Moarant dribbling for Memphis

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant dribbles up court Tuesday night against Houston at the Fed-Ex Forum in Memphis, Tennessee. The former Murray State star has the main attraction behind Friday night's Murray State Spirit Night promotion that is expected to have 1,000 Racer fans in attendance for the Grizzlies' game with Cleveland.

MURRAY — It is this simple. Murray State fans still see Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant as one of their own.

Though only on the Murray campus for two years, Morant left a giant footprint on the university’s storied men’s basketball program. Now a nightly attraction on most national sports news programs, Morant’s success with the NBA’s Grizzlies seems to have done nothing but endear him that much more to the fans that supported him when he helped the Racers win two conference titles and one NCAA Tournament game. 

Still, even someone close to the situation, like Murray State Director of Alumni Relations Carrie McGinnis, can be surprised by how far that fan devotion goes. She said the response for Friday’s Murray State Spirit Night that is planned in Memphis for the Grizzlies’ game with Cleveland has far exceeded expectations. 

As the deadline for being part of that event came Wednesday, about 1,000 Racer fans had reserved seats for the game at the FedEx Forum in Memphis. 

“I underestimated it. I’ll admit it. My goal, in my mind, was to sell 500 tickets for this, so we’ve doubled that,” McGinnis said Wednesday morning, about the same time ESPN was reviewing Tuesday night’s Grizzlies win over Houston, the team’s sixth in a row. In that game, Morant scored a team-high 26 points in a battle with Houston superstar James Harden, who scored 41. 

“We have a strong, strong love and affection for No. 12, and this is an opportunity for our fans to show Ja that that love is still there and still strong and that we appreciate all of the many things he has done for our institution,” McGinnis said. “I can tell you that our admitted students from the Memphis area alone have gone up over 100 students over the last year, so his impact on Murray State University continues and will continue.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s absolutely flaming the NBA too, so we are like proud parents around here. I want to cry, I’m so excited.”

Many pundits are now predicting Morant will be the 2020 NBA Rookie of the Year, and his impact has been felt in a major way already for the Grizzlies. One of the cellar dwellers of the league last year, Memphis would have been in the Western Conference playoffs had the season ended Tuesday. In fact, his success up to this point led longtime ESPN personality Mike Greenberg to ask if “everyone got it wrong” during Wednesday’s “Get Up” morning show on the broadcasting giant’s main channel, referring to how Morant was picked No. 2 in the NBA draft, behind New Orleans forward Zion Williamson, who has been injured most of the season. 

Ethan Harnish, a group sales account executive, said he is glad Memphis had “to settle” for the No. 2 pick, not only because he has helped make the team more competitive, but Racer fans have helped keep the ticket booth busy at the FedEx Forum. 

“It’s been great. We are almost halfway through the season and there hasn’t been a game where I haven’t bumped into at least some Racer fans,” Harnish said, explaining that he and McGinnis were working on Friday’s promotion even before the draft lottery (which was about six weeks ahead of the actual draft in June) just to see if there would be interest in bringing a group of Murray State fans out here.

“I’ve never worked with a fan base quite like Murray State,” Harnish said. “I think the word ‘fanatic’ is the best way to describe that fan base. I’ve already done a couple of group nights, which were kind of one-off things, then we came up with the Spirit Night, which we’ve also been doing for other colleges and universities as well. We’re actually close to 900 for that itself, but we’ve had many others who have purchased tickets well in advance for this exact game, and it happened that they just lined up on the same night. So we’re going to have about 1,000 total Murray State Racers in here that night.”

Harnish also said Morant’s popularity has prompted NBA organizations in other cities to host Murray State nights in those places for when the Grizzlies are coming to those locations. He said the Dallas Mavericks hosted such an activity. 

McGinnis and Harnish also said that a big draw for this promotion has been a commemorative ball cap that has the Grizzlies logo on the front and the Murray State logo on the side. That specifically is part of the package for the Spirit Night Friday. 

McGinnis said it is believed Murray State is generating about $45,000 in sales for the Grizzlies through this promotion. Harnish said Murray State’s participation is by far the strongest of any in the Spirit Night series this season for the Grizzlies. 

Racer fans arriving in Memphis early Friday can also attend a pre-game party at the Jerry Lee Lewis Honky-Tonk on Beale Street a short distance from the FedEx Forum. McGinnis said that is slated for 4:30-6:30 p.m. 

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