SUMTER, SC — The gentle buzz of Jesse Wilson’s hair clippers is the starting note for the harmonious blend of sounds that make up the Saturday morning rush at Precision Cuts Barbershop.
Hip-hop blares from the radio as warm conversation and laughter fill the air. Hugs and handshakes are exchanged like currency by patrons who have been coming here for decades. Unwritten rules are followed without explanation: no cursing and no reservations — first come, first served. A devoted few rose with the sun to be first in line, waiting in their vehicles at a strip mall in the shadow of the Shaw Air Force Base for the shop to open its doors at 8 am
In the waiting room, muted SportsCenter highlights play with mentions of the NBA Playoffs and the town’s favorite son, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant — a favorite topic in the shop that’s a local institution. It’s two days before Morant would suffer a knee injury that would put his status in doubt for the remainder of a playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.
“I’ve been coming here, well, probably since I was his age,” said Malcolm Roach, 22, while pointing at his 5-year-old son, Kayden, sleeping soundly in a chair across the waiting room. “It’s always been the spot, a place that feels like family. A lot of things change, but this place stays the same.”
Many in the barbershop have known Yes his entire life through his father, Tee, who cut hair at Precision Cuts for two decades while raising a family six miles north in Dalzell. They were the first to believe in the greatness of an undersized kid with oversized dreams. They were the least surprised when he made it.
“He’s like a combination of a Derrick Rose and a young Allen Iverson,” said 27-year-old Marquise Jackson, who graduated from Crestwood High School five years before Morant became a local star with the Knights. “Watching Yes play, you know something’s going to happen.”
Shelton Cooper Sr. nods in agreement while reliving the 47 points Morant dropped on Golden State during Memphis’ 106-101 Game 2 win in the Western Conference semifinals earlier that week. There’s back-and-forth discussion about Morant’s place in the game of basketball and reminders of the countless college programs that whiffed on recruiting a generational talent.
“He plays like a dog,” Cooper said. “If there are two dogs and one food bowl, you know Yes’s going to get that bowl. Where we’re from, you don’t back down. That’s how he plays.”
More on Yes Morant
Roach proudly holds up a picture of him and Morant after the two graduated high school in 2016. They are cousins by marriage and still play video games together online whenever there’s time.
“The only way he’s changed is on the basketball court. He’s doing things I’ve never seen before. He’s jumping out of the gym,” Roach said. “But he lets us all know that nothing is impossible. That just because you come from a small place doesn’t mean you can’t do big things.”
Don’t be afraid to shine
Wilson pauses as he brushes off hair from the high-back swivel chair that will soon be occupied by another customer, considering a question that had been discussed throughout the day.
When did I know Yes Morant would be great?
It’s a tougher question for Wilson to answer than some. He’s known Morant his entire life. It’s hard to pick just one.
“I remember when he was 4 years old, taking shots on a regulation-sized basket with his little basketball, not one of those kiddie hoops,” said Wilson, who began cutting hair at Precision Cuts in 1998, the same year as Tee. “And he wasn’t just shooting, he was making them.”
Morant was a precocious kid who never lacked confidence, something his father instilled in him at an early age. During family cookouts and holidays, Tee would push his son to dance in front of guests. At first, Morant did it begrudgingly but in time gravitated toward the spotlight. He would learn all the moves from a Michael Jackson video and even wore a rhinestone glove like the one Jackson made famous during his performances.
The lesson? Don’t be afraid to shine.
It’s how Tee — a former Division II standout at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina — taught his son how to play the game. It’s also how he’s lived his life since his son entered the NBA, making his own headlines because of a likeness to the singer Usher and a handful of television appearances.
Tee, his wife, Jamie, and daughter, Teniya, joined Morant in Memphis after he was selected No. 2 overall by the Grizzlies during the 2019 NBA Draft.
“Tee always thought he was a celebrity in his own mind,” said his godson Ethan Meyers, 31, while laughing. “But he always wanted to make sure that Ja wasn’t shy in front of a crowd; that he was proud of who he was and what he could do.”
When Morant was 9, Tee spent four hours cutting the Raven emblem into his son’s hair before he played a U-10 AAU basketball game with the Carolina Ravens in Atlanta.
Morant had the game of his young life.
“Yeah cooking them was so bad,” Meyers said. “He started flapping his arms around the court and yelling ‘caw-caw’ after every shot. It was crazy.”
A museum of hustle
The Morant home in Dalzell has been empty for nearly three years. But the memories live on through what was left behind.
Weeds now grow through the cracks of the concrete basketball court that Tee built years ago for the purpose of training his son. Old basketballs lay flat and sun-faded next to dozens of used plastic water bottles that were left in broken blue buckets. The tractor tires that Morant would use to improve his leg strength and jumping ability — allowing him to dunk for the first time as a 6-foot-3 high school junior — have slowly been reclaimed by the South Carolina forest that encompasses the house.
Inside the home, Morant had stenciled a quote from LeBron James above his bedroom by:
“You can’t be afraid to fail. It’s the only way to succeed.”
This is the place where talent with hard work; where a father and son believed hard enough to put their dreams in each other’s hands. Countless hours were spent executing homemade drills using chairs, cones, blocking pads and whatever else was on hand.
“I can’t say if Tee was pushing Ja to finish what he had started,” said Stanley Dinkins, Tee’s first cousin. “But I think he was pushing Ja to make his own road and build his own legacy.”
Carl Faison, 58, remembers thinking the drills were “unorthodox” when he’d come over to the house to watch the two practice. Faison had with Tee at the barbershop in the early 2000s and watched Morant grow over the years in size and ability.
“The things that struck me as odd are now the things we see him do on a nightly basis,” Faison said. “I still remember him coming downstairs one day while he was in high school and dunking the ball for the first time, and all I could think was, ‘Where did that come from?’ †
But the court was also a shared space. It belonged to the community as much as the Morants.
On any given weekend, there could be up to 50 teenagers and young adults in their backyard, waiting for a chance to play a game of five-on-five. Tee would fire up the grill with burgers and hot dogs and make sure everyone got fed. The games became the stuff of legend around town.
As time went by, so did Morant.
End of an era, beginning of the next
For those who grew up watching Morant play basketball, it was hard to understand why he was being overlooked as a college recruit.
Before his senior season, he had two scholarships offered from low-major schools South Carolina State and Maryland-Eastern Shore but no bites from major Division I programs.
It was by pure happenstance that he was discovered by Murray State assistant James Kane, who had traveled to Spartanburg Day School — the former high school of highly touted Zion Williamson in upstate South Carolina — to watch other players at a small AAU combine where Morant had been a late entry.
Hunger pangs had sent Kane to a concession stand outside the main gym, where he bought a bag of chips and heard the sounds of basketball coming from the auxiliary gym.
There he saw Morant and was wowed by his smooth handles and dunking ability. Morant was offered by the Racers the next weekend after averaging 40 points over four games during an AAU tournament in Greensboro.
“It was God’s plan,” Dinkins said. “He puts you where you are meant to be.”
Morant went on to sign with the Racers and averaged 12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists as a freshman before becoming the first NCAA player to average 20 points and 10 assists as a sophomore. He posted a triple-double in a 2019 NCAA Tournament first-round upset win over Marquette and scored 28 points in the second-round loss to Florida State.
His jaw-dropping dunks made him a viral sensation, and in two years he went from an unranked high school prospect to an invitee to the 2019 NBA Draft at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. He was expected to go No. 2 overall behind Williamson.
But he couldn’t leave his hometown without a trim.
The barbershop was opened special on a Sunday, and Tee gave his final haircut at Precision Cuts to his son. Wilson was there — a bittersweet moment as he watched the two walk out the door.
“It was the end of an era,” Wilson said. “And the beginning of the next.”
David Thompson is an award-winning reporter for the USA Today Network covering NC State and Duke athletics. He can be reached at email@example.com, at 828-231-1747, or on Twitter at @daveth89.