Mista don’t play: Ja Morant and Memphis are holding each other up 

A struggling city sees a beacon of hope in its new superstar

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — His dunks are a high that every Memphis sports fan craves. The winning streaks he helps orchestrate bring a swagger that injects itself into the city’s arteries. But even with that there was one moment in particular that confirmed for Memphians that Ja Morant — their franchise point guard who’ll be starting in the All-Star Game later this month — was one of their own.

The Grizzlies took on the Chicago Bulls in late January when Morant and Bulls center Tony Bradley got into a dustup following a foul call. It was promptly broken up by his Grizzlies teammate Steven Adams, perhaps the strongest man in the league, who carried Bradley away from Morant. But on the bench, Morant let it be known he’d gladly invite all the smoke.

“I can fight,” he said. “I can fight, all right.”

For a city boasting classics such as “If You Ain’t From My ‘Hood” and “Testin’ My Gangsta,” that energy was music to a musical city’s ears. His heart didn’t pump Kool-Aid. If an opposing player wanted to take it there, Morant, currently seventh in scoring and the league leader in WAIT, WHAT?! moments, would be the one providing directions.

Ja Morant (right) of the Memphis Grizzlies interacts with a fan on Oct. 5, 2019, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Brandon Dill/NBAE via Getty Images

“He comes from the same fabric. He plays the way we are here,” said Jerry Dover Jr., head basketball coach at the all-girls private school St. Mary’s Episcopal in East Memphis. “That’s why we gravitate to him so much.”

Three years ago, Morant and his uncle Phil Morant — yes, Uncle Phil — sat courtside at a University of Memphis Tigers game. Morant was on his way to becoming rookie of the year, dazzling NBA fans with the same electric play that made him a consensus All-American at Murray State. Yet, the Grizzlies ranked near the bottom in attendance. But at this Memphis game, there were people as far as he could see, in a frenzy all game. Even during timeouts.

“Man,” Morant told his uncle, as he took in the packed stands in FedExForum, “why they don’t come to our games like this?”

The Bluff City prides itself on two things. One, its barbecue, which can elicit drooling at a mere mention. And two, basketball. Names such as Elliot Perry and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, the current Tigers coach and NBA legend, are nationally known. Then there are local legends like Taurean “T-Head” Moy, who once hit 24 3-pointers in a game. The “Grit & Grind” Grizzlies of the early 2010s may as well be a religion.

And say the name “Zach Randolph” anywhere within the city’s limits and you’re liable to get a spiritual reaction. Randolph played for five teams in his 16-year career, but no city embraced him like Memphis. Paintings of Randolph still sit in bars and “Z-Bo,” his name remixed from the legendary Friday bully Deebo played by Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr., is a Memphis sports legend not because of how he played on the court, but how he embraced the community. Basketball in Memphis isn’t just an obsession. It’s a lifeline.

So as uncle and nephew sat courtside, they recognized they were seeing the soul of the city.

Memphis was for so long, and in some ways still is, a Tigers town. They were the only team in the city until the Grizzlies relocated from Vancouver before the start of the 2001-02 season. Nonetheless, what a difference three years makes. It’s in Huey’s, a popular bar downtown peppered in Grizzlies paintings and pride. It’s on the radio. The Grizzlies are hosting a revival, and Ja Morant is the maestro.

The team’s turnaround has been largely homegrown. Jaren Jackson Jr. was drafted fourth overall in 2018 and Morant a year later with the second pick. Key players such as Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane and Adams were brought in through the draft and free agency. In Morant’s first season, the Grizzlies barely missed the playoffs, losing in the play-in game. Last year, they lost in the first round to the Utah Jazz, but not before a 47-point Morant masterpiece in Game 2.

This year, the Grizzlies sit third in the Western Conference and boast one of the youngest, most entertaining and most complete teams in the league. Dating to a decade before his arrival, the Grizzlies never ranked higher than 18th in attendance. Last year, they were 11th. This season, they’re 15th. While Randolph may be the most cherished star in the team’s history, it’s Morant who has already separated himself as a superstar with crossover appeal the likes of which the franchise has never experienced.

Uncle Phil has an adage he preaches and his nephew follows: “First year, learn it. Second year, master it,” Phil Morant said. “Third year, tear s— up! It’s yours!”

What Morant’s done for the team is as obvious as it is electrifying. But especially in the aftermath of the recent shooting death of hip-hop star Young Dolph, what Morant has done for Memphis is widely appreciated.

Tee Morant (left), father of Ja Morant, with his brother Phil Morant (right). Phil Morant says the match between the city of Memphis and his nephew is natural.

Phil Morant

“Ja and the Grizzlies have emerged as that premiere beacon of hope for us,” Memphis radio personality Suzie “Big Sue” Purnell co-signs. “Being able to have that while we mourn … it gives hope for the city.”

“Ja is a singular talent. I mean, he’s got great pieces around him. But it’s a new experience,” John Martin, host on ESPN Radio 92.9 in Memphis, said. “In this place, we’re used to being left out of the discussion. Now not only are we in the discussion. We’re in VIP right now.” 

And then there’s perhaps the highest praise.

“Culturally,” Dover proclaimed, “he will have an Allen Iverson-like effect on the city. It’s that deep.”

Big Sue radiates Southern hospitality as she sits in a studio at the iHeartRadio offices roughly 20 minutes from downtown. There’s a rule about Memphis, she said, one that Morant is passing with flying colors.

“If you take one step towards Memphis and say, ‘I wanna put roots here. I wanna know more about it,’ ” Purnell, the senior vice president of programming for iHeart’s Delta region, said, “Memphis will take 10 steps towards you.”

Almost immediately after being drafted, Morant made it a mission to become a fixture in the community. Random moments like handing out pizzas at local gas stations never made any highlights package, but it resonated at home. Even before playing a game, in August 2019, he matched donations up to $10,000 to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis and shortly thereafter for a back-to-school shopping spree with Academy Sports. Morant gave each child a new backpack and $100 and helped kids select clothes in their size. During the holiday season last year, Morant highlighted local charities and businesses during an initiative he dubbed #Jas12DaysOfKindness. 

Phil Morant says the match between the city and Morant is natural.

“Ja is from Dalzell, South Carolina. His dad is from there. His mom is from Augusta, Georgia,” he said. “You spend your whole life in that part of the South and then you go to Murray, Kentucky. It’s a Walmart, Mister B’s wing spot [there]. It ain’t really a lot. He’s only really been in really small cities. And they’re all in the South. So New York or LA, had it panned out, man, that could’ve been a culture shock. I was like, this is perfect!”

Perfection on the Grizzlies part came after a long run of imperfection. Few franchises have had worse luck in the draft, especially when it involves the second overall pick. When the team was in Vancouver, it selected Steve Francis in the 1999 draft. The University of Maryland standout and later co-rookie of the year forced a trade before putting on a Grizzlies jersey. Four years later, Memphis missed out on the opportunity to draft LeBron James by a single envelope. An unforgiving 1997 trade for Otis Thorpe — dubbed the worst in NBA history — forced Memphis to relinquish the second pick to Detroit instead of potentially drafting Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. And in 2009, the Grizzlies whiffed on the chance to take any one of a trio of future Hall of Famers in Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan or James Harden at No. 2 overall. They opted for Hasheem Thabeet instead.

Before being drafted, Morant knew of the hip-hop scene in the city. He rocked with Yo Gotti and especially Moneybagg Yo — the latter recorded the song “Rookie of the Year” in honor of the 2019-20 rookie of the year. They also starred in a Nike commercial highlighting Morant’s connection to Memphis last year.

For all of its beautiful qualities, the city is still wrestling with its history, most infamously as the place where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. On a sunny, cold day in late January, the Lorraine Motel welcomes visitors. The location where King took his final breath on April 4, 1968, has been a museum since 1991. Foot traffic is light, but conversations are even lighter. It’s one of those places where people come to take in the energy — understanding that not just history happened here. That motel balcony is symbolic of the best of what America had and the worst of what it was capable of.

The truth is, the assassination of King 54 years ago left Memphis to shoulder an impossible burden – the city that took an icon. And it continues to wrestle with its image as a violent place. In December 2021, the publication 24/7 Wall St. called Memphis the most dangerous city in America, according to FBI statistics, with a violent crime rate of 1,309 per 100,000 residents.

Linda White has heard it all for years. The interim chair for the Division of Fine Arts and Humanities at LeMoyne-Owen College, the city’s lone historically Black college, sits behind her desk in between meetings and shakes her head.

“We’re currently in 38126, so you ‘technically’ should be ducking. It’s like what? I actually live in 38126! I live right over there!” she said of her ZIP code, pointing out the window. While there are statistics showing it is one of the most dangerous ZIP codes in the country, for White, no numerical figure could fracture her connection. “I challenge that every time someone says something. I’ve been here for 17 years and I feel as safe as I did 17 years ago. I’m not afraid of my community, so stop trying to make it that way.”

It’s a narrative that she and many Memphians have been fighting for generations. 

“When they say King died in Memphis, I say, ‘OK, where did Malcolm X die again?’ ” she said. “Is New York on lockdown? They don’t present it that way. The national identity is New York is the cultural mecca and you have to go. It’s the branding. It’s the language.”

It’s no secret that it is a community plagued with abject wealth and equity gaps. U.S. Census numbers show that while Black people make up nearly two-thirds of the population in Memphis (white people are 29%), the average white household income is $75,000 with Black and Latino households at $40,000 and $39,000, respectively. And most of the 25% of Memphians classified as poor are Black people.

The slaying of Young Dolph in November 2021 once again associated the city with tragedy. Young Dolph’s music came to represent Memphis in a uniquely visceral way, with the good, the bad and the ugly. Yet, he poured time and resources into the city, much like Nipsey Hussle in Los Angeles. It’s impossible not to feel Young Dolph in Memphis. He’s on the radio multiple times an hour and there’s always a “R.I.P. Dolph” spray-painted somewhere.

Kathy Northington stands with her dog as they look over the memorial for rapper Young Dolph on Dec. 30, 2021. Young Dolph’s music came to represent the city in a unique way.

Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal/USA Today Network

“It’s really interesting that Memphis is a place that can host such greatness and such tragedy at the same time. Dolph’s passing hurt in a way I can’t explain,” said Big Sue, her eyes glossy. “When you have someone like that taken from you, that’s not something you’re going to get over in any predetermined amount of time. That’s something you just continue to mourn. You do your best to try and keep that spirit alive.”

For many people, a familiar lifeline provides comfort: basketball. And Morant is the catalyst behind that.

“This drive that they’re having and the season that they’re having helps with the grieving process,” said DJ Mic Tee, the Grizzlies’ team DJ. “Because Dolph was a huge fan.”

Being a superstar here carries a different connotation. Memphis has adopted Morant and it’s a love affair for a city that feels long overdue for one. There is no Hollywood sign like Los Angeles or skyline like New York in Memphis. It doesn’t have a beach like Miami. What Memphis has is love.

“We need to show that without the violence,” White said. “This young man, Ja Morant, he’s also bringing his city along with him. He’s staying connected. That’s what we really need to focus on and praise in our culture. And in our city.”

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant high-fives a fan after making a basket against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 20, 2021, at FedExForum.

Petre Thomas/USA TODAY Sports

A Memphian’s love isn’t contingent on what they can get out of a person. If they say they love you, they’re 10 toes down behind you. But as a starter in the All-Star Game later this month, Morant is taking Memphis to the brightest of stages. Well, maybe not the brightest because playing in June sounds like heaven on earth to the basketball-crazy city.

What the rest of the season holds for Morant and the Grizzlies is up to them. That’s what the city wants: the opportunity to write its own story. Their words, their experiences, their love. 

“I think Ja could retire a Grizzly because he sees himself in this place and this place sees itself in him,” said Martin, the radio host. “Ja’s not from here. But he’s of here.”

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.