MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The FedExForum crowd roared as soon as Ja Morant got off the bench and walked to the scorer’s table several minutes into the first quarter on Wednesday, making sure the All-Star point guard felt at home in his first appearance since his eight-game suspension.
The Memphis Grizzlies fans gave Morant a standing ovation when he checked into the game after a timeout with 3:05 remaining in the quarter and cheered loudly as he brought the ball up the court the first time. The crowd gave Morant another standing ovation after his first bucket, when he cut down the middle of the floor, received a pass from Desmond Bane and finished with an acrobatic and-1 layup.
The message sent to Morant, who was away from the team for two weeks after brandishing a gun during an Instagram livestream from a Denver-area strip club on March 4, was that he remains beloved in Memphis.
“It meant a lot, man,” said Morant, who had 17 points, five assists and two steals in the 130-125 win over the Houston Rockets. “Obviously, I’m thankful and grateful for everybody who’s been supporting me during this time. It definitely helped me a lot, definitely made me feel a little better. Eased everything that was going on. Felt good to be back. Super excited. Glad we was able to get the win.”
His teammates were as excited about Morant’s return — and the reception from the crowd — as the fans.
“I was cheesin’,” said Memphis power forward Jaren Jackson Jr., who had a dominant performance with 37 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. “I couldn’t hold it in for real.”
Morant had started every game in his NBA career before Wednesday night, when Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins accepted the superstar’s suggestion that he come off the bench. It will be a temporary adjustment to the rotation as Morant, who played 24 minutes and closed the game, ramps back up to his normal playing time.
Morant made the suggestion in large part due to the success the Grizzlies had during his absence. Memphis won six of the past seven games without Morant, as Tyus Jones excelled while filling in as the starting point guard.
“I didn’t want to come back and mess any of that chemistry up,” Morant said. “Obviously, I was watching film once my time was getting closer to being back, watching how they was playing. Obviously, it’s different from watching and actually being out there. So getting back into the flow, getting back into the offense. Also getting back comfortable with everything. My mental is very important to me, and that was one of the reasons why.”
Morant said he meditated before the game to attempt to calm his nerves. He has emphasized a commitment to prioritizing his mental health, saying that the counseling he received at a Florida facility to manage stress in the wake of the Colorado incident will be an ongoing process.
“I think this has just kind of been part of the journey the last couple weeks for him,” Jenkins said. “He keeps talking about, it’s a process. I mean, I think every day, every example of something on or off the floor, is just another opportunity for him to just kind of embrace what this process and journey’s going to be like for him.”
After the final buzzer, Morant held his 3-year-old daughter, Kaari, in his arms during an on-court interview with the Grizzlies’ broadcast team. She wore a custom hoodie with a picture of Morant and the word “REDEMPTION” on the front, as did Morant’s father, Tee, and uncle Phil while sitting courtside.
“That was my family’s idea,” Morant said. “It’s me coming back after some negative things have been said constantly throughout this whole basically, what, year and a half now. How I felt? Kind of like a redemption, obviously. It could have been worse. I got a second chance. I feel like it’s only going to make it right. Show who Ja is as a person.”
(With Inputs from ESPN)
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