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Memphis Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson: A conversation about MLK, Memphis and Ja Morant

During Memphis’ annual MLK celebration, the team’s star talked about when he’ll return from injury, his message about voting and more

The Memphis Grizzlies’ annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. will be different this year. Most of the events will be virtual because of COVID-19 and the Grizzlies will have only a few fans at the nationally televised game on MLK Day. The team will also be without its two young stars, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant.

But as part of this year’s MLK Weekend festivities – hosted by the Grizzlies; the National Civil Rights Museum; the city of Memphis, Tennessee; and Shelby County – Jackson participated in a conversation about race and sports that was facilitated by The Undefeated.

Jackson suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee in August while the Grizzlies were in the NBA’s bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida. He said he will not only miss the joy of playing in the MLK Day game, but the energy that comes to Memphis as people would normally attend the celebration and visit the National Civil Rights Museum.

“I just love how it brings the whole city together,” Jackson, 21, said in his first public comments since having knee surgery in August. “It was just joy, fans of the game, it was packed, people tailgating. People go through in the morning, they’ll wake up, be with their families, we’ll do a lot of learning in that morning, go to the museum, talk to different people. …

“And then they just all come to the game. And then it’s just one big, no matter how the game goes, we’re just all here on this day, and it’s a collective thing. So that’s really where the joy comes.”

Among this year’s virtual events honoring King will be the Sports Legacy Award presentation to former NBA players Ray Allen and Kenny Smith and Los Angeles Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike, and the annual Earl Lloyd Sports Legacy Symposium.

The following are highlights from the conversation with Jackson, who discussed the timeline for his return from injury, how he was pained by Morant’s injury, King’s legacy, and the deadly uprising at the U.S. Capitol.

Ja Morant (left) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (right) of the Memphis Grizzlies before a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 11 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

How are you doing mentally and physically right now?

I’ve been good. I knew going into this process that it was going to take a little bit. I definitely had probably a day where I was just mad about it, but definitely not now. I have a lot better perspective over the whole thing. And I’m young. I got to just make sure everything is right, because I don’t want to be having these problems later. So I’m just taking the time now to make sure my body is good, my knee is good, I’m healthy. … I’ll be back this [season]. Who knows when, but it won’t be too long.

What was your toughest day following your injury?

Probably just watching my team lose in the bubble from home. I had to leave and go get surgery, and I came back home and we were playing Portland and that was our last game. And I remember watching that, just sick that I couldn’t participate in it, and really wanted to help them any way I could, because I just knew I could. That was probably the hardest day.

Then it just became summer, and then it was the grind. I was in the gym every day, working on rehab. … It’s just been a lot. I’m thinking about probably everything right now and I’m glad I’ve been taking the ride I’ve taken.

So no timetable for a return to playing?

I have a timetable. It’s not that far, believe me. It will probably sneak up on you, but it’s something that remains to be seen.

There was a report that you grew. Is that true?

Yeah, I grew.

How tall are you now?

Seven feet.

Is that going to affect your game in any way?

I just got to be a 7-footer now, man, do 7-foot stuff, duck under doors and try to touch the rim without jumping. There’s a bunch of 7-foot bucket list of things I got to check off, like being in Walmart and getting paper towels for ladies.

What has this time off the court been like with Ja?

It really isn’t that much different, because we talk all the time, regardless, who’s playing, who’s not. We’re always talking. But I think when he went out, I was like, ‘Wow.’ That was a horrible day, for me at least. Definitely for him, but I was sick for him. I didn’t really feel like talking to nobody. Even after the game, and we won that game. So I was just sick for him. But no, he’s taking it like a champ, and he’ll be back sooner than me. So he’ll be back running and doing all his stuff. He looks great right now. …

We have good attitudes about it. We trust in the process. Trust in God, all that, and not thinking too hard about anything. We feel the love from everybody around us, wanting us to get back.

Unfortunately, you’re not going to get to play on MLK Day. But how would you describe what it’s like to play on that day?

It’s a very important day. Just go out there and give it your all, because you know that it’s important, that it’s a very visible game for a lot of people who may not have seen basketball, may not have seen you play. Definitely a time for people to get introduced to you.

So put your best foot forward, but know that that’s an important day to everybody in America. Just go out there and play hard. It’s very significant, especially in Memphis, where we have a great museum that’s usually packed during that time and you just have a lot of stuff going around in the city that means a lot.

What are some of the things that have stood out to you from going to the museum?

My favorite part about the museum, in general, is just how it flows. It doesn’t give away everything about MLK’s life. It takes you through it piece by piece, so you don’t have any judgments, you just see everything in the time he saw it, at the time and how it makes sense. And when you go through it like that, a lot of the things he did make sense.

I know that people wanted him to be more like Malcolm X at that time and just be very straightforward out there about it. Where Malcolm X was more of a let’s just take everything down kind of attitude, Martin Luther King was patience and perseverance and doing the little things, and helping thy neighbor and stuff like that, which was very significant. And I think both have positives for sure, but it’s nice to see somebody who stuck to that even though he probably was told from everybody that an explosive option was another way, and he just stayed strong and didn’t do it.

You had “Vote” on the back of your Grizzlies jersey in the bubble. Why did you choose that message?

Voting is something that my ancestors died for, so it was something very important to me and my family. And it was a very relevant topic at the time. We went to the bubble, and I thought definitely it was the right message to put out there, because I was putting it out there in other ways, like I was telling a lot of people to vote through social media and a lot of other ways. But putting it on my jersey is very visible, very easy to get that message across to younger fans, even the ones who couldn’t vote, to do it when they can, and that it is important. …

I had ‘voting’ in my draft suit. So I’ve been talking about voting. I’ll always talk about voting. I’ll always be more than ready to talk about it, because I think it’s so important. And you can see what that has done for our country now.

The Memphis Grizzlies hosted an early voting event with Jaren Jackson Jr. at Agricenter International on Oct. 21, 2020, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

What was your take on last week’s deadly attack on the Capitol in Washington?

Definitely speechless at first. I didn’t really know that was going to happen or anticipate it happening, but it was kind of sad to see. It is a reflection of what energy has been brought over the past year. So I’m not as surprised when I really thought about it, because this is the kind of stuff that’s been bubbling up and the kind of stuff that’s been portrayed there.

Leadership definitely has to step up and be better with that. We can’t let stuff like that happen. It just shows that we have a long way to go. But definitely sad to see, and I’m hoping that that doesn’t continue to happen.

Do you have hope for better days for this country through the younger generation?

They’ll be the ones to do it. This country won’t really get better with our generation or the ones before mine. … We’re kind of losing right now, but the kids under us are going to be the ones to really do justice. So I’m just concentrating on teaching them the answer so they can implement it.

Because you can’t really try to change adults’ minds. It just doesn’t work. They’ve got their own values. They’ve got their own stuff. They’re pretty stubborn, unless they have some revelation or go through enlightenment, they’re pretty stubborn. So you got to tell kids and tell them to just do the research and stand for them. Don’t just listen to adults because they tell you it’s right, definitely do your own research. Now a kid is going to get an iPhone at an earlier age, so go ahead and look it up. You guys have the tools.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.