LOS ANGELES — There’s the subset of stratospheric celebrities who get the one-name treatment. And basketball has its wing of stars – M.J., K.D., A.D. – identifiable by their initials.
But then there are those transcendent single-syllable intergalactic talents, guys who can light a fuse and get the blood flowing and just keep surprising you.
Ja, man. Ja rules.
But nah, Ja. Not Friday night. The Lakers avoided more late-game heartbreak, subduing Ja and his surging Memphis Grizzlies, 122-121, after outsourcing them 41-32 in the fourth quarter to end their 11-game winning streak in the process.
Friday’s result aside, Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant, the Grizzlies’ delightfully acrobatic star guard is, as they say nowadays, “Him” – with the neatly scripted tattoo atop his right hand to spell it out for you, probably because #LeaguePassAlert wouldn’t fit.
The NBA’s resident flying trapeze artist, an elevating, levitating, contorting magician, he makes for appointment viewing, because you really never know what you’ll see. In a nationally televised game Friday, the stunning play was the fracas in which his father was involved at the end of the first half at Crypto.com Arena.
It started with the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks exchanging words with Shannon Sharpe, the former NFL tight end turned sports talk show host. (Apparently, it was a high-minded debate about Brooks’ ability to guard LeBron James, to which Brooks’ said his response was: “I told him he missed the shot, that’s all.”)
Memphis center Steven Adams, the big Kiwi, stood up for his mate, as did Tee Morant, Ja’s ever-present, extra-enthusiastic father. He and Sharpe had to be kept separated on the sideline before Ja and his teammates headed for the visitor’s locker room and Sharpe and Tee on their separate ways.
Both spectators were back in their seats on opposite sides of the court to start the second half, when the Grizzlies built on their 53-49 halftime lead and Ja added to his six-point tally. A quarter later, when Memphis led 89-81 and Ja had 20, Sharpe and Tee Morant embraced, appearing on much better terms.
After the game, Ja – who’d score only twice more, finishing with 22 points – thought for 13 seconds about what he wanted to say about the incident before deciding, “I ain’t gonna address that.”
Playing against Russell Westbrook, Ja’s favorite player when he was coming up, and Patrick Beverley, Ja’s favorite nemesis from last season’s feisty postseason foray, the Grizzlies failed to extinguish the Lakers’ upset intentions.
Memphis relinquished a double-digit lead for the first time all season, finally failing another test of mettle, not by helped Ja’s off night; he shot 9 for 29 from the field.
It was a satisfying victory for the Lakers against a Grizzlies team that, at 31-14, has been working to – with the 33-13 Denver Nuggets – separate itself from the otherwise tightly bunched pack in the Western Conference standings.
And it was an unexpected downer for the inordinately large number of fans wearing Memphis jerseys in the Lakers’ crowd, most of them with Morant’s No. 12 on the back, tributes to the leader of what is fast becoming the NBA’s it team, that’s brash and exciting and good.
Here’s the thing, though: You can be a Lakers (or Clippers) fan and appreciate Ja. You don’t have to be a South Carolinian to claim him, or to be a gritty Memphis fan to embrace his gifts.
You just have to have a pulse. And, perhaps, not be an aggrieved talk show host? And even then!
Because not enjoying watching Ja play basketball is like not liking music. There are a few of you out there, and I don’t know what to tell you. Even the New York Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden stopped booing to cheer for him when he was introduced before playing there.
Even in defeat, there’s just a certain Ja de Vivre to the way the man plays. He told TNT’s Taylor Rooks on her podcast last summer, “I feel like every day you should celebrate life, if you wake up that morning, you can never take life for granted,” and he plays like that. Like it’s a celebration.
And basketball fans, you’re all invited.
RSVPs have come pouring in since Ja’s rookie season in 2019-20. Only Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry has more views across social media, according to the league’s tally.
Pasadena’s Kye Pawlenko, with his 12-year-old son Otto, circled Friday’s game on the calendar to make their first visit to Crytpo.com Arena – in their Grizzlies gear: “They’re the most exciting team in the NBA and Ja’s just so exciting and explosive.”
“And tough,” Otto added.
Casey Carpenter, a Memphis native, drove in from Palm Springs with newish Grizzlies fan Shelby Ingalls to take in their first game in the building, both of them decked out in Memphis blue too: “They’re the most fun team to watch in the league right now,” Carpenter said.
“It’s definitely a buzz,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said of the roadshow that’s been building around his young squad. “You see it outside the hotels, you see it in the streets, outside the arenas, when our guys get introduced on the road, the warm receptions our guys get. … You gotta earn that.”
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And Ja might be getting accustomed to hearing “M-V-P” chants – including in Brooklyn and Orlando – but he hasn’t earned serious consideration in that conversation yet.
And the Grizzlies don’t yet have most basketball watchers convinced they’ll win the NBA championship. Yet.
But with their aggressive ascension – they reached the play-in tournament three years ago, the first round of the playoffs two years ago and got as far as the Western Conference semifinals last season – they’ve earned the league’s respect. Including, certainly, that of the Lakers, on Friday.
And Ja – whose 27.4 points per game in his age-22 season put him in exclusive company along with only Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson – has already received a five-year, $193 million designated rookie contract extension that could become worth $231 million.
Now it’ll be a question of what comes next.
It wouldn’t be a shock if it’s something spectacular. But there’s still, as Ja put it postgame Friday, “some cleaning up to do.”
— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) January 21, 2023