Original Illustration via Antonio Losada

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Dr. Dre’s The Chronic being listed as one of the best Bay Area rap albums is why Alan Chazaro doesn’t trust anything generated by AI.

So much of our daily reality has shifted since the NBA’s 2019 season opener. Back then, in a pre-COVID dimension, a relatively unknown, short-haired Memphis Grizzlies rookie named Ja Morant came onto the scene like a tatted up meteor. Everything in those Zoom-less days somehow felt simpler, and more attainable.

Forget about his off-court mishaps. Something about Ja as a newcomer with a basketball in his possession as he zagged his way around — and above — defenders felt fiercely expressive, if not cathartic for the soul. In many ways, he was as creative as a musical artist, apt for a baller in Memphis, the American centrifuge of emotion-purging blues and, much later, distorted synth horrorcore rap. Ja is all of that: a beautiful mess of spontaneity and rhythm manifested on the hardwood.

Both the city’s musical history and the currently tortured player emit an unapologetic, middle-finger-up swagger as game changers — propelling new generations forward with explosive leaps of talent and audio re-arrangements in a scrappy, Southern-paced town. And that shouldn’t be overlooked.

As Ja continues to sit out of the current 2023-2024 NBA season due to publicly broadcasting his lightweight nefarious habits, I want to recall the days of his glorious debut in the Association. Back when his hype brought Young Dolph (RIP) and Key Glock out to the baseline — a moment that has been infamously immortalized in Ja’s viral rookie card. Looking back, the signs were already there for Ja Morant’s proximity to music and rap culture. Let’s revisit that by remembering his first-year highlights in the form of a mixtape inspired by the genre.

This one dropped really, really early in Ja’s first season. At the time, I was living in Mexico, listening to The Ringer NBA Show podcast — one of my main sources for NBA news and drama. I had been living outside of the U.S. for about seven months, moving from pueblo to city and back, so I didn’t always have regular access to keep up with the league. But even then, in parts of the globe that weren’t always connected to the internet, I kept hearing about the No. 2 overall pick, a surging phenom in Grind City with a memorable name: Ja Morant.

Like any freshly anointed talent — emcee or otherwise — I wasn’t fully ready to buy into the hype at first. I needed a convincing moment. I needed a compelling single. And then it came. When Ja blocked Kyrie Irving’s game-winning shot attempt at the buzzer, I — like any sicko fan around the league — started to tune in.

Rewind back to this moment with me: with 7 seconds left, Kyrie gets the ball on the wing and goes iso with his defender, our mighty Ja. Kyrie’s dribble is confident, dare I say arrogant, as he looks to create space before exposing the rookie. Ja doesn’t yield an inch, so Kyrie — the established artist in this situation — tries to do what he does best. He pulls up and hoists his deadly shot.

But the microphone gets yanked out of the socket at that moment. Instead of hitting another game-winner, Kyrie gets rejected by Ja’s outstretched hand. Having already tied the game with a lay-up over one of the NBA’s leading shot blockers at the time (a fro-rocking Jared Allen), Ja sent the contest into overtime.

I honestly can’t think of too many better ways for an emerging potential star to showcase their abnormally high levels of confidence, skill, and lack of stage fight. The dude blocked one of the NBA’s most all-time godly point guards in a high-pressure, 1 v. 1 situation. This is Kyrie — the same player who drained a historic, Championship-bagging dagger in the final seconds against the 73-win Golden State Warriors. Kyrie — the same artist who gets universally praised as being the sauciest ball handler and unguardable acrobat with the rock. And shutting him down a few weeks into his pro career was only the beginning of Ja’s breakout performance.

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Haters everywhere had to be thinking the same damn thing: One lucky hit. That’s it? I’ve seen that before. Game wasn’t even that important. He’s not for real. Kyrie’s washed. Let’s hear another one. Run it back.

But deep down even they must’ve known: I need to listen to more of this. Kid is kinda nice.

What he releases next is a game-winning banger in Charlotte. Near his home state of South Carolina, with his family watching and father in the crowd, in front of rival fans screaming, Ja calls game. Just like that. As declarative as Xavier Wulf talking shit on and puffing blunts “Whiplash’d”.

You kind of have to watch the play. It wasn’t one of those boring hold-the-ball-forever-and-waive-off-your-teammates-then-pull-up-from-hella-deep-and-heave-a-prayer-while-teammates-gawk-from-across-the-court kind of moment.

It was more like bring-the-ball-up-court-and-dribble-dribble-dribble-time-off-the-clock-before-a-hesi-between-the-legs-and-attack-down-the-lane-and-elevate-over-three-redwood-defenders-while-taking-contact-midair-and-floating-that-leathery-goodness-through-nylon. A flex. No foul. Shot bounces in. Game over.

In that moment, we know — and Ja knows — that he’s arrived. He squares up against the audience, against the camera. Ja now carried Memphis on his back. The unproven Grizzlies — with a heat-spitting Ja as the new front man — won that game and crept to an improved 4–7 record. Ja finished the night with an all-around solid output: 23 points and 11 assists in 30 minutes for another convincing performance under the spotlight. Staying fly, ala Three Six.

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If this wasn’t enough to compel the NBA’s audience that Ja was becoming his generation’s next hit-maker right before our eyes, he still had more to say. But let’s say you still weren’t convinced. Let’s say that you are, indeed, a literal player hater. Maybe you think he hasn’t been battle tested by an alpha emcee who could put him in his place. You wanted to see that. A no-rules 1 v. 1 diss battle. He’d get destroyed if he went against one of the kings, right?

Let’s say a pre-engorged, Rockets-era, MVP James Harden is one of those kings. Though lambasted for his lazy defense and lack of effort nowadays more than ever, there is no question that Harden was one of the all-time best solo lyricists (and by that I mean ball hogging point scorers) in modern lore — a fully-bearded weapon of mass destruction when it came to his offensive arsenal in his prime. And while in apex predator mode, he decided to lock in on Ja.

Maybe he wanted to see if the young Grizzly was truly made out of teflon, or maybe it came from some weird, deep sense of inner insecurity. Whatever his reasoning, Harden decided — on January 15, 2020 — to disrespect Ja Morant. It didn’t work out well for James.

In what has been documented in multiple places, Harden purposely left Ja open all night to take uncontested threes, a universally known non-verbal middle finger on any basketball court worldwide. In their proverbial battle, it was James who delivered the opening lines: “You’re weak. You can’t spit. You ain’t Yo Gotti.”

Ja responded with 26 points and eight assists while shooting 10-of-11 from the field to become the first rook in NBA history to score at least 25 points with eight assists on 90% shooting from the field. And his city got the W.

In a video replay, there’s a moment where Ja hits one of his ten shots and lips a verse back to James that begins with, “tell that motherf*cker about me.”

So, yeah, Ja Morant became a legit rapper at this point.

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At that point in the season, it was becoming clear that Ja’s rookie mixtape was among the best any of us had witnessed in some years. And by best, I’m not strictly talking numbers (although, Ja’s numbers do speak for themselves). By the end of the 2020 season, he went platinum by earning Rookie of the Year. (And just two years later, in 2022, he followed that up with a Most Improved Player of the Year plaque on his way to leading Memphis to a run of competitive seasons). That’s like being named to the XXL Freshman Class, killing the cipher, then starting your own record label the next week.

And it wasn’t just Ja’s game that captured our attention. It was energy, what he brought to basketball culture. I’m talking about myth-making, about having fun. How Ja stormed himself into the league in less than one year straight out of a mid-level school and catalyzed a neophyte roster into playoff contention with big, iconic moments throughout his first seasons — just how so many Tennessean musicians did when they entered the industry with nothing to lose and everything to prove.

Unlike other rookie sensations (Michael Carter-Williams’s career fell apart after his own Rookie of the Year campaign in Philly — although, word is he’s back on the come up in Mexico), Ja wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Instead, he kept evolving with each new drop, with every season’s tribulations. Each game further proved his worth, a futuristic meld of artistry, athleticism and ego.

Lately, Ja has been less of his Mystic Stylez self and has veered towards Lil Ugly Mane’s Mista Thug Isolation. But go back and watch his rookie mix. Study his early artworks. I have faith he will get back to his true ways. Despite a cryptic Tweet in recent weeks (“it’s a different story for me , it seems i got everything dat i ever dreamed but i can’t find no peace”), fans simply wish the best for a young man who has already proven he belongs among the most electric expressionists to ever do it in a Grizzlies uniform.

Here’s to the return of the Memphis marauder.

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