For Ja Morant, there is no better time than now.
This is true on the court, where Morant has established himself as one of the league’s boldest, most daring players after just two NBA seasons. As the face of an up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies team, Morant is the engine that makes them go. When he’s on the court, something — an audacious dunk attempt off the dribble, catching a lob from a teammate, throwing a no-look pass — is guaranteed to happen.
Off the course, Morant has started to tell his own story. Out now on Crackle, Morant is the subject of a six-part documentary titled Promiseland that dives into his rise from unknown at Murray State to No. 2 Draft pick to one of the NBA’s biggest young stars.
“I just want to show my journey, go deeper into it, and show people things they don’t know about me,” Morant told Dime. “It comes from people that might want to tell someone else’s story and just add things in or just have some stuff that’s not true, so I thought if I’m telling my story and it’s coming from me, more people are going to believe it.”
“He can look back and have a timeline for everything in his life,” says Tee Morant, Ja’s father.
According to the younger Morant, Promiseland began production during his rookie season, after he started with the Grizzlies and embarked on what would become a Rookie of the Year campaign. Production involving director Dexton Deboree and a crew flying to Memphis to do interviews with Ja and others around him continued well into the 2019-20 season. Deboree also traveled to interview the likes of Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson, the rapper Moneybagg Yo, and Carmelo Anthony for the series.
“Even the first meeting we had, when I flew out to Memphis to meet Ja and his dad and just had a pitch, right from the jump, I saw that there was a family dynamic that I wanted to tap into,” Deboree says. “We clicked in that meeting and saw that there was something there.”
But then the pandemic hit, and production changed.
“It was tough, not being able to be face-to-face for certain parts of the documentary,” Ja says. “Having to find ways to be able to knock out videos was hard, but worth it.”
Deboree, in fact, was scheduled to fly to Memphis and do a slew of interviews with Morant on March 13, 2020, just two days after Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and our new reality rapidly set in. They opted to keep those dates for the project, but pivoted to recording on Zoom. As he interviewed Ja, Tee, and Ja’s uncle, Phil Morant, he realized the video quality wasn’t up to the standard they wanted. So, after working with some of his crew, Deboree shipped the Morants higher-quality cameras.
“I shot another 30 or 40 days and never went physically back to him again,” he says. “We did send crews in at the later stages, but from April to the end of 2020, it was remote. Even in the Bubble, he took the kit into it. And we had to do it to keep the look and feel.”
For Deboree, the appeal of the project largely came from wanting to work with an athlete just entering the league instead of someone reflecting back on their career. Deboree’s previous projects include an Air Jordan 1 documentary called Unbanned: The Legend of the AJ1 that featured interviews with Anthony, Russell Westbrook, and Spike Lee, among others.
“Guys and gals would always reflect back on their rookie season and their early experiences and things like that,” Deboree says, “but I never felt like we got an intimate look at what this is like. What are the thoughts? What are the fears? And what are all of the inner experiences a 19-, 20-year-old goes through when they get into the league?”
The first episode opens with Morant detailing what his parents gave up for him in order to pursue his dream and what it was like for him growing up in Sumter, South Carolina. It also features a look at his childhood bedroom, where a quote attributed to LeBron James — “You can’t be afraid to fail, it’s the only way to succeed.” — has been displayed above his doorway.
It’s the shot in the documentary that tells the viewer what Ja is about and what it took for him to get to Murray State, then the Grizzlies and whatever heights are still to come.
“As a message of hope and inspiration for any kid with any dream and any obstacle, this is a radically powerful message,” Deboree says. “For [Ja], that idea resonated more than wanting to tell his story or get it out there or even having a story to tell.”
“I’ve embraced everything that I’ve been through and continue to push and get through it,” Morant says.