The cutoff T-shirt came off, the protective face mask strapped on, and with 3:05 to play in the first quarter of Memphis’s game against Houston on Wednesday, Ja Morant was a Grizzly again. Some 18 days after Morant was exiled—and, ultimately, suspended—for brandishing a gun at a Denver nightclub, he was back on the FedEx Forum floor. Fans in dark-blue Morant jerseys sprinkled the arena. Poster boards with WELCOME BACK JA were visible in the lower bowl. Sitting courtside, Tee Morant, Ja’s father, wore a hoodie with his son’s likeness under the word REDEMPTION.
It was a scripted moment, but frankly everything with Ja Morant’s return has been. There was the PR-shaped statement. The brief stop at a counseling program in Florida. The friendly interview with a former player. No one dismisses the significance of a potential mental health issue, but Morant has run the crisis playbook navigating it.
On Wednesday, Morant came off the bench, a decision that was his, we were told, because he didn’t want to disrupt the team’s recent chemistry—the Grizzlies are 6–3 since Morant went out. “Leadership,” the local broadcast called it. Never mind that Memphis went 20–5 without Morant last season, and he started every game he played in.
On the floor Morant was, well, Morant. When Memphis needed a big play, Morant was there to make it. He tossed a lob pass to Jaren Jackson Jr. He blocked Tari Eason’s layup attempt at the rim. He dived into the crowd after a loose ball and finished a layup through contact moments later. He scored 17 points in 24 minutes. He took a charge from Alperen Şengün in the closing minutes to preserve a 130–125 win.
“Vintage Ja Morant,” ex-Grizzly Brevin Knight said during the broadcast.
Said Morant, “It was good to be back.”
Morant said he has moved past the nightclub incident. He hopes everyone else will, too. He has addressed it. In a statement. In a television interview. On Tuesday, Morant took questions from local reporters. His answers were familiar. Asked about changes he needed to make, Morant said, “Just being more responsible.” He said before the incident in Denver he had noticed “my stress level becoming a problem.” He said the only thing on his mind the last few weeks was “getting in a better space.”
“I’m going to always be Ja,” Morant said. “I won't change for anybody. The only problem with me right now is just getting into a space mentally that I’m very comfortable in and I feel good. That’s why I made the decision to take the time away and go to counseling, and that helped me learn a lot of things.”
At times, Morant was defiant. He bristled at questions about alcohol. “I don’t have an alcohol problem, never had an alcohol problem,” Morant said. He reiterated he didn’t condone any kind of violence but said there had been no discussions about guns with people in his inner circle. When asked about previously reported incidents, Morant said he took responsibility for his role, “but I didn’t say anything about doing anything wrong.”
Fine. Only Morant knows whether his time away has changed him. Morant said he has been uncomfortable since returning to the team. He felt that way Monday, when he watched from the bench as the Grizzlies beat Dallas. He felt it Tuesday, when he declared his playing status “up in the air.” On Wednesday, he spent time with his daughter, Kaari. He talked to himself. “Told myself what I was feeling in that moment,” said Morant. Before the game, he meditated.
“It’s still an ongoing process,” said Morant. “[I’m] continuing to get back comfortable with everything.”
What’s clear on the court is the Grizzlies need him. Memphis has played curiously well without its All-Star playmaker in recent years, but this team can’t win the conference without Morant. Regular-season success is fun but stars win championships in the NBA. In a postseason when the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors could all be in the bottom half of the playoff bracket, Memphis probably can’t get out of the first round.
With Morant, Memphis is a contender. Look around the Western Conference. Who are the Morant-led Grizzlies afraid of? Denver has been struggling. The Clippers just lost Paul George for at least the rest of the regular season. In Phoenix, Kevin Durant is out with another injury. And Golden State can’t win on the road.
There’s an opportunity for the Grizzlies. And for Morant. The redemption hoodies were a family idea, Morant said. “How I felt, kind of like a redemption,” Morant said. “It could have been worse. I got a second chance.” Morant is beloved in Memphis. The crowd roared when he made the walk to the scorer’s table. Louder when he checked in. They are eager to re-embrace him. Most already have. After a postgame interview, Morant closed his hands in the shape of a heart as he ran off the floor.
Morant wants to show the world who he is as a person. He can remind them who he is as a player, too. The Grizzlies’ season appeared threatened when Morant left the team nearly three weeks ago. Back with them, he has a chance to save it.