- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- American basketball player
Even several hours later, Ja Morant struggled to express the feeling of knowing more than 1.6 million votes had been cast for him, of realizing he had passed Luka Doncic in NBA All-Star voting.
He had talked so long about wanting this, to the point that it framed this entire season. Memphis Grizzlies general manager Zach Kleiman predicted Morant would be an All-Star when he spoke to reporters on the opening day of training camp almost four months ago.
So now that it was happening, now that Morant knew only Steph Curry had more fan votes than him among Western Conference guards, now that he tried to put all that into words, those words were as astonishing as they were authentic. They were confirmation that he’s only beginning to understand what is happening.
STEPHEN A. SMITH'S APOLOGY: Memphis Grizzlies fans accept, shame ESPN's Stephen A Smith apology for sleeping on success
“It’s almost like a little emotional moment just to see how many fans I got who want to see me in the All-Star game. It’s big time. Thank y’all. Love y’all,” Morant said. “I feel like a lot of people don’t like me for some reason. I appreciate the ones who root for me and vote for me.”
It was a week Morant realized almost everyone sees him as the superstar he always wanted to be. The superstar he never could be before because it was not that long ago he was an unheralded recruit who ended up at Murray State. The superstar who ESPN pundits decided would be the best young player in the league to have on their team over even Doncic.
The Grizzlies’ season entered a new stratosphere over the course of this historic winning streak, a stunning rise if only because it seemed to happen so suddenly. There are moments from this that will live on in franchise lore forever, and most of them revolve around Morant.
He has been anointed in a manner no other Grizzlies player has been. Even the few doubters he still allows to filter into his worldview serve as proof of his status.
The buzz is palpable, calculable and comparable to an all-time great.
Morant is receiving a similar amount of online search volume and media attention as LeBron James did in his third season, according to an analysis done by Matt Balvanz, the senior vice president of analytics and innovation at Navigate, an entertainment and sports market research company.
“He’s finally getting his flowers, and it’s a beautiful thing,” said Morant’s father, Tee.
Balvanz noted that James’ popularity skyrocketed, with his online search and media attention increasing by 800% during his next two seasons in the NBA, when he won back-to-back MVP awards.
On one hand, Morant achieving the level of fame and success of James seems premature and far-fetched, despite how big this feels of late. But the way Morant is performing, rising to meet a moment in time when more people than ever are watching him, there’s a parallel to be drawn. That’s what the best in the game tend to do.
There was his game winner in Phoenix, his duels with James and Kevin Durant, the "M-V-P" chants in Brooklyn, his chase-down block in Los Angeles that went viral, his steal that beat Cleveland and then the coronation against Golden State on Monday. When Memphis and the entire NBA universe saw the Grizzlies as the contender they always planned to be, perhaps for the first time, and Morant stared down a little kid in a Curry jersey after the clinching 3-point-play.
Even Thursday’s win over Minnesota – the John Konchar breakout game – will also be remembered as the game that brought kids from all over the region to swap their old jerseys for a Morant one.
They were lined up outside FedExForum two hours before tipoff, and the jerseys that were discarded felt symbolic.
The first kid in line drove three hours to be there, just to get rid of his Curry jersey. There was an old Michael Jordan jersey and the Durant Warriors’ gear. A Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic jersey and an old No. 11 Mike Conley Grizzlies jersey that made you a little sad but also emphasized how quickly Morant became part of the fabric of this city.
There was a Chandler Parsons Grizzlies jersey that Cruiz Christie hadn’t worn since a fourth grade basketball camp. She’s now in the seventh grade. There was an Allen Iverson Denver Nuggets jersey put in the pile because “Ja Morant is the new Iverson,” Quincy White Sr. said standing next to his 10-year-old son.
There was even a Zion Williamson New Orleans Pelicans jersey that hardly looked worn.
“As the first pick,” 11-year-old Kaleb Cottrell said, “I be expecting more.”
Inherent in that statement is an acknowledgement that he expected Williamson to be like Morant. That Morant is at another level now.
Maybe Memphis grasped the notion before the week began. But for this week, the rest of the NBA started to as well. Morant realized they were, too.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: The week Ja Morant became the superstar he always wanted to be