The comeback came with a serenade. A fitting, if not a bit overly literal, song entitled “Get Back” by a Memphis rapper accompanied the NBA’s most compelling highlight of the week. The moment when Ja Morant reminded everyone what we’ve been missing this past month and a half.
The rapper, or perhaps his social media team, posted the highlight of Morant along with the trap beat intro of his track. And as Morant, the motor and moxie behind the Memphis Grizzlies, dribbles, then accelerates and finally, in sweet, savory slow motion, spins around a defender and toward the game-winning bucket, the lyrics repeat: “They get back a [word not suitable for virgin ears].”
Morant’s back — as declared by the song, by his acrobatic layup Tuesday night against the New Orleans Pelicans as time expired in his first game following a 25-game suspension, and by his own mouth. After the buzzer sounded, Morant said the words “I’M BACK” toward his father, Tee, who was dutifully fulfilling the role as Ja’s biggest cheerleader. Then, as he scanned the faces along the baseline, Morant did not break eye contact with a stunned New Orleans crowd that had earlier greeted his every dribble with boos. He didn’t lower his head. He didn’t pretend to be the humbled penitent.
As the author of this moment, Morant seemed to understand the appetite we have for a good comeback script. That any mistake can be forgotten, anyone can be forgiven as long as we get a good recovery to root for and stand behind. And if that chosen protagonist possesses the non-fungible value of being a supreme athlete, then all the better. Mere mortals who return to their work after being suspended for wrongdoing would have to wait an unspecified time to win back appeal. Morant, however, won the people back in one day. Our favorite athletes have that benefit.
And so, it took no time for the “Get Back” video to circulate and serve as only a taste of the exuberancefrom NBA players, fans, even Morant himself, in welcoming Ja back to center stage. It was Morant and his own decisions — not the scapegoat of his less-famous friend — that forced him leave the spotlight and temporarily abdicate any claim as the next face of the league. Still, that tiny detail didn’t matter once Morant returned to the court and looked just like the ascendant superstar he was before he discovered the perils of Instagram Live.
Even though Morant hadn’t played since the Grizzlies’ first-round playoff exit last season, his conditioning was remarkable while scoring 34 points in 35 minutes. He played with pop and the fearlessness that has captivated NBA fans since his 2019 arrival as the No. 2 overall selection. The contrast between Morant and the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson, the top overall pick of that draft, was never more evident. Williamson showed a few explosive moments in catching lobs but rarely finished at the rim while working to get his own shot, appearing as though he was the player trying to catch his wind after sitting the first 25 games of the year.
Morant showed some fatigue but it didn’t slow him down when the game moved to its crescendo. Just as suddenly, the reactions poured in as the ball landed through the net. The National Basketball Players Association retweeted several of Morant’s peers in the league. “JA back,” Utah’s Jordan Clarkson announced, while Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey declared, “Ja being back is good for hoops!” Even before Bill Simmons, media personalityand known Boston Celtics fan, would spend the rest of the evening lamenting the ways his favorite team lost, he posted that Morant’s return was “a great basketball moment right there.”
Morant didn’t end it there. Other than the fans who come for the magic he creates, Morant has also attracted a demographic that loves him for his swagger. He adorns his game with it. So when Morant rushed off the floor, he seasoned his strut with his on-brand hubris — an accepted arrogance because he’s so good.
“I’ve kept receipts, too!” blared Morant. The declaration meaning that he has catalogued the criticism from his suspension.
For his redemption story, Morant, 24, let it be known that he will be authentically himself. Not everyone has to openly articulate the depths of their emotions after experiencing the joy of returning to the mountaintop. Although, that works too.
After throwing the game-winning touchdown on “Monday Night Football,” Seattle Seahawks backup quarterback Drew Lock beamed during his interview with ABC sideline reporter Lisa Salters. Lock was a second-round pick out of Missouri the same year Morant came out of Murray State, but he peaked as a starter during the 2020 season. Since then, he’s appeared in 10 games as a second-stringer. Lock had short notice before the MNF game, but he became the unlikely hero, throwing a touchdown with 28 seconds remaining.
“It’s so hard. It’s so hard to describe the feeling of not playing for so long, or what at least feels like a really long time for me,” Lock told Salters. “And then you sit there and you watch games, you wonder: ‘Can I do this still? I haven’t been out there on the field.’ … You get back out there last week. I’m like: ‘You know what? I’m the man still! I can do this.’”
When Morant met with TNT’s Stephanie Ready, he needed just a few words to sum up this bravado.
“I’m a dawg,” he told Ready.
Though Morant may have to endure the jokes and “Ja Wick” memes for a while, his game-winner proved that forgiveness has been waiting for him, and waiting a long time. And he needed just one layup to begin crafting his ideal comeback.