BRADENTON, Fla. — At IMG Academy in Florida, it’s really not that different from any other high school in suburban America. Well, except for the world-class sports and training facilities, hyperspecialized athletes, tremendous student-teacher ratio and national recognition. Other than that, it looks like a normal place where kids congregate around food and the pool.
Of course, there are also the scores of former, current and future professional athletes who happen to live nearby “off-campus,” where a small neighborhood of villas is packed with teams using the facilities to train and live while stateside, or individuals preparing for their big day.
Ja Morant’s big day is Thursday in New York City, where the self-proclaimed “Point God” is expected to go in the top five of the NBA draft. The former Murray State point guard and family members have been buckled down here for a few weeks, training and staying in shape for the day their lives change.
But on this day in late May, Morant is getting ready to go to a cookout and watch the NBA Finals.
He has already done his shooting drills and his weight training at the academy, where school had let out for the day. Now, he’s chilling. Suddenly all the hubbub of the hectic day was done, and the Morant crew is bird-watching, listening to dad rap, and breaking down the Finals matchup.
“We cooking, bro. We country,” Morant’s uncle Phil would jokingly explain.
It’s the type of family situation that Morant, 19, grew up around in Sumter County, South Carolina. The type of environment that drew him to Calloway County, Kentucky, to become a Murray State Racer.
It’s the kind of setup that will be vital to him once he gets selected on Thursday night and begins his NBA career.
When you head south on I-77 from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Dalzell, South Carolina, you’ll be driving for a little bit. It’s only about 100 miles, but you’ll definitely be driving for a good two hours. The winding roads will bring you to the home of Jamie and Tee Morant, a one-story rambler with two backyard basketball rims.
In this part of the country, abandoned gas stations decorated certain stretches and neighbors were a good distance away in some parts due to land.
“It’s a very small town, the country, a lot of woods. But almost everybody around there know each other. That’s why I’m a big family person,” Morant said.
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When people think about the spoiled AAU stars of today, there’s a stereotype that comes with it. Kids grow up playing in gyms and on travel teams, never experiencing the alleged grittiness of the playground blacktop hoop experience, playing anyone and everyone who comes along. For a long time there was a stigma that AAU meant “soft” to a certain extent, a level of entitlement assumed in the judgment.
Morant played AAU. He was on megaphenom and former Duke Blue Devil Zion Williamson’s team. But the team didn’t have a shoe contract. Morant’s dad was driving vans to games. They won a lot, but nobody noticed Morant.
The kid who goes by “12” (his jersey number) definitely had that blacktop hoops experience. Because his parents built it.
In the living room, over the mantel that features pictures of the family, one of those signs in beautiful Americana cursive reads “The Morants.” It smells lovely in the house, and not like food. Various trophies and plaques indicating Morant’s success are around, but not overbearing.
The real scene is outside of the house. There, an old workout bench sits on a shed porch. Huge tractor trailer tires are strewn about the side of the yard, as are plenty of plastic blue chairs that were basically the stands for the hoops sessions Tee and Jamie used to run for Morant and his friends.
“After that, the bounce got crazy.”
Ja Morant’s dad recalls the backyard drills that gave @igotgame_12 some serious hops pic.twitter.com/GJCNymd5eP
— E:60 (@E60) June 13, 2019
Those very same tires are what Tee Morant used to help his son’s hops. The grill out there is the same one Tee used to feed tons of kids who’d come by and play ball — sometimes a crowd of 50-60 people, Ja Morant said — as a way to bond and stay out of trouble. On this day, there’s still a ball rack out there with a couple of balls and a sign that reads “unsupervised play area. use play area at your own risk.” This isn’t an air-conditioned gym with fancy accommodations. Or a backyard hoop with a pool next to it in Chino Hills, California. This is South Carolina and the court is a little uneven, the woods are right next door and it’s hot out here. It’s what the Morant family built. It’s real. And it started early.
“We had a sectional couch, so his time-out was I had an in-house goal I would put back there, throw two basketballs back there and a bottle of milk so either he’s going to play basketball or drink the milk and go to sleep,” Tee recalled. The hoops-first mentality never stopped. By this point, he’d built one rim in the backyard. “I mean, he was probably 8 or 9 years old, [playing church league] then started AAU at 9. Then his teammates would come over and, you know, we’d train them on that and then as they grew as far as middle school, the court grew as well as far as extending it.”
Morant said he fell in love with basketball once he started playing and credits his dad for teaching him the game.
“My dad trained me my whole life, so, that’s where we get our connection. Then once I got old enough to actually know, like, what he was doing with some of the stuff he did, I realized that it helped me. …
“Like him, calling me overrated and stuff. Like this past season, I heard that every away game and it didn’t bother me because I could take it from my dad, so, the fans didn’t bother me at all.”
Morant became a student of the game. Wasn’t a whole ton else to do, so he consumed basketball in all the ways he could. That included video games.
“I really watched a lot of basketball. College, NBA, just to learn certain stuff that each player does,” Morant said. “So, once I get on [NBA 2K], I just try to play exactly how they play in real life and normally, that’s how they make the player. So, that’s mainly what I learned and I think that allowed me to understand the game even more.”
Smart move. But, he’s also not the only point guard in his family, so it makes sense. His mother, Jamie, was a point guard in high school (and played softball in college, where she met Tee).
“At first, [Morant] didn’t think I knew anything about basketball. We would go to Georgia [her home state] and I would have to show him all of my awards and stuff. Then it was, OK. He seen my point guard awards in shooting and all that. Then it was, OK. Now I can listen to her. Now she got it,” Jamie recalled with a laugh.
“With being a point guard, you just gotta be patient and just really got to know the roles of everybody.”
When Morant & Co. pull up on a design studio at River Point in Chicago during the week of the NBA draft combine, production assistants are busy putting together a photo set while Beyoncé and Sean Paul’s “Baby Boy” pumps over the speakers. What’s normally a picturesque waterfront view of the skyline has turned into more a slick scramble due to rain, not a bad way to describe the game of the man everyone is waiting on.
The shoot goes well enough, with Morant modeling jeans, watches and some other things for a league-related campaign. It’s a chaotic scene with handlers, photogs and agents all over, but Morant seems unfazed. He knows how to pose for pictures.
Meanwhile, over at the combine, other prospects are still running drills in front of scouts and coaches. By the time Morant descends back upon that facility, the cameras have swarmed again.
From his ease with the situation, you wouldn’t be able to guess that this is all new to him. Every single trip he’s taken since he declared for the draft has been his first. Maiden voyage to the Big Apple, first NBA game (which happened to be a playoff tilt in Milwaukee). He was this close to his first game in the league being one he played in.
Tee thinks that laziness is a big factor in his son’s lack of recognition until recently.
“I think for the simple fact that I think social media made people kind of lazy. You know? So I think most of the coaches, scouts, or whatever was looking at these names and going tunnel vision. How could you overlook the point guard who’s running this show?” Tee said of the recruiting that came along with being Zion Williamson’s AAU teammate.
“I don’t think I ever seen a coach, a scout come to Sumter, Dalzell area to watch Ja play. It was more like, ‘All right, let me see who’s trending right now and that’s who I’m going to look at.’ ”
Jamie, perhaps the point guard in her, sees the bigger picture.
“The way I look at it, it was meant to be that way,” Jamie said, regarding the fact that Morant wasn’t a highly recruited player in high school. “That’s how you get the Ja that you got now. I still feel that is what got him to where he is right now as the player and as the person that you see.”
Ultimately, Morant is still a 19-year-old. He still gets bored signing sheets full of autograph decals, even though his signature is dope. He spends as much time on his phone as any teenager or journalist does. When he plays basketball, though, he’s focused.
Where he plays will be soon decided. And where the family, never mind Morant, will fit in now that the spotlight has intensified is as important to his rookie season as anything else.
“You just can’t trust everybody,” he said. “And, I mean, I got my family who’s been around me my whole life so, I don’t need anybody new or anything.
“I’m big on having the right people around me, the right crowd.”
During the first half of the NBA Finals Game 1 telecast, Tee, in a tender moment, asked his son what he wanted to eat. Three minutes and 12 items discussed later, Tee comes back with multiple plates.
After downing two plates and a salad, as he was instructed, Morant stood up and declared victory: “I ate good tonight!”
And that’s the idea. Because, Point God or not, he’s still a growing boy. Which is what should scare the rest of the league.