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As usual, Conley is shining -- even if few others notice it

Low-key point guard Mike Conley has been just the kind of leader the contending Memphis Grizzlies need.

POSTED: Jan 18, 2015 11:32 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen


Despite not being among the leading All-Star vote-getters, Mike Conley is an elite point guard in the Western Conference.

— He arrived without entourage, and no heads turned to greet him as he walked in.

The world, as Mike Conley Jr. has learned, was not about to come to a stop and bow before him, in recognition of his talent for basketball. And in Conley's opinion, the world was acquitting itself rightly.

"Welcome to the National Civil Rights Museum," said a woman who had appeared from one of the back offices to meet Conley near the entrance. She handed out his ticket and then, with welled-up sincerity, she looked at him and said, "Thank you for coming."

"Oh," said Conley, taken aback. "I'm very happy to be here, thank you."

Conley has his followers, and his believers, but they are in the minority. He has never been an All-Star, and in the recent fan balloting he was not ranked among the top 10 guards in the West, even though he has been key in his Memphis Grizzlies being among the conference's best all season.

All my life I've been ranked lower than I thought I should be. And I don't care anymore.

– Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley

Conley, their point guard, leads the Grizzlies with 6.1 assists per game and is second in scoring (17.9 points per game), which compares favorably with the production of Tony Parker last season (14.9 ppg, 4.7 apg) when he was guiding the Spurs to the championship. Conley's 43.3 percent 3-point shooting has created additional space inside for center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph, even as Conley has been pushing the tempo over the last two seasons to create easier baskets for everybody.

He is having a career year, and his Grizzlies -- in the absence of a dominant team-to-beat this wide-open NBA season -- are positioning themselves for a run into June. And yet the ultimate question continues to hover in the silence of his continuing improvement.

Does he have what his teammates need to lead them to the championship?

"All my life I've been ranked lower than I thought I should be," Conley would say quietly as he walked slowly past the enlarged black-and-white photographs that detail the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King. "And I don't care anymore."

In print his words may sound bitter and resentful, but on this day, in his company, their meaning was entirely different. Conley was smiling as if liberated. He sounded grateful.

Conley grows up with the Grizzlies

"It all doesn't seem real," Conley was saying as he began his tour through the museum and its exhibitions of slavery, Jim Crow and Dr. King's struggle for civil rights. "Because you think of the world as it is today, and it's like that never happened."

He is a 27-year-old dressed in blue sweatpants, a white zip top and a baseball cap spun around backwards. He expressed gratitude to Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and other NBA players of the 1950s and '60s who had not been welcome at certain hotels in many cities.

"For us, we play basketball, and we go home," he said. "For them, it was like, OK, we played the game; now are we going to get home? Are we going to be safe to go home?"

Conley moved on to be faced by a kind of seating chart of a ship that had carried the slaves against their will, in chains and diseased squalor, from Africa to America. This room marked the beginning of his tour of the museum, which had been built onto the back of the old Lorraine Motel.

The tour would end at room 306 in the motel. He was going to spend this day trying to make sense of what he was seeing and feeling.

"I've sat next to Marc on every plane ride since he's been here," said Conley of Marc Gasol, who joined the Grizzlies in 2008 after Conley's rookie season. "One year on Martin Luther King Day we had a travel day after the game, and he was saying, 'So there really was racism, with people hating each other like that?' He says, 'We never had anything like that in Spain.' You learn a lot about people, about their culture, and what their beliefs are."

For us, we play basketball, and we go home. For them, it was like, OK, we played the game; now are we going to get home? Are we going to be safe to go home?

– Mike Conley

Conley, born in Arkansas, found himself reviewing his own life and country from the distance of Gasol's perspective. He and Gasol hit it off instantly as neither was the prototype of a future star. They were both humble, which in the NBA can be viewed as weakness, and both were focused on the needs of their team.

Those early years were especially difficult for Conley, at that time a scrawny 6-foot-1 point guard who was underperforming as the No. 4 pick of the 2007 Draft. When Gasol heard that the Grizzlies were on the verge of trading Conley to the Milwaukee Bucks, he reached out to Ron Tillery, who covered the team for the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

"I had no idea what I was doing," recalled Gasol. "I said, 'Write this down: We cannot trade Mike Conley. He is the one guy who actually cares about the team, that actually is trying to play the right way.' Well, supposedly a rookie is not supposed to do that. So I got a call from the owner, I got a call from everybody. And rightfully so. Rightfully so.

"But I felt like I had to protect the one guy who I felt actually cared about winning and losing -- because a lot of people say, 'I want to win.' But are you going to do the right things it takes to win? Do you want to win on your own terms, or do you want to win on the team's terms?"

"There were times we came close to trading Mike, because his development was so slow, and thank goodness we didn't," said Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace. "He never ever deviated from who he is. He's someone who is very good with the fans. He's very respectful and courteous, has a smile on his face, and if he does get down you don't see it. There was never any petulance or moodiness when he was young and this wasn't working."

The rise of the Grizzlies -- from 24 wins in 2008-09, to 46 in 2010-11, to 56 (and a West finals berth) in 2012-13 -- has run parallel to Conley's own improvement. As he thought back to the beginnings of his NBA career, he spoke quietly, as if in church; the tragic photographs and traumatic newspaper headlines, the exhibits of the sit-ins and young Rosa Parks and a firebombed bus that had been filled with voting-rights activists were combining with the rising cadence of Dr. King's voice to frame Conley's recollections of his own life, thereby deepening the meaning of his experiences.

Inside Stuff: Memphis' 2014 Playoff Charge

Mike Conley talks about how the Grizzlies have had to scratch and claw their way through the season to stay in the playoff hunt.

"There wasn't a second when he didn't say my name or yell at me for something," said Conley of former coach Lionel Hollins, himself a former point guard who took over as coach 44 games into Memphis' 2008-09 season. "I could be in a game dribbling the ball right in front of him and he would be yelling at me to do something, and I could have the defender on top of me and I'm looking over at him -- and I'm spooked."

There was a feeling in those days, which lingers even now, that Conley was too accommodating, too sensitive and nice. It began at middle school in Indianapolis, where his teammate was Greg Oden, the domineering center who became the bigger star as they moved onto high school and then Ohio State together. But a different truth has emerged since then. Conley's kind personality and the loyalty he showed to his berating coach have proved to be expressions of the best kind of strength. For he did not surrender, as a weaker man might have done. He did not betray himself.

"To have gone through that, and understand that he wanted to help mold me to where I can take the criticism; it's almost like he broke me down to where I could build myself up stronger and stronger and stronger each year," said Conley. He was alert to the surroundings of the museum, which placed him in the company of fallen leaders whose sacrifices and achievements far exceeded his own.

"I would go home and tell myself the day he stops yelling at me is the day he stops caring. So every time I heard him say my name, I would be like, OK, he still believes I can be good; he still believes I can be better. And that was the way I looked at it."

A quiet (yet driven) competitor

"To be a good leader, you have to be a good listener as well," Grizzlies guard Tony Allen had been saying the previous day of Conley. "So he listens to what we've got to say, if we're complaining, or if we think they should go a different way; and he always brings us back, that we've all got to be on the same page to move forward. He needs to continue that. But I think I want him to be a little nastier, though. I need him to be a little more nastier, put a little more of a mean streak in him."

Mike Conley

NBA TV's Kristen Ledlow sits down with Grizzlies' guard Mike Conley, to talk about the chemistry in Memphis.

"He says there's another level I need to reach," said Conley, who went into his Tony Allen rasp: "He wants me being nasty, to put on a different Mike." He laughed. "He wants me to be in his space, grab his jersey, pound him in his chest, 'Snap out of it!' and all that stuff. I can try, but that's just not me for the most part. I'll slap him against the back of his head once in a while, because that is the only way to get his attention sometimes: You'll be talking to him and he's looking right past you, so you just got to hit him upside the head. Then he's listening to you again."

"Yeah," conceded Allen with a shrug, "he'll hit me upside my head." He was grinning as he clapped his hands. "'Snap out of it! Go onto the next play, we've got to make a run!' He'll tell me things like that, just keeping me engaged, and I think that's big. That's big."

This is where style is confused with substance. Just because Conley refuses to make a show of competing should not imply that he is lacking as a competitor. The opposite has always been true, even in high school and college, when he was consistently hearing that his own reputation was being propped up by his close friend, Oden.

He listens to what we've got to say, if we're complaining, or if we think they should go a different way; and he always brings us back, that we've all got to be on the same page to move forward.

– Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen

"I never did believe it, though," Conley said. "It was one of those things where if you went to one of our practices or open gyms in high school, I would dominate. We are the fiercest competitors, and we would always play against each other, and argue and do all that stuff because we want to win.

"It would be the first team to win three; he'd win two games and then I'd win three in a row; and it would be vice versa the next day. And we were really unselfish, so it didn't matter if Greg was the guy or I was the guy or the next guy was the guy. We just wanted to win."

By their freshman season at Ohio State, which ended with a 84-75 loss to No. 1-seeded Florida in the NCAA championship game, Oden was being lauded as a potential heir to Bill Russell. But Conley knew that he was more than a sidekick. He recognized in himself the same qualities that were ascribed to Oden.

And so, as a teenager, he made the remarkable decision to shut himself off from the internet. "Because I didn't want to get caught up in the rankings," Conley said. "Then my dad pulled me aside and said, 'You know you could possibly go lottery in the NBA this year.' I said, 'Stop lying! Stop it.' I didn't believe him."

"Me and Mike had our first conversation about the Draft in between the Final Four and the championship game," said Conley's father, Mike Sr., who was about to become his agent. "The conversation went something like this: 'Dad, my cousin's telling me he's hearing that I could be a lottery pick. What is he talking about?' I said, 'We'll talk about it after the game.' "

Athletics a small part of Conley family legacy

"Well," Conley was saying, "most of my family is from Arkansas on my Mom's side, and my Dad's family is from up north in Chicago." But that was as far back as he could trace his own family tree, even as he walked these corridors toward room 306. "I think the more I ask about it, and the more I get older and mature, it will be something we'll probably all talk about down the line."

Mike Conley and Greg Oden
Mike Conley and Greg Oden starred at Ohio State.

The truth is that he descends from one of the great American families. The Conley line was launched in the early 1800s, by way of three unions between white slaveholders and black slaves in Georgia and Alabama. Conleys became prominent in the development of the Free Black Elite leading up to the Civil War, and of the Talented Tenth of African-American leaders at the turn of the century.

All phases of American life would be advanced by the forebears of Mike Conley Jr. Houston Conley helped launch the desegregation of public schools in America. Sgt. Paschal Conley served in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt; Booker Conley, Coleman Conley and James Conley III were Tuskegee Airmen. Maurice Cheeks, the NBA-champion point guard and former NBA coach, is a Conley descendant.

"I didn't know that until recently about Maurice -- even though I've known him, we're both from Chicago," said Mike Conley Sr. "We have something called the Conley Family Reunion, where everybody with the last name of Conley gets together and figures out how we're related. I've been to it twice. Thousands of people come every year."

Mike Conley Sr. grew up to become an Olympic and world champion in the triple jump in the early 1990s and is in the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame. His little brother, Steve Conley, was a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts. The natural assumption is that they and their lineage would have created a standard of expectations and pressures for Mike Conley Jr. to overcome.

On the contrary: He was oblivious.

If you asked me to this day, after that national championship game, I would have told you 100 percent that I was coming back to school because I never thought I was going to make it to the league.

– Mike Conley

"I wasn't worried about making it to the NBA," Conley said. "It was about the next day, the next game. I was worried about 11th grade, about college. Am I going to be good enough? And when I got to college, man, I've got to get ready for the next week, playing against a Big Ten team and they've got three All-Americans or whatever it is.

"If you asked me to this day, after that national championship game, I would have told you 100 percent that I was coming back to school because I never thought I was going to make it to the league."

The reason he believed in himself without getting ahead of himself had everything to do with his parents. From his father, he received the genes of athleticism as well as daily unglamorous lessons of living in the moment, training meticulously and investing in self-discipline. "And then he's always been big on treating people right, and understanding how you have to talk to different people in different ways and learn people," Conley said. "That's what I wanted to be -- mild -- mannered, to blend in with any group of people, be real approachable."

Mike Conley
Mike Conley was a prep star in Indiana.

From his namesake father came the how-to, and from his mother, Rene Conley, came the belief. She raised him to be religious. The teachings of his father put him in this position, and the teachings of his mother have seen him through.

"I've always been a leader," Conley was saying. "I've not always been the vocal one, though, I think that's become new to me as the years have gone on. I just know when I'm tired, I can't act tired. If I'm sick or mad or upset we're in a slump, that doesn't mean I stop talking and stop getting in people's faces. I have to do it. And that's been the thing that I've noticed a lot that I've adjusted to, is being able to go out there and have a bad game, just plain terrible, and still engage with everybody.

"When I go home at night, did I do what I was supposed to do today? Whether it was on the basketball court, or going to the hospital to visit somebody that was supposed to go visit. Go meet a kid. Show up at an appearance or whatever it is. Those are things sometimes where you don't feel like doing it, I'm sore, I'm tired, I feel sick. But once you get done doing it, you're like, oh, that was worth it, every second.

"My faith is my foundation," he said. "At the lowest points in your career, your life or whatever, it's to believe and have faith in something higher. To understand that it's not about you. It is not just about you. It is not about that. It's something bigger."

The children of other distinguished American families are often raised on the mythology of their background -- to believe that they are of special stock, as if entitled by blood. Rene and Mike Conley Sr. practiced none of that. Their approach was fundamentally American. Mike Conley Jr. was encouraged to reach toward tomorrow, and to tap into something bigger than himself.

"I'll give you a good one, and Mike doesn't know about it," Mike Conley Sr. was saying by phone the other day. "Mike was in the Civil Rights Museum, right? Well, I was actually christened by Dr. King. He came to Chicago, to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and my Mom brought me to be christened by him."

The year was 1962. The end of the tour was six short years away.

Dr. King's story affects Conley

A tour guide named William Young approached Conley with a story about Dr. King's final visits to Memphis. Dr. King had been drawn to Memphis by the grievances of the city's African-American sanitation workers. "Dr. Martin Luther King came to Memphis to speak on their behalf," said Young, a young man in a coat and tie with glasses and an authoritative command of the material. "He said, the person who handles our garbage is just as significant as a physician, for if he does not do his job then diseases will run rampant. So Dr. King was showing support for the common brotherhood of man."

National Civil Rights Museum
Conley recently visited the historic Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn.

William Young led Conley around the corner. They were moving on to Dr. King's final visit.

"It was at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ Headquarters here in Memphis that he would give his last speech," Young said. "Which is the mountaintop speech. Many people believe that he was forseeing his death, that he prophesied his own death."

"Where was that church at?" asked Conley quietly.

"It's six or seven minutes from here," Young said. "It is still standing today."

Conley nodded. He was going to visit that church.

"If you will step forward with me," Young said, "I can show you where Dr. King spent his last hours."

Dr. King's voice escorted Conley along ...

And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

National Civil Rights Museum
A look at the exterior of the Lorraine Hotel.

To Conley's right was room 306 on the second floor of the two-story Lorraine Motel. It was a room of two small beds. It was nothing like the rooms of the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons where NBA players stay. The mattresses were narrow and thin and uncomfortable. The bedspreads were beige. There was a cheap lamp and a black rotary phone on the wall-mounted table that served both beds. Gospel music was filling the corridor.

"At around 5:45 p.m., Dr. King was on the balcony," said Young, gesturing through the window outside room 306. "He was talking to Jesse Jackson and the musician Ben Branch. He was talking about this particular song that is playing now, Precious Lord, Take My Hand. He wanted the song to be played at the rally that they were going to be having later on for the sanitation workers. However, at 6:01 p.m. ..."

Young clapped his hands together.

"... the shot rang out hitting Dr. King in the neck. Dr. King was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital, which is now on the campus of St. Jude Hospital, and was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.. He was 39 years old at the time of his death and left behind his wife, Coretta Scott King, and four small children. Dr. King would be arrested 30 times for his civil rights activism."

'I can be much better'

Forty-six years and 290 days after his death, on the national holiday that commemorates his birth, the Dallas Mavericks will play a late-afteroon game against the Grizzlies.

In the lush NBA arena on Martin Luther King Junior Avenue, a half-mile from this museum that has swallowed up and transformed the old Lorraine Motel, most of the players will be African-American. They will be wealthy beyond the imagination of anyone from the late 1960s. They will be surrounded by nearly 18,000 people who have paid large sums to see them play. They will be booed for the color of their uniform, and not for their skin.

"For those people that went through it," said Conley, looking back on what he had seen, "I find them to be some of the strongest people: To be able to live in today's world, and to be the people they are -- and to not hate, to not be racist, after all that. After everything. It is unbelievable."

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.

So said Dr. King on his final night in Memphis, in a church that will be visited.

Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now; I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land!

"You get a tremendous amount of respect for those before," Conley decided, finally. "It makes you want to be a better person when you leave. You can think you're good; and then you walk out of here and say, 'I can be much better.' "

And Mike Conley Jr. said it again, his own voice rising.

"I can be much better."

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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