jonas Valanciunas) is of course nowhere near “normal”. But the fact that basketballs are once again bouncing on NBA hardwoods is a sight for very sore eyes across the sports world. There are plans for scrimmages and seeding games in the weeks ahead that are hanging by a thread - an expensive thread that the NBA has spent millions upon millions of dollars on. The hopes of this endeavor succeeding depend on trust - in particular players trusting one another to maintain their discipline and what they can control in the environment the league and player’s association has created.

It’s a trust that the young Grizzlies apparent have in spades, thanks to their chemistry that has been the topic of conversation in media availability with players and Coach Jenkins.

The leader of this positive youthful energy, of course, is Ja Morant. It was easy to see that before the world’s spinning slowed down four months ago. He shined brighter than just about every other rookie star in the NBA universe (Zion Williamson’s presence looms) and remains the very likely Rookie of the Year. But what makes Morant’s luminosity most impressive for fans of the Memphis Grizzlies is how organic it is. Williamson has remarkable talent and could very well be the future of the NBA. But he has played 19 NBA games, and the media’s lens feels perpetually plastered on him from talking head programming to nationally televised game after nationally televised game.

Ja’s legend doesn’t have access to those eyes and ears. It grows through those that cover the team locally more often than not - and as it always has for the community of Memphis, and the fans of the Grizzlies, that makes it mean all the more.

Morant was asked about life in the bubble and, well, he didn’t mince words. But what would you expect from the audacious 20 year-old that enjoys calling out former MVPs?

Multiple posts complaining about the food and lodging in the bubble from the likes of Rajon Rondo, Joel Embiid, and others came off as quite tone deaf in a time where 32% of people missed rent/mortgage payments in America. NBA athletes of course have earned their pay in accordance with the economic system in which we all live and work, and the fruits of that labor have led them to a place where they can enjoy more of the finer things in life. It’s also why they’re trying this whole Disney experiment in the first place. Yet the current state of the world - and the fact that they’re having to “slum it” in these four and five star Disney resorts instead of being at home with their families - would suggest perhaps not tweeting or posting on social media would be a good idea in those situations.

Ja, being the still-not-able-to-drink-legally age of 20 that he is, is used to lesser lodging and food options. Ramen Noodles aside (Easy Mac and Beefaroni would be better options) Morant is closer to empty AAU gyms, backyard courts, and other things that veterans like Rondo haven’t been around in a long time. Ja is familiar with how the other half lives - his financial status is new, recently earned and obtained. He knows what it is like to scratch and claw for his, and his family - as Morant acknowledges - was not wealthy as he grew up. The “silver spoon” mentality is not something he would ever be familiar with - at least not yet.

Neither is his new home of Memphis.

Like Grizzlies legend and “blue collar player” Zach Randolph before him, the realness of Ja is helping cultivate a connection that resonates with Memphians. Morant’s highlight passes and dunk attempts are wonderful and bring attention to the Grizzlies that the franchise has never enjoyed before. Yet in a way, that’s shallow - like the thread counts of beds and the names of the chefs preparing meals in the Orlando bubble. Viral leaps over Kevin Love and behind the back dimes aren’t what will stamp Morant’s saga in the hearts and minds of generations of Grizzlies fans. They want more - Memphis doesn’t hold the likes of Randolph and Tony Allen in as high esteem as they do solely because of their on the court accolades. Both men rarely made SportsCenter - at least not for dunks or highlight plays.

It’s much deeper than that. And at a young age, Morant gets it more than any of us could’ve expected.

Ja is investing himself in the city, visiting with local hoopers in Memphis before departing for Orlando. He helps announce donations of shoes to health care systems and hospitals. That’s not to say Rondo and Embiid don’t help their communities - of course they do. But for Morant and Memphis, the continuation of the love being established between both sides is founded in a mutual acceptance of their circumstances and a willingness to attack them. They just “get” one another - what they need, and what they want from the bubble experience (beyond the obvious safety of all involved) and beyond.

It’s not searching for the superfluous - its pursuing purpose. Morant on numerous occasions has said that heand his Grizzlies teammates are locked in on the task at hand in Orlando. No amount of boxed salads and cockroaches can distract from that...at least not for too long. With that comes that trust - trusting that Ja is indeed like much of those that rock Beale Street Blue and Believe Memphis gear. That the sound clips and tweets aren’t a show.

That this too-good-to-be-true dream is, indeed, reality.

Ja Morant may very well wind up being the greatest Grizzlies player in the franchise’s history. His talent certainly suggests that possibility is very real, and Memphis and Grizzlies fans all over are excited to see what the workouts and time to focus on his body have done for his game. But as the epic tale of the South Carolina underdog who rose up the ranks at a rapid pace continues to be written, it is not the acts of athleticism alone that will punctuate his narrative.

It is Ja’s willingness to be his genuine self, and the empathy and at times vulnerability that comes with it, that will only bring more of the hearts and souls of Memphis to further invest in his story.

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