JaMychal Green is the new face of Grit-and-Grind

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports   Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports /

“It’s a relentless attitude you gotta have over the course of the game, 48 minutes. Just basically the will to win and never giving up… Nothing given to you easy, you gotta go out there and work for it.”

What Tony Allen is describing is Grit-and-Grind: the identity his Memphis Grizzlies have carried for several years. It’s blue-collar basketball, equal parts brute force, determination and professionalism. But Grit-and-Grind is as much about the qualities exhibited by the individuals that represent it. There’s Mike Conley, the point guard who scored 22 points in 27 minutes with a broken face against the Warriors in the 2015 Playoffs, Marc Gasol, one of the league’s best defenders, Zach Randolph, who will torture your puny stretch-4 in the post, and Allen, who’s been aptly dubbed ‘The Grindfather.’

Fans local and national alike have gravitated to the Grizzlies for their consistent hard-nosed approach. Whether they play the Warriors or Nets in March or May, taking it easy isn’t an option for Memphis. Alas, teams come and go. Players get older and moments become memories. Conley and Gasol are having career years but they won’t be able to sustain forever. But Grit-and-Grind has a chance to live on, thanks to a new addition to the league’s peskiest roster, one that has spent his life preparing for the role. He’s only known the NBA for less than three years, but JaMychal Green is taking Grit-and-Grind into 2017 and beyond.

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After his son was born, Alonzo Green put a toy basketball in young JaMychal’s crib. It wasn’t long before he began dribbling a real one, but growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, football was his first sport. Green’s inner fire showed itself quickly.

“He loved contact,” Rita Green, JaMychal’s mother, said. “[If he had it] his way, they weren’t getting passed him.”

“He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around, the kid just absolutely hates losing.”

Rita once witnessed her son go for a tackle and end up with an opposing player on both shoulders, with Green lugging them downfield. She shielded her eyes and hoped he hadn’t hurt anybody. But as he grew taller and began taking helmets to his knees, Green gravitated towards basketball. The sport may have changed, but the approach didn’t. After hours spent on the court, Green would come home caked in salt residue from the sweat that dried on his skin. Rita would regularly wring the sweat out of his jersey as if it were pulled out of the Alabama River. Green began dominating for the Birmingham Challenge in the AAU and St. Jude Educational Institute, his high school. Athletic superiority helped Green gain an edge on his peers, but his work ethic set him apart.

“When you come from a small school, you got only one gym, so you gotta figure it out as a coach,” William Brown, who coached Green at St. Jude, said. “It was kind of difficult to have set times for the guys to work out. I had guys come in the gym before school to do individual workouts normally around 6 o’clock… We lifted weights during our PE block and after school we’d do study hall and wait for the girls to get done. We’d have the opportunity to practice at the end of the day probably around 5 o’clock and we wouldn’t get done until 7 or 8.”

Green’s motor would suggest that basketball consumed his life, but that wasn’t the case. Growing up in a family-oriented home and having lost an older brother at the age of two, Green had a tight-knit bond with those closest to him, and an affinity for kids. If he wasn’t playing basketball, he was playing with his niece. Coach Brown would take his team to the local St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which was connected to their school, around major holidays to give them a lesson in perspective.

“JaMychal would build relationships and bonds over there and those kids would actually start coming to the games,” Brown said. “And he made it a point for those kids to come to games.”

Green’s parents stuck by their son as he out-hustled and out-worked everybody he played against. Every Friday, they’d load their trunk with clothes and make the drive from Montgomery to Birmingham to watch JaMychal play his AAU games. Whenever Rita or Alonzo had a vacation day, they’d spend it at whatever tournament JaMychal participated in. Green was a five-star recruit, ranked first at his position by ESPN. The 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward went after every rebound like the game depended on it, reserving no mercy for the rim.

Down 21 at halftime during an AAU tournament game in Houston, Green led his team to victory. The opposing head coach made it a point to tell his parents he’d forfeit the next time Birmingham came on the schedule. Another coach, Mark Gottfried of the University of Alabama, came away impressed.

“He came and sat beside me,” Alonzo said. “I had to get away from him because he was more excited than I was. He was running up the floor, he was high-fiving and everything.”

Green committed to Gottfried and Alabama, but midway through his freshman year, Gottfried resigned from the head coaching position. Anthony Grant, who coached Green at the FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship, took over the position that summer. Coming into college, Green had the pluck and talent, but maturity was a work-in-progress.

“We had some pretty severe conditioning programs in the fall and Myke could go all day,” Dan Hipsher, an assistant coach under Grant, said. “As most young kids, he could get a little immature and get upset at times but you could tell he’s gonna mature through that.”

Grant rode Green hard, which Green credits him for doing years later. However, their clashes led to three separate suspensions for Green. One came early in his junior year, when Green wanted to go home for Thanksgiving but Grant wanted his team preparing for an upcoming game. Another, according to Hipsher, “might have been a competitive situation in practice.” For violating team rules late in his senior season, Green had to sit out, leading two NBA general managers to cancel their scouting trips.

“JaMychal’s strong-willed, and when he thinks he’s right, he stands up for what he believes in,” Alonzo said. “That could be a good thing, that could be a bad thing.”

With his family’s support — Rita says after never missing a game, she could make the two-hour drive to Coleman Coliseum in her sleep — and teammates’ shared drive, Green moved past those mistakes.

“He pushed me so much,” Chris Hines, who played at Alabama with Green, said. “Me and Myke would battle everyday in practice. We would be going at it. I would hit the floor, I’d be clawing and scratching and holding. It was just a dog practice for us all the time.”

“He always took care of competing and playing hard in the games. He never lost focus of that.”

Hines knew Green from the AAU circuit, and the two became close at Alabama, practicing against each other so intensely that Green described it as similar to the NBA. If Hines didn’t box out every possession, he got dunked on. The work paid off, as Green’s field goal percentage, assists and minutes increased every year following his freshman season. Defense became his focus, which combined with his ferocity enticed NBA scouts. DraftExpress’s 2012 mock draft projected Green being selected 55th overall, but after a pre-draft workout revealed a shoulder injury needed surgery, he watched as 60 picks came and went without hearing his name.

“That was one of the lowest points in his life,” Alonzo said. “He really took it hard.”

Green shed tears, and didn’t see himself in the NBA that night. The next morning, Hines returned the favor of all those brutal Alabama practices and pulled him out of bed to go work out at St. Jude. Naturally, Green felt better once he got back to grinding, but he needed six months of rehab before he could continue his pursuit. To help keep focused, Green made a vision board and hung it in his bedroom. On it were bible scriptures, phrases like ‘be bold’ and ‘be a boss’, along with his goals of good health, a car, and dead center: an NBA contract.

“I had to keep my faith strong,” Green said. He kept a picture of it on his phone handy as he ventured into the faith-testing NBA Developmental League. Picked up by the Austin Toros, Green began his professional journey on a minutes restriction as he was working his way back from the shoulder surgery. Having to come out of games in crucial moments ate at him, and the coaching staff would hear every decibel of it.

“He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around,” Ken McDonald, then an assistant coach for Austin, said. “The kid just absolutely hates losing.”

“The next practice you could see the mentality that he had and how hard he played, and you were just like, okay, that guy gets a chance.”

It was McDonald who would calm Green down in those moments. The Toros were affiliated with the San Antonio Spurs, and the organization invested in his potential. Green bought into their development plan, and got to work with San Antonio assistant and respected shooting guru Chip Engelland. In his first season, Green averaged 12.3 points and 8.1 rebounds a game, even drawing significant interest from the Spurs, who would pass on a call-up because they didn’t have an open roster spot. Despite the unfortunate timing and his parents constantly checking up on prospect rankings, Green remained grounded.

“Some guys are like spiteful, almost like they think they’re getting screwed,” McDonald said. “J-Myke always took care of the games. He always took care of competing and playing hard in the games. He never lost focus of that.”

Green would spend the following season in France playing for Chorale Roanne Basket. His resilience was tested once again, not only because to this point he had spent his entire life in the south, but he had to board his flight overseas just a week after his daughter, Jada, was born.

“I was just down, depressed,” Green said. “My dream was making it in the NBA and playing in the NBA but my baby, she’s my biggest blessing. If it weren’t for her, I don’t think I’d be here today. She got me focused, got me in the gym. She’s my motivation.”

That motivation helped Green persevere, his daughter helped him mature, and he returned to Austin for the 2014-15 season. He averaged 23 points and 10.7 rebounds a game, with his teammates and coaches yelling “Roll Tide!” all along the way, even naming some plays after the Alabama rallying cry. In January of 2015, Green secured his first 10-day contract with the San Antonio Spurs, appearing in four games only to be sent down to the D-League once again.

“He’d still be a Spur if we had the room,” Popovich said later that season. “We loved him. He did a great job, never complained.”

Then the Grizzlies, hounded by injuries, swooped in. They signed Green to a 10-day, then a second, before inking him to a multi-year contract. Rita had to hear the news from elsewhere, as her son planned to call after he got out of the gym. It was hard work that got him there, and Green wasn’t about to slow down just because he achieved his biggest goal.

“My dream came true,” Green said. “I’m still getting used to it. I still pinch myself sometimes.”

After Green returned home to check off ‘NBA contract’ from his vision board, his sister, Kemeche, said it was time to take care of his next goal. He played sparingly in that first season, but Green’s new teammates, the established vets of Grit-and-Grind, immediately knew he’d belong.

“When he first arrived,” Conley said, reflecting on when he realized Green was a perfect fit. “The next practice you could see the mentality that he had and how hard he played, and you were just like, okay, that guy gets a chance, I think he’ll be ready.”

Conley was right. After earning the respect of his teammates in year one, Green earned playing time in the 2015-16 season. He appeared in 78 games, started in 15, and averaged 7.4 points and 4.8 rebounds. This past summer, Memphis ousted head coach Dave Joerger and hired David Fizdale to take over. Fizdale planned to bring some modernization to the Grizzlies’ throwback style, like getting Gasol to shoot 3s. Part of his plan? Benching Randolph, a Memphis cult hero and eight-year mainstay on the team, in favor of Green. The veteran had no qualms about the move, and even broke the news to Green himself.

“With Zach behind my back, not getting mad, that makes it so much better,” Green said. “Just to know he’s on my side and he was excited for me and happy for me, just did a lot to my confidence.”

Giving added confidence to a player that spent his entire career clawing his way to the NBA and was already out to make opponents’ lives a living hell produced predictable results. This year, Green starts nightly, and is averaging 9 points and 7.3 rebounds, as only he and the Grizzlies can: going at each possession like it’s his last. He’s making defensive plays everywhere and has extended his range beyond the 3-point arc.

“He is a part of the identity and the fabric,” Fizdale said. “I think he’s a future first team all-defender. I think he’s that swiss army knife defender that teams are always looking for, so he’s been great for us.”

Green has exemplified everything about the Grizzlies on the court, and off it. When talking about Grit-and-Grind, Allen also said it’s about more than basketball. It’s a lifestyle. And looking at Green and his team, that’s reflected in family. Randolph and Green call each other brothers, and the team has a special bond with its city, hosting a yearly barbecue event where season subscribers and players get together to eat and hang out. It isn’t Montgomery, but Memphis is close enough for members of Green’s hometown church to come watch his games and for Jada to see her grandparents. When Green is at home, he’ll hit up Hines to go work out once or twice a day. But that’s not Hines’s favorite Green story.

“Chandler Parsons had a mean first step when he was at Florida, and I was guarding him,” Hines said. “Before I knew it, [he] was halfways up in the air with his knee almost in my face. I’m thinking to myself, oh my god I’m ‘bout to get dunked on. And out of nowhere Myke comes, boom, meets him right at the rim and blocks the shot. And I was like man, that’s my guy right there.”

The Grizzlies are feeling the same way.