MEMPHIS — When Ja Morant checked into his first game in almost three weeks on Wednesday, Grizzlies fans at the FedEx Forum wrapped him in the warm embrace of a standing ovation and prolonged roars.
In a way, they offered him a protective shield from the harsh glare of the spotlight that has fixed itself on Morant, 23, ever since he blithely flashed a gun during an Instagram live session and was forced to acknowledge that some of his off-court behavior could hurt his bright future. Before Wednesday’s game against Houston, Morant had missed the Grizzlies’ past nine games — eight of them because the N.B.A. suspended him without pay for the gun incident. He was a little nervous about his return.
“Seeing how the fans reacted to me being back definitely helped me a lot,” Morant said. “Made me feel good inside and yeah. It was, I don’t know. …”
His voice began to trail off.
“I can’t put it into words,” Morant said. “I’m kind of numb right now but thankful for everybody.”
Behind the scenes, Morant had offered to come off the bench. The Grizzlies had won six of their last seven games with Tyus Jones starting at point guard. “I didn’t want to come back and mess any of that chemistry up,” Morant said.
He had started every game in his four-year N.B.A. career, but he scored 17 points off the bench in the Grizzlies’ 130-125 win over the Rockets. He still showed some of the dynamism that has made him one of the most exciting players in the N.B.A.
But his return has included a mix of contrition and defiance, the kind of uncertainty that can sharpen into a course correction or harden into regression. What is at stake for Morant is not just success this season; he could be one of the faces of the league for years to come. He is only 23 and has the skill and the style of a superstar, a brash confidence on the court and the talent to back it up. And now he has experienced one more element of stardom: a glimpse of how quickly it can all go away.
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver noted Morant’s “enormous following and influence” in the announcement of the suspension, which classified the gun incident as conduct detrimental to the league. The Instagram live video was posted early on March 4, when, the N.B.A. said, Morant had been “in an intoxicated state” at a nightclub in the Denver area. Morant soon left the team and checked into a facility in Florida for counseling. He said he spent the time learning how to better deal with stress and improve himself.
But the most important thing Morant said this week was that his work isn’t finished.
“I’ve been there for two weeks, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely better,” Morant said. “That’s an ongoing process for me that I’ve still been continuing ever since I’ve been out.”
The nightclub incident was just one in a series of concerning off-court situations in which people said they felt threatened by Morant or his associates, going back to last summer, according to reports in The Washington Post and The Athletic.
During an interview with ESPN last week, Morant indicated he understood that he had played a role in those situations. But on Tuesday, while speaking with a group of reporters for the first time since his suspension, he responded defiantly when asked how he came to realize he was wrong.
“I said I had a role, but I didn’t say anything about doing anything wrong, still,” Morant said. “So all those cases is sealed, so I can’t speak on those cases. When I have my time to, everybody will know the actual truth in every incident that I’ve been in.”
Morant had rejoined the Grizzlies on Monday, but because he had not been working out while in Florida, he needed more time to prepare for a return. He addressed the team on Monday, but declined to share details of what he had said. It seemed meaningful to his teammates.
“He’s talked to everybody, and the way he’s approaching things is very professional,” said Luke Kennard, who was traded to the Grizzlies six weeks ago. “And he’s keeping it straightforward with everybody. That’s what we want.”
Morant is in his fourth season with the Grizzlies, having come to the team as a small but electrifying point guard out of Murray State. He is the leader on a talented young team that has been one of the best in the Western Conference all season even as Memphis has worked through extended injuries to key players.
Last season, the Grizzlies had the second best record in the West, and businesses all over downtown Memphis painted images of Morant on their windows for the playoffs. The Grizzlies lost to the eventual champions, Golden State, in the second round, in a series that Morant thought Memphis could have just as easily won.
Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Morant seemed hesitant to commit to playing on Wednesday, even though Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins had said he expected him to. Morant said he was “completely sorry” for bringing negative attention to the team and his family. He was defensive at times. He admitted he was uncomfortable standing there. One reporter asked what role alcohol might have played in some of his mistakes, and instead of answering that question, Morant said he “never had an alcohol problem.”
On Wednesday morning, Morant smiled and joked with his teammates during the Grizzlies’ shootaround. Blake Ahearn, one of the team’s assistant coaches, looked warily at the baseline where a crowd of reporters had gathered to watch the end of the session.
“Lot of people here today,” he said.
Memphis had suddenly become the center of the N.B.A. world for reasons it never wanted. And as always, all eyes were on Morant.
“He’s been kindhearted, lighthearted, he’s smiling,” guard Desmond Bane said after the shootaround. “I think he’s in a good spot. We had a short conversation and he said it’s the best spot he’s been in mentally since he got drafted.”
Before Morant left home Wednesday afternoon, he said, he reflected on his feelings — the excitement and the apprehension — and talked himself through them. He said he meditated before the game.
About 45 minutes before the game began, Morant arrived on the court to warm up, and members of his family sat courtside. Some of them wore sweatshirts with Morant’s image printed on them along with the word “redemption.”
“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.”
There again was a little bit of defiance, an implication that the real problem had been what people said about Morant, not what he had been doing. But he followed it with words that sounded more introspective and contrite.
“It could have been worse,” Morant said. “I got a second chance. I feel like it’s only going to make it right. Show who Ja is as a person. And that’s my family’s message with the hoodies.”
When fans saw Morant arrive, they started cheering. Jaren Jackson Jr., who scored a game-high 37 points for Memphis on Wednesday, tried to remain stone-faced. That didn’t last long.
“I was cheesing,” Jackson said. “I couldn’t hold it in, for real.”
Jackson began tracking the cheers: how fans in the lower deck cheered as soon as Morant came onto the court. How the people in the upper decks didn’t see him at first, but then cheered when the video board showed him. How they cheered again when Morant entered the game with about three minutes remaining in the first quarter. How they cheered a first-quarter dunk that Morant had woven through two defenders to make.
“We just wanted him back,” Jackson said, smiling.
The Grizzlies wrote a feel-good story on Wednesday night, but it is one that is still unsettled.
It has been a little more than a week since Morant returned from the counseling center in Florida. It was an extraordinary step to take during an N.B.A. season, but, as Morant has noted, too short of a visit to make the kind of change necessary to assure his future. He will have months and years to confirm the sincerity of his commitment.
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