'He was a blessing for us': Mike Conley's community service left a lasting impact on Memphis

The little boy was fun-loving and sweet, “the most giving child you could ever meet.” And when the bus carrying football teams from the Memphis area crashed on Dec. 3, 2018, injuring 40 people and killing a 9-year-old child, an entire community was devastated.

Latashia Streeter, who helped run the Orange Mound Youth Association football league, wept and was unsure how to comfort the boys and their grieving families. That’s when she got a call from the Memphis Grizzlies. Mike Conley, the team’s point guard, wanted to invite the children to a basketball game, wanted to meet Kameren Johnson’s parents, and offer them a gift. And when all of that was done, Conley wanted to do more.

“We had started to organize a retreat for the kids,” Streeter said. “Feed them, play some games, have some counseling sessions. Things that would make the kids open up with what they’d gone through. But we didn’t know how we were going to pay for it.”

Conley, as he did so many times during his 12 years playing in Memphis, opened his heart and his checkbook and took care of it all.

“He was a savior for us in that moment,” Streeter said.

Conley is going back to Beale Street this week for what's sure to be an emotional homecoming. It should also be educational for Conley’s new fans in Utah. Because if you want to understand the Utah Jazz’s new point guard and why he has so quickly become instrumental in a new locker room, you have to see Conley in the place that shaped him, hear the stories of the people he touched, and see how much he values the places he calls home.

“Community is everything,” Conley said. “As athletes, it’s our responsibility to help. It’s easy for us to go out and affect people’s lives in so many different ways. We don’t even know how much we can touch people and change the direction of somebody’s future.”

Conley did that routinely in Memphis.

“The Grizzlies organization did a very good job of always pushing us in directions and making us aware of things we might not have been aware of when we were young,” Conley said. “I just took a hold of a few things that really meant a lot to me.”

Shortly after being drafted in 2007, Conley struck up a relationship with a local hospital. The point guard has two cousins who live with sickle cell disease, and he wanted to raise awareness and help patients in Memphis. Conley’s wife, Mary Conley, became a Methodist Healthcare Foundation board member, and over the years, the Conleys raised more than $1 million—including a $500,000 personal donation earlier this year—for the foundation’s sickle cell center. In April, the foundation announced the center’s clinic would be named after Mike and Mary Conley.

“His career in Memphis was inspiring,” said Zach Pretzer, Methodist Healthcare Foundation’s interim president. “You could tell early on that he and Mary really were all in on supporting the city. They are genuine, sincere, friendly. Just as competitive as he is as a point guard, he has that much energy in supporting the causes he believes in.”

In July of 2016, Conley signed a historic contract extension with the Grizzlies. The franchise—the only one Conley had ever played for—held a ceremony on the court at FedExForum. The point guard didn’t waste any time sharing the wealth. At the ceremony, Conley announced a $1 million donation to the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation to help at-risk youth in the community.

But it was Conley’s personal connections that stood out just as much as his financial efforts. Conley’s annual Bowl ’N’ Bash event had raised plenty of money for sickle cell patients by the time Conley and Memphis celebrated it for the 11th and final time this summer. Telly Dodson, an advocate and sickle cell patient, was in a lane next to Conley and his family at one of those early fundraisers. Thanks to some bowling and friendly trash talk, they became friends.

“He’s just so down to earth. It’s like you’re seeing your neighbor and you can talk to him and have a regular conversation,” Dodson said. “That’s what people loved about him here. There’s a willingness to give back, and it’s not just monetary. It’s also his time, him just being a good person.”

Said Conley, “I’m just lucky enough to have been able to spend a lot of time with a lot of great kids, a lot of great people in the community.”

Conley’s service in the community has also helped to shape him as a player. Last season, the veteran point guard received both the NBA’s Sportsmanship and Teammate of the Year awards.

“It helps you grow,” Conley said. “You see how you can serve others and be a blessing to other people, to be a role model for certain people. The changes you can make daily are tremendous. And when you bring that back to the locker room, you feel 10 times better about yourself as the leader of a team. I think it’s just something that’s needed. Everybody needs to serve in their community.”

With trade rumors swirling, Conley knew last season could be his final in Memphis.

“To know that last season was probably my last there was tough and emotional,” he said.

It was tough on Conley’s fans, too.

“We were on pins and needles,” Streeter said.

“The last time I saw him, I joked with him that he'd better not be going anywhere,” Dodson added.

But after news of Conley’s move to Utah broke, his fans in Memphis also felt happy—that he was going to a good situation, that they’d had so much time with him.

“My feelings were just the same as the entire city’s,” Pretzer said. “It was bittersweet. We’re grateful we had someone have such a long career in this city, and all of his philanthropy and support make it that much more special. And we know it’s a lifelong partnership.”

All this time later, Streeter is still searching for ways to thank Conley.

“When I tell you he was a blessing for us, he was a blessing,” she said. “We were hurt and didn’t know which way to turn. He made that load so much lighter for us.”

On Friday, Streeter and Dodson will be among the thousands of fans at FedExForum to welcome Conley back to Memphis. And he expects it to be an emotional night.

“I hope it’s good,” Conley said when asked what he expects from the crowd. “I know that the feeling is mutual, how much I love them, and I know they feel the same way.”

 “I’ll try to keep it as businesslike as I can, but I know it will be emotional. … I’m just anxious. Almost like you’re trying to get it over with and get back to hoopin’. But I also want to take in the moment. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime type thing.”

For so long, Conley said, Memphis was all he knew. And because of that, he knows so much more.

“You can’t describe the way the Bluff City can affect you and change you,” Conley said. “But you’re looking at it. I’m a guy that was really molded from that. It gave me another layer. It really pushed me to a level that I’ve always wanted to achieve, both in basketball and off the court.”