Part of the rapid ascent of Ja Morant to All-Star (certainly), All-NBA (possibly), and MVP (potentially) contention has been a campaign of his own creation.
Morant, the South Carolina-born, former low-level Division I basketball recruit who was playing in side gyms at AAU tournaments when he was discovered by Murray State years ago, has described his work ethic/rise to prominence as residing in “The Dark”. This comes from Grizzlies Assistant Coach Blake Ahern, who got it from “Win in the Dark”, a book by Joshua Medcalf and Lucas Jadin. Morant himself and the Memphis Grizzlies organization has taken up the mantra, with Ja identifying with the concept of working in obscurity while striving to get to the bright lights of big-time basketball. Now, Morant is here.
And the luminescence that comes from being a superstar as cool as Ja shines beyond just himself. The NBA is surely becoming familiar as their future with Morant as one of the very best the Association has to offer comes in to focus. But the same is true of the team he leads - the one in the midst of a seven-game winning streak that is also increasingly deserving of that “very best” description.
For with the attention that comes with a rising star comes eyes and ears and words that aren’t as familiar with what has been being built the last almost three years now in Memphis. Maybe they don’t know as much beyond the Memphis Grizzlies bubble about the great play of Desmond Bane, and are reading up on him being a tremendous force for this Memphis team and for Morant in terms of providing cover from beyond the arc and much more. Perhaps the common NBA fan isn’t familiar with the role Taylor Jenkins and his staff have played in developing numerous undrafted/2nd round players, from John Konchar and Killian Tillie to Xavier Tillman Sr. and De’Anthony Melton. The importance of Zach Kleiman as the architect of all these moving parts, bringing in so many new faces and enabling a group of players with the mental acumen and toughness to cultivate an organic culture where “The Dark” can resonate and inspire, is probably not as known as it should be around the NBA.
Why? Because the Memphis market is but a small dwarf planet in the NBA universe of giants. Yet slowly but surely, the collective senses of the basketball world are awakening to what is happening in Memphis.
That is in large part because of the gravity of the biggest star on the Memphis Grizzlies, Ja Morant.
He isn’t a celebrity actively seeking out the limelight, though. He didn’t adopt “The Dark”, after all, as others may have along the way. He was born in it (s/o to Tom Hardy’s Bane) - which is what makes his connection with the city of Memphis all the more real. Both Morant and Memphis carry with them the weight of the frustration and fury that comes with being underappreciated or overlooked. Both Ja and his NBA home city wear that chip on their shoulder with pride, daring people to try to take them lightly and then begging for the chance to prove them wrong. And both Morant and Memphis understand how much it matters to have people with you that you can come up with. For no one gets through this life alone - whether it’s work to improve the lives of a metropolitan area or become the NBA’s next “it” player.
So when Morant tweets about the greatness of Bane, or how Ziaire Williams is going to show folks what he is capable of soon, or genuinely looks thrilled when one of his teammates gets the postgame interview and he jumps in (or on) the shot, it isn’t something being done for the sake of attention. It’s about showing, and sharing, love. Heaping some of the good vibes and fun times on to those that are on the journey with you. In the process, the brilliance of Ja brings others who perhaps were in the literal basketball darkness in to the light alongside him.
In February of 2020, before the world changed due to COVID-19, the NBA enjoyed All-Star Weekend. The Memphis Grizzlies had three young players as part of the Rising Stars Challenge - Rookies Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke and Sophomore Jaren Jackson Jr. At the time, I wrote about how this young roster was “almost famous” - how we in Memphis were privy to something almost like a secret, like it was almost just between the franchise and their fans what was to come. The piece closed with this -
Regardless of how the weekend plays out, the NBA world will know soon enough just how golden these new Grizzlies can be. The basketball gods will take notice either willingly or by force. But for now? Memphis will have to make due with being almost famous, on the precipice of inevitable super-stardom...but not quite there just yet.
So before they belong to the world? They’re ours. Enjoy it while you can.
Fans of the Memphis Grizzlies have arrived at the precipice of the NBA world knowing what they have known in some way, shape, or form for some time. This team is special. From those that built it, to those that execute it, and everyone inbetween. The future has never been brighter for this franchise than it is right now.
The beauty of that brilliance is that the most scintillating source of the light that beams is more interested in shining on those around him than how he looks as he radiates his rising greatness. It’s beyond Ja Morant. It is all those emerging from the pitch black by his side in to the external glow that comes with success...and the internal knowledge of what it took to get there.
A purposeful dark, followed by an unprecedented light.
And a basketball world, getting to enjoy the view.