The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Ja Morant, the NBA’s breakout star, won over his ‘first hater’: His dad

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant has been the breakout star of this NBA season. This time, his dad is impressed. (Jacob Kupferman/AP)
9 min

Ja Morant’s flowing dreadlocks were almost level with the hoop, his hands soaring above the box on the backboard, when he catapulted toward a layup attempt and smothered it against the glass. The play was must-see, repeatedly, from every angle imaginable because the feat seemed so implausible.

But amid all the praise and attention Morant received for a moment that cemented his status as a League Pass darling, there was his father, Tee, ready to douse the excitement with a bottle of Haterade.

“He called that a goaltend,” Ja Morant said with a smile in a recent interview.

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Morant might scrape the rafters whenever he’s windmill-dunking an alley-oop lob, but he has no problem staying grounded. Throughout his 22 years, anytime he has started feeling himself, Morant’s father has been there to tell him what he got wrong, what he could do better, what he wasn’t and what he was never going to be if he didn’t correct himself.

“It’s nothing too much positive with him,” Morant said, shaking his head.

Those criticisms have given Morant his edge, his purpose. Each area he has improved has meant a little less chirping from Tee Morant, his chief agitator and motivator. And in Ja’s breakout third season — during which he has converted critics who used to lose the substance of his game in the saucy highlights, made some Steph Curry fans in Memphis swap Curry’s jersey for his and completed his journey from overlooked prodigy to first-time all-star starter — he has pulled off something more inconceivable than that remarkable two-handed chase-down block: He has made it so the man he refers to as “my first hater” is running out of nits to pick.

“To tell you the truth, this is the happiest I’ve been watching him play basketball,” Tee Morant said. “Because now I can be a fan.”

The man who used to sit on the opposing team’s side at his son’s high school games so that he could heckle or hear what their fans had to say and share that venom with Ja now finds himself more prepared to clap over some no-he-didn’t play than to snap over every little mistake. It’s a slightly uncomfortable position, even with Tee’s cushy leather courtside seat allowing him to live vicariously through an emerging superstar who has guided the Memphis Grizzlies to their second-best start in franchise history and the third-best record in the NBA.

“It’s like a love-hate to me. I love the fact that he’s finally getting his just due, but I hate it because I’m such a villain of complacency,” Tee Morant said. “I hate it when people get a little notoriety and stop working.”

For so long, Tee Morant felt the need to nudge his son, to make sure he never lost sight of his dreams. Tee and his wife, Jamie, raised Ja in tiny Dalzell, S.C., where Tee played high school basketball alongside future Hall of Famer Ray Allen. A bouncy player whose professional aspirations ended with the arrival of his son, Tee helped Ja develop his hops through hundreds of daily jumps on 20-inch-thick tractor tires near the cement backyard court he built to train Ja and his friends.

Although he says “Ja has been Ja at every level,” Tee struggled to not view it as a personal failing when big-time colleges weren’t banging on their door to recruit his son. But Ja always made the best of his circumstances, including using the platform provided by Murray State to become the No. 2 pick of the 2019 NBA draft. Ja Morant has never confused the most important part of his father’s tough love.

“It’s always to make me stay hungry,” said Morant, whose relentless hunt for respect has resulted in his being named rookie of the year, leading the Grizzlies to the playoffs in his second year and becoming the ninth active player to make his first all-star appearance as a starter by his third season.

This season, which has landed Morant in the conversation for the NBA’s MVP, began with him posting a catchphrase on social media: “welcome to the dark.” It’s a nod to all of the jump shots, sprints and floaters done out of the limelight, with the assistance of his father and trainers Jonathan Thomas and Trey Draper. The message has been repeated with each accolade, accompanied by a ninja emoji, suggesting Morant was plotting a stealth attack on the league.

But, Morant said, “I wasn’t planning nothing sneaky. I knew it all along that I could be this type of player.”

What Morant is now doing is in your face, with plenty of moxie and several more doses of intrepidity. The Grizzlies might be young, but they aren’t docile. They flaunt and taunt, wihout fear of repercussions. And they didn’t start once they became a playoff contender.

During his rookie season, Morant took some shots on social media at Andre Iguodala, a three-time champion who refused to play for the rebuilding Grizzlies, sitting out as he waited to be traded or released. That attitude has carried through to today; the team has had smack-talking incidents with LeBron James and Julius Randle. After a recent game against the New York Knicks, Morant said: “We climb up the chimney. We ain’t ducking no smoke.”

And there’s no minimum age or height requirement to be subjected to Morant’s indignation. During a Jan. 12 victory against the Golden State Warriors, Morant got fouled on a spectacular, gliding layup and wanted to confirm to his adoring fans that he is, indeed, the man. “I’m him,” he shouted. A kid in a Curry jersey attempted to give Morant a high-five; instead, he got a stare-down and a snub. Morant might have stayed silent before that hilarious exchange if his words weren’t supported by his work.

“I’m one of the most humblest dudes you’ll ever meet, if you ask people who have been around me, but I’m also confident in my game,” said Morant, who is on pace to become the sixth player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists in his age-22 season. Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Luka Doncic are the others. He added that the Grizzlies have built the right roster for his talents to shine.

“That’s a credit to the organization for putting such a great group of guys around me that allows me to be myself and play at a very high level. I feel like we have a group of guys who are unselfish, who got something to prove, got a chip on their shoulders, and it shows every time we go out there to play.”

The explosive, acrobatic plays — even his audacious missed dunks — have garnered the most attention, but Morant’s success isn’t built on athleticism alone. He’s a student of the game, and his foundation is rooted in fundamentals, not flash. When Morant whips a 30-foot, behind-the-back pass on a fast break or contorts his body at some odd angle to finish at the rim, it’s not because he spent time watching mix tapes or practicing those moves; they were forbidden in his home. He thrives in the wide-open NBA like a classically trained pianist whose creativity lets him double as a mind-blowing jazz improviser.

In film sessions, Morant says, he doesn’t want to bathe in his triumphs; he would rather get dirty with his transgressions. He wants that smoke when it comes to criticism, too. He wants to get better, to understand what he didn’t see on his turnovers, to see whether his feet were positioned correctly on those missed jumpers. And he will be the first to accept blame when his team falls short.

“That’s what I wanted to instill in him, and I always told him: ‘There’s two types of goats — the greatest of all time or the one who blew the game. Never be afraid to be either one of them,’ ” Tee Morant said. “Coaching him is something I realize I don’t have to do anymore. The dude is so cerebral, it’s crazy, because he understands exactly what to do.”

Old habits are hard to break, though, even for someone who has finally been kind of, sort of broken. So when Ja Morant recorded that block on Avery Bradley last month, Tee couldn’t help but rib his son. In this instance, however, he wasn’t hating. He was trying to make sense of what he had just witnessed. Although he cursed to himself after Morant threw a lazy pass that was intercepted, Tee knew his son would recover. How he would make up for the blunder was another story.

“Ain’t no way. There’s no way he timed it that perfect,” Tee Morant said, sounding as if his seat was in Bradley’s head and not on the floor at Arena. “That dude’s got his deodorant mark on the backboard. Who does that?”

“I’m still hard on him,” Tee Morant added. But his dissent is expressed in a different way, he said; he won’t jump up to cheer his son all the time. “My thing was to continue to study the game and realize what we have to do to take it to another level. Right now, I’m a little bit befuddled. He’s playing out of his mind, for real. He’s so disrespectful.”

Tee Morant won’t accept the blame for that: “That boy a cyborg. I built the machine. I can’t control it.”