More than one basketball lifetime separates the birth of LeBron James and Ja Morant. In sharing this time and space, they give us the best of both worlds.
Ja Morant is a lot of fun right now. Ja Morant is likely to be fun for a while. There is a Paul Rudd uncorking a bottle of hot sauce giddiness to watching Ja Morant play, and the energy is so free and so light that you can make Ja Morant-man jokes and not feel ashamed. Mainline Ja Morant into your veins for 48 minutes and you will wake up the next morning daring to be something you weren’t, that is, if you even fell asleep.
LeBron James was born on Dec. 30, 1984. Ja Morant wouldn’t see the light of day until 1999. The difference is the Showtime Lakers, Larry Legend, the Bad Boys, and two three-peats by a man comprised of air particles. Morant was born at the dawn of Duncan and just before Kobe and Shaq made good. They were all out of the league before Morant’s rookie debut. Seeing Morant play LeBron on the King’s birthday is an anachronism, or at least a rejected plotline for a basketball Rocky reboot. But the two teams did play on Wednesday night.
LeBron hit a career-high in 3-point field goals en route to scoring his age and Morant dropped 41 in a comeback effort, making it impossible to tell which player was trespassing into which player’s timeframe. A moment that crystalized this enigma occurred in the Grizzlies comeback when Morant drove to the basket and LeBron stepped into his path, hands over his crotch and just outside the circle. Paul Rudd smiles, “Look at us,” and Morant rises with vape-like ease and efficiency. And then LeBron ducked him. The ball dropped into the basket, but the whistle blew and Morant was called for phantom contact. Each man was there, and each man wasn’t.
Is this Ja Morant’s time, or LeBron James’? How would we even know?
The torch hasn’t exactly been passed. The season is far from over. The hapless Los Angeles Lakers could still turn a rather disappointing season around, but right now the stock is incredibly heavy. And the Memphis Grizzlies, who are now five games ahead of the Lakers, aren’t entirely sure where they’re headed. But hyperbole can be forgiven on both counts. Every night out is a litmus test for these Lakers because they are LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers. The kneejerk reactions and over-the-top analysis are a testament to the brands and pedigrees involved.
I recently cracked open a copy of Richard Zacks’ Chasing the Last Laugh: How Mark Twain Escaped Debt and Disgrace with a Round-the-World Comedy Tour. I can’t say much about the book; I’ve only read to page 20 so far. And what I can say is largely known.
Twain was the undisputed best living American author. He was a heavyweight on the page and as an entertainer. In fact, his personality had outgrown the page. He also didn’t know what to do with himself and his money. He made it rain and suffered in floods. Bad investments were sort of his thing. His imagination which could render any story tellable also made him think any invention was profitable. But he was almost always wrong. Filled with shame and buried in red ink, Twain took to the road, embarking on a world tour to make a quick buck and to save his glorious reputation. He entertained. He humored. He did stand up in the Himalayas. And that’s Chasing the Last Laugh.
The parallels with LeBron are not difficult to imagine. He is an unimaginable basketball force. He’s not what he once was, but he is still better than most by a longshot. And yet he’s weighed down by his own investments. He handpicked the talent on his roster. He buried himself in red ink. And again, the scrutiny is testament to the fact we all still kind of suspect he could pull off the escape.
The Grizzlies, on the other hand, are all in-the-parking-lot excitement right now. The concert is an afterthought and doesn’t even come with the pressure of needing to know the band. The anticipation is the thing.
Ja Morant gets the ball. Ja Morant bops down court. He spins. He floats. The defense ties him up. He dunks. Every movement is an intake from a helium valve. Every effort at quoting Paul Rudd is pubescent voice cracking. Everything is just out of the nest and suspended in air. Up and down are identical twins. In the future, we’ll all say, you had to be there, but right now, look at us — we have the best of both worlds.