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‘Grateful’ Morant encouraged by receiving return


MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The FedExForum crowd roared as soon as ha morant he got up off the bench and walked to the scorer’s table several minutes into Wednesday’s first quarter, making sure the All-Star point guard felt right at home in his first appearance since his eight-game suspension.

Memphis Grizzlies fans gave Morant a standing ovation as 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 for the first time. The crowd gave Morant another standing ovation after his first slam dunk, when he cut down the middle of the court, he received a pass from Desmond Bane and finished with an acrobatic layup and -1.

The message sent to Morant, who was sidelined for two weeks after brandishing a gun during an Instagram live stream from a Denver-area strip club on March 4, was that he’s still loved in Memphis.

“It meant a lot, man,” said Morant, who had 17 points, five assists and two steals in a 130-125 win over the Houston Rockets. “Obviously I’m thankful and thankful for everyone who’s been supporting me through this time. It definitely helped me a lot, it definitely made me feel a little bit better. It eased everything I was going through. It felt good to be back. Super excited. I’m glad we were able to get the win.”

His teammates were just as excited about Morant’s return, and the crowd reception, as they were about the fans.

“I was playing,” the Memphis power forward said. Jaren Jackson Jr., who had a dominant performance with 37 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. “I couldn’t really contain it.”

Morant had started every game of his NBA career before Wednesday night, when Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins agreed to 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 out the game, returns to his normal playing time.

Morant made the suggestion in large part because of the success the Grizzlies had during his absence. Memphis has won six of the last seven games without Morant, as Tyus Jones he excelled while serving as the starting point guard.

“I didn’t want to go back and mess up that chemistry,” Morant said. “Obviously, I was watching a movie once my time was getting closer to being back, seeing how they played. Obviously, it’s different from watching and being out there. So getting back in the flow, getting back on offense. Also getting back comfortable with everything. My mentality is very important to me, and that was one of the reasons why.”

Morant said he meditated before the game to try to calm his nerves. He has emphasized his commitment to prioritizing his mental health, saying the counseling he received at a Florida stress management center in the wake of the Colorado incident will be an ongoing process.

“I think this has been part of the journey of the last two weeks for him,” Jenkins said. “He keeps talking, it’s a process. I mean, I think every day, every instance of something on or off the floor, it’s just another opportunity for him to accept what this process is going to be like and journey 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 was wearing a custom hoodie with a photo of Morant and the word “REDEMPTION” on the front, as were Morant’s father, Tee, and Uncle Phil as they sat courtside.

“That was my family’s idea,” Morant said. “It’s me coming back after some negative things have been said constantly throughout all of this, basically, what, year and a half now. How did it feel? Kind of like redemption, obviously. Could have been worse. I had a second chance. I feel like it’ll just fix it. Show who Ja is as a person.”

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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