Amid Uncertain Grizzlies Future, Mike Conley Jr. Strengthens Ties to Memphis Community

Mike Conley Jr. was going back and forth in his head. He had heard all the rumors—that the Memphis Grizzlies would trade him to the Utah Jazz, or the Indiana Pacers, or any number of other NBA teams—and, above all, wanted clarity.

Man, let's get this over with, he thought. If I'm gonna leave, just get it over with. I'm just tired of the suspense.

“You're nervous and scared not knowing what's going to happen,” Mike tells CloseUp360. “And once it's over, you can kind of just exhale.”

Though Mike was still in Memphis after this year’s trade deadline, the roster around him was nearly unrecognizable. Marc Gasol, the low-post yin to Mike’s point-guard yang for more than 10 seasons, was dealt to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, C.J. Miles, Delon Wright and a 2024 second-round pick. JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple were sent to the Los Angeles Clippers in return for Avery Bradley. Shelvin Mack was moved to Atlanta for Tyler Dorsey.

About a week after the deadline, Jaren Jackson Jr.—the star rookie for whose benefit Mike was purportedly retained—suffered a deep thigh bruise in what turned out to be his final game of the 2018-19 campaign.

Despite the Grizzlies’ sharp spiral into a rebuild, Mike didn’t despair. Instead, he turned toward the community that helped raise him, and doubled down on deepening his ties to Memphis.

“All the things that you love about Memphis are still there for the time being,” he says, “and you can kind of focus on all that stuff again and not worry about if you're going to be there tomorrow or not.”

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 11: on April 11, 2019 at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Mike Conley Jr. was relieved to still be in Memphis after this year's trade deadline, despite persistent rumors about his future with the Grizzlies. (Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Before he became an adopted son of “Grind City,” before he settled down in Columbus by way of his sensational freshman year at Ohio State, even before he emerged as a McDonald’s All-American in Indianapolis, Mike was a care-free kid in Arkansas. His parents, Mike Sr. and Regina Corbin, impressed upon him, his sister Sydney and his brothers, Jordan and Jon, the importance of helping others.

“They raised me with the same selfless demeanor and outlook on life, and I just really have a great understanding of how precious life can be,” Mike says.

Until he was 10, Mike and the Conleys lived in Fayetteville. They frequently spent time there and about an hour away in Fort Smith with Mike’s uncle, Rodney Corbin, and his family.

Though little Mike was two years younger than Rodney’s daughter, Connecia, and nine years older than his son, Keyshaun, “we still found time to play and do things and spend time together,” Mike says.

At times, though, he noticed that his cousins weren’t around for family functions.

“Where’s Keyshaun at?” Mike would ask. “Where’s Connecia?”

“They wouldn't be around or they would leave suddenly or abruptly, and it's, like, ‘Why? What happened?’” he says now.

“Nobody really said anything, so you didn't really understand what was going on as a kid,” Mike adds. “But as you get older, your parents let you in and tell you, ‘You know, this is what's going on and this is why they do what they do.’”

It wasn’t until he was in high school at Lawrence North in Indianapolis that Mike learned the truth. All along, Connecia and Keyshaun—as well as uncle Rodney—had been suffering from sickle cell anemia, a genetic blood disorder that “occurs among about one out of every 365 black or African-American births,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“For me, that was, like, all these years, I had no idea,” Mike recalls, “and now I wanna do something.”

Even with that intention, Mike admits that he had a lot to learn about sickle cell.

“I really had no idea because I had never heard of it,” he says. “I know all about breast cancer, had heard about all kinds of other things, but never had I heard of sickle cell and what it really is.”

So Mike started researching this mysterious disease that had long stricken his loved ones. He read articles, flipped through books, and talked with Rodney, Connecia and Keyshaun about their experiences.

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 11: on April 11, 2019 at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Mike didn't find out that his uncle and cousins suffered from sickle cell anemia until he was in high school. (Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

As Mike’s knowledge of sickle cell grew, so did his profile on the court. Alongside a man-sized prep phenom named Greg Oden, he led the Lawrence North Wildcats to three straight Indiana state championships and dominated the AAU circuit with the Spiece Indy Heat. He and Greg extended their partnership at Ohio State, where they carried the Buckeyes to the 2007 Final Four before leaving school to become lottery picks—Greg to the Portland Trail Blazers at No. 1, Mike to the Grizzlies at No. 4—in that year’s NBA draft.

Not long after landing in Memphis, Mike saw an opportunity to start doing something about sickle cell.

“I was fresh out of college, got to the NBA and realized I had a platform then,” he says. “Like shoot, I have a responsibility to do something. I expect that out of myself to be able to make a difference.”

It helped, too, that Mike had joined an organization as community-minded as the Grizzlies. The team had cultivated close ties with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and encouraged players to wash and adorn with new shoes the feet of impoverished children through a non-profit called Samaritan’s Feet.

“Imagine, as a 19-year-old, getting asked to do something like that,” Mike says. “You weren't really familiar or understood what it was that they were asking you to do. You show up and you're asked to wash the kids' feet and clean them and put new socks on them, put brand new shoes on them. That was a humbling experience. It was very powerful to be able to do that, and it made me want to really stay involved with them.”

Those experiences also helped to inspire Mike’s own initiatives. In September 2008, following his rookie season, Mike joined with his cousin, Eddie Blake, to put on the first Bowl ‘n Bash fundraiser. More than a decade later, the Bowl ‘n Bash has raised more than $500,000 on behalf of the Methodist Healthcare Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center, which opened in September 2012, following his involvement in the project in 2011.

“That's been our main thing, but we're almost outgrowing it,” he says. “So we're gonna hopefully add more and more, whether it's another event or multiple in a year, whatever it may be. But I feel like we have a good thing going and just going to continue to try to grow it.”

The whirlwind that was the 2018-19 campaign didn’t end with the Grizzlies’ final game. The day after Memphis’ season finale—a 132-117 win over the load-managing Golden State Warriors—owner Robert Pera fired head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, demoted general manager Chris Wallace into the scouting department, moved vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger into a senior advisory role, and promoted president of business operations Jason Wexler to team president and team counsel Zach Kleiman to executive vice president of basketball operations.

All of this came after Mike made it clear, during his press conference at team exit interviews, that he wanted to win and wasn’t keen to take part in another rebuild.

“I’ve done a lot of that, been a part of it,” he said. “At some point, you have to pass that torch.”

Shortly after hearing about Memphis’ front-office shakeup, Mike shared a simple, somber message on Twitter:

By that time, he was already on his way to the airport, to catch a flight to Augusta, Georgia for a weekend at The Masters.

No internecine struggles. No fretting over the future. Just watching Tiger Woods outlast the greatest golfers in the world for the hallowed green jacket, and relaxing with family and friends at the famed Berckmans Place VIP room at Augusta National.

“I’m a huge golfer,” Mike says. “I play every day in the summer, man. Every day.”

But before he departed for an offseason that’s due to include a trip to France with his wife, Mary, and plenty of time training in Columbus, Mike made what may be his parting gift to the city of Memphis. With his parents in attendance and Rodney by his side, Mike returned to Methodist to mingle with patients at the Sickle Cell Center and announce a $500,000 donation, comprised of his own contributions and funds raised from other donors. Going forward, the center—where Keyshaun, now 22, gets his treatments—will be known as the Mike and Mary Conley Comprehensive Sickle Cell Clinic.

“Man, really, it's just an honor and just humbled to be in the position I'm in,” Mike says, “to be able to help these people who are stricken with sickle cell and keep raising awareness and raising funds and attention towards something that I feel is really under-promoted and not a lot of people know about.”

Mike has done his part to publicize the cause, and then some. To date, he’s raised more than $1 million for sickle cell research and treatment, in addition to the roughly six visits per season he’s made to Methodist.

His support of the Memphis community extends far beyond sickle cell patients, though. He’s given away hundreds of sneakers to local students as part of his Shoe Up event, which he says was “inspired in a huge way” by Samaritan’s Feet. He’s taken part in Memphis’ TEAM Mentor Program and, in July 2016, made a $1 million donation to the Grizzlies Foundation that was subsequently matched by ownership and the team’s local partners.

“The community itself is pretty much all I know as an adult figure, man,” he says. “I've been in Memphis for 12 years. That's almost half my life.”

Over that time, the city changed (and continues to change) dramatically, with construction dotting the landscape. Mike, too, has grown up with it.

In 2014, he married his college girlfriend. In 2016, he and Mary welcomed their son, Myles Alex, into the world. Together, the Conleys could often be seen enjoying Japanese hibachi cuisine at Stix or—when there’s a sitter watching Myles at home—dining on Southern fare at Itta Bena, above B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street.

“Memphis means everything. It's home. It truly is,” he says. “I don't know anything other than Memphis, and they're family. They're family to me, they've been family and they treat me like family, so they'll always have a special place in my heart.”

Along the way, Mike has developed both his on-court game and walk-in fashion. The latter has come with the help of noted NBA stylist and brand consultant Brandon Williams, who’s shown Mike the power of fashion to form first impressions and convey his personality to the world.

“I just wanted to be seen as professional and clean like that at first,” Mike says. “But as I got older, it was really more, like, when you wear your clothes, don't be afraid to be yourself. Show everybody that you don't care what other people think about you and what you wear, and wear your personality. Don't worry about what people say.”

After all these years and all that Mike has accomplished on and off the court, Memphians only figure to have good things to say about him. He was a key cog in the “Grit ‘n Grind” machine that churned out seven straight playoff appearances, including the franchise’s first trip to the Western Conference finals in 2013.

In March, Mike reclaimed the crown as Memphis’ all-time leading scorer with a three-pointer against the Warriors that pushed him past Marc again. Mike is also the Grizzlies’ franchise career leader in games played, assists, steals and three-pointers made. He’s just the third player in NBA history to lead a team in those five categories, joining Reggie Miller with the Pacers and LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“I think being the all-time leading scorer and having all those records is elevated because of all the things I was able to do in the community and all the work that's been done,” Mike says. “It makes it all complete, in a sense. It makes me feel like I'm not just an athlete. I didn't just break this record and that's all I cared about.”

If this really is it for Mike’s time in Memphis, he will leave the city with his legacy secured—not just as a Grizzlies great, but also as a philanthropist who worked to strengthen the community of which he was (and will always be) a part. And if the team’s new management decides to keep him for the fourth year of the then-record $153 million contract he signed in 2016, he will return to Tennessee in the fall with yet another opportunity to make his mark by helping those in need.

“I think that's a big reason why Memphis and I have such a strong connection,” he says, “not just as a basketball player, but this time we spend together off the court, focused on that, as opposed to the basketball player and if I make or miss shots.”

“I’m humbled to break records,” he adds, “but at the end of the day, I don't want to necessarily be remembered for that. Hopefully, I won't be.”

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.