Ja Morant Changes Everything

From turning little-known Murray State into a tourney contender to turning the Grizzlies into a potential playoff team as a rookie, Morant's impact is instantaneous—and goes way beyond the court.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorJuly 15, 2020

When he watches Ja Morant play, watches him breeze up the court wearing the Memphis Grizzlies jersey he himself wore not so long ago, Zach Randolph can't help but smile.

"He could be my son!" the 38-year-old Randolph laughs, pointing out that his eldest, at 21, is actually older than the 20-year-old rookie star.

But it's not the thought of the next generation that's got him smiling.

Randolph, who played for the Grizzlies for eight memorable seasons, regularly was making the trip from his home in Los Angeles back to Memphis after retiring in 2019 and before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut down the 2019-20 season. It gave him the opportunity to become close with Morant, the team's rookie star and second overall pick in last June's draft—and also to see the impact Morant is having on the fanbase. And doing so, what he sees more than anything is not a next generation but a continuation of the last one.

"He's just like me," Randolph says. "Blue-collar player. Honest. Humble. Heart like a giant. He gives back. The people of Memphis see that Ja is just like them, too: a hard worker, where nothing's been given to him.”

"This city is the best place for him. For his personality."


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Randolph has followed his former club closely to see where the franchise would head as it rebuilt from the Grit and Grind era. Few might have predicted the Grizzlies would have a chance to make the playoffs at this point, as the NBA reboots in Orlando late this month. Randolph likes what he sees, though. "The future is bright for these young Grizzlies," he says. "I think as an organization, we're headed in the right direction.

"The sky is the limit for Ja. I just love his leadership. The thing he's accomplished already, being a franchise player, leading this team as a rookie." Randolph laughs again, thinking of the effect Morant has had on the franchise, beyond his court vision, beyond his electrifying dunks: "Half the gym be Murray State fans."

MEMPHIS, TN - JANUARY 17: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies poses with fans before the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 17, 2020 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

This, more than anything, is what we've come to expect of Morant, from where we first met him in small Murray, Kentucky, to Memphis. Wherever he goes, he brings with him a magnetism. People must watch him, must support him, must be with him.

"It's his mentality," teammate Jaren Jackson Jr. says. "The fans in Memphis are very hungry. They love the fact that they're always the underdog somewhat, in some way. It's honestly a perfect fit."

Morant relishes the same thing. When people have counted his team out. When they can't imagine a school they've never heard of beating a fifth seed in the NCAA tournament. When they predict his NBA team won't crack 27 wins. Like his city, "he excels when people think he's the underdog," Murray State assistant coach Casey Long says.

"We can always talk about what he does in the gym, but it's the stuff he does outside that makes him a complete professional," Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins says. "The amount of film that he watches, the amount of dialogue he has with his teammates. He is building that chemistry and becoming that leader."

"He's a guy who leads by example—doesn't say too much, but he's very good at communicating what he wants to do on the court in terms of direction," Jackson says. "As a point guard you've got to be able to do that, be an extension of the coach. He does a great job of that."

MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 27: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13, Ja Morant #12, and Jae Crowder #99 of the Memphis Grizzlies walk on the court against the Brooklyn Nets on October 27, 2019 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

And for Morant, it's not just about personal expectations. It's about a feeling of collective pride. "He wears the city that he's in on his shoulder," Long says. "He takes unbelievable pride in not only becoming the fabric of that city but wanting to put it on the map."

Memphians have embraced him, and he them, becoming a regular at local institutions such as the Arcade Restaurant, where Elvis Presley used to sit near the back door so he could slip out easily if a fan approached him out of hand.

When Morant and Jackson came in back in January, Morant asked for whatever his waiter would like to serve him; he'd be open to anything. "We brought him Elvis' favorite fried peanut butter banana sandwich," says Kelcie Zepatos, who runs the restaurant (Memphis' oldest, having opened in 1919) with her husband, Jeff Zepatos.

Kelcie remembers the atmosphere during the season—energy Morant helped bring: "It's electrifying. You can feel the buzz in the streets," she says. "Even for dinner before the games, you see everybody walking around."

When Morant signed his rookie contract with the Grizzlies in July, he brought his family, about eight people, to the famed Majestic Grille on Main Street, about two blocks from where the Grizzlies play. The restaurant used to be a silent-picture theater and has been around for over 100 years. Morant came in, wearing a tie, happy to be with his loved ones, embarking on his dream of becoming a pro.

"The whole family was tickled, just sweet," says Deni Reilly, who runs the restaurant with her husband, Patrick Reilly. "I remember thinking: He's so young! We were all excited about getting such a high pick."

Reilly's seven-year-old son, Seamus, immediately became one of Morant's biggest fans. Every time Morant runs down the court and scores inside, Seamus walks closer to the television and exclaims: "That quick guy! That is the quick guy!" Quick guy is his nickname for Morant.

Mark Griffin, a manager of one of the city's many local Huey's restaurants, has been a Grizzlies fan ever since the team moved from Vancouver. "That was a big deal, when we finally got a franchise," Griffin says. He felt like Morant was the right pick for Memphis. "You really loved the guy right off the bat. We started to click immediately with him and his underdog story. He's just so fun to watch."

That's what motivates season-ticket holder Lucas Horrell, 34, to make a four-hour round trip from his home in Missouri just to see the team play at least once a week. He sits near Morant's parents and has gotten to know the family a bit.

"It's almost like a vacation in a way for me: getting away, enjoying the game," he says.

It's given many hope for the future. "He's helping develop the new Grizzlies identity," Reilly says. "Even with the goggles that he does, he's given us a personality."

MEMPHIS, TN - FEBRUARY 29: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 29, 2020 at FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Adds Horrell, "When he's on the court, the whole team just seems to flow better."

The results on the court, indeed, have been a huge improvement. Averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 assists per game, Morant is the heavy favorite to win Rookie of the Year and has helped the Grizzlies to a 32-33 record after they went 33-49 last season and 22-60 the season before. They enter the restart in eighth place in the Western Conference standings, 3.5 games ahead of the Trail Blazers, Kings and Pelicans. If all goes according to the NBA’s plan, teams will play a final eight regular-season games when play resumes, after which the eighth-place team will make the playoffs if it's ahead by more than four games or play a play-in tournament against the ninth-place team if not.

Morant appears to be very ready for the challenge, to get back at it. When players were allowed to resume practices together, Jackson says, "We were in there as much as possible, literally. It felt like we lived in there, almost. That's how we like it, anyway."

Morant also gained 12 pounds of muscle during the shutdown, according to his former Murray State coaches, with whom he still constantly checks in. Not that it's all basketball, all the time. Morant, who became a father last August and is an active Instagrammer of photos of his daughter, now has more than hoops to talk about with his old coaches. They talk about first smiles. Cleaning up. Diapers. Giggles. First teeth. Crawls. Staying up all night. He joked with the coaches recently about how they all manage to get some sleep.

"We're watching him becoming a man in front of our eyes," Long says.

MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 5: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies interacts with a fan at the Memphis Grizzlies Open Practice on October 5, 2019  at Memphis University School in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Brandon Dill/Getty Images

A man with that same demeanor he had in college, eager to make his mark, eager to prove people wrong. "He has kept that same hunger," says Tim Kaine, another Murray State assistant coach. "He just stays focused, always being in the moment."

"I see a great commitment from him every single day to get better," Murray State head coach Matt McMahon says. "That'll really allow him to continue to grow into his stardom for the next 15, 20 years.

"He's a once-in-a-lifetime player."

One who just seems to fit with the small-town feel of Memphis, same as he did in Murray, Kentucky, and Dazell, South Carolina, where he was born and raised. That's something his high school coach, Dwayne Edwards of Crestwood High, hopes he never forgets.

Edwards attended a Grizzlies game this season and proudly wore his Crestwood basketball shirt. He spotted his former player making highlight-reel dunks, absorbing contact, dazzling, finishing. He looked comfortable. He looked like he belonged.

Edwards thought back to a conversation he had with Morant when he was drafted by Memphis, one he's had with him regularly over the years, since high school: "Regardless of where you're at, remember where you are from," Edwards told Morant. "Be proud of where you are from. Please, always remember. Always remember where you started."

         

Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.

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