The week began in Memphis with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, and the beginning of ceremonies in the city that will continue through April 4, which will mark 50 years since the civil rights’ leader’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel — whose remaining shell, now a part of the National Civil Rights Museum, stands less than a mile from FedEx Forum, where the Grizzlies play.
The juxtaposition of those two buildings encompasses much of the last 50 years for African-Americans in the city, and in the country. So much is better for black people today than it was then, but so many people of color remain trapped in unemployment and poverty. It is a conundrum not lost on people like Mike Conley, who is going through one of his most frustrating years as a pro.
He’s only played in 12 games this season because of Achilles and heel problems, and while he’s slowly working his way back toward playing again, the Grizzlies have cratered, currently well out of the playoff race in the Western Conference. But Conley, a two-time winner of the NBA’s Sportsmanship Award, and who pledged $1 million last year to the Grizzlies’ mentorship program, is still engaged while he waits to get back on the court.
He toured the Museum last week with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts. His annual “Bowl And Bash” bowling tournament helps raise funds for and bring awareness to Sickle Cell Anemia, a disease prevalent in the African-American community. He’s worked with the Samaritan’s Feet charity to provide shoes for local kids who can’t afford to buy them. Yet the week also ended with more losing for the Grizzlies, and frustration for their leader, who will have to wait at least another year before trying to, once again, earn his first All-Star Game appearance.
Me: You have been in Memphis for more than a decade. You’ve come out of pocket in a significant way to help the city. So as Memphis begins commemorating the passage of 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination, what are you thoughts about being here and being part of a community that’s trying to deal with this?
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yesterday was such a great honor and a day I’ll never forget #MLKDAY pic.twitter.com/3PU1y0gA7Y
— Mike Conley (@MCONLEY10) January 15, 2018
Mike Conley: It’s very special. It’s a very special time around here. As I’ve grown in my 11 seasons here, you get more and more a sense of humility, and the pride the city holds. The honor it is to be a Memphian, especially this time of year. The significance of the 50th, the big 50, it’s just really an honor to be a part of this, to know that this community that I’ve been a part of for so long, this community that I know has seen a lot and been through a lot, and had to deal with a lot, and to have such a historic moment happen in the city in which we call home is just a powerful moment to be a Memphian.
Me: You carried Grit-n-Grind in the building for so long. Is it the same outside in the city?
.@NBA commissioner Adam Silver, @TheNBPA executive director Michele Roberts, @JeanieBuss & @mconley11 share a powerful moment on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel pic.twitter.com/STlCGgDrWF
— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) January 14, 2018
MC: For sure. We connect on the court, but the bond extends way beyond basketball. That’s what we hold so tight and dear to us, the community work, the time we spend with these people. They’re family members, honestly. They’re family members. They come up to you and they don’t call you by your full name; they say ‘what’s up, Mike?’ ‘What’s up, M.C.?’ It’s like you’re talking to your brother. And that is the kind of connection we’ve built, this organization, and it’s something we stand by.
The rest of the world is struggling. That’s not Dr. King’s dream. His dream is much, much more 50-50, we want to have this thing where everybody’s able to live a life that’s sustainable, nobody’s too greedy, nobody’s too wealthy. And it’s unfortunate that we’re here in this position.”
Mike Conley, on poverty in the U.S. and Memphis
Me: I wonder if you feel a special sense of community and responsibility being a person of color, knowing that a lot of people in this town who look like us in this town have it rough and they’re trying to get themselves right, but it’s rough out there.
MC: It’s very rough. And there are a lot of blacks in this city who live the life that we’re trying to close the gap from, live the life where things aren’t equal, things aren’t fair, nothing has been given to them in their lives. And to see a team come in — a basketball team, of all sports — which has a lot of African-Americans play the game, a lot of these young people in this city have somebody to look up to. They have great role models, they have people of the same skin color they can look to and say, hey, they were able to do this and be successful, and they’re in the community and giving back, trying to make an impact on our lives as well. That’s the powerful thing about just having the opportunity to be in a community with a lot of African-Americans and being able to relate to them.
Me: As much as you do, does it give you pause when you see the numbers about poverty and wonder, ‘can I do any more?’
MC: All the time. You look at the numbers, and they’re staggering. The other night I was speaking on a panel, just about economic side of it, how so much wealth was just in a small number of people. The rest of the world is struggling. That’s not Dr. King’s dream. His dream is much, much more 50-50, we want to have this thing where everybody’s able to live a life that’s sustainable, nobody’s too greedy, nobody’s too wealthy. And it’s unfortunate that we’re here in this position. For me, it’s one of those things where I know I can’t fix it all, but I know I can start something in my community to help and try to do small things, whether it’s through mentoring, building homes, education, different areas where you can try to steer people in the right direction and help them have a better path to success.
Me: I know this year is killing you for a lot of reasons.
MC: You see my hair is growing all the way out. That’s how I feel inside. It’s crazy.
Whatever happens the rest of the year happens, and in the summertime we’ll deal with that. It’s just been a nightmare season to say the least from that standpoint.”
Mike Conley, on the Grizzlies’ struggles this season
Me: How do you balance ‘I need to be out there’ with ‘I need to be healthy’?
MC: It’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my career. It’s something I’ve been battling since day one of this season, trying to figure out the balance of push through this wall or just wait behind it, let everything just come together and let things settle down. But in the process of letting things play out, we didn’t do well as a team. For me personally, I might have been healing a little bit better, but I’m looking out there and I’m feeling, I need to be out there to help this team play and move forward. Because I feel a big responsibility for what’s going on now. It’s hard for me to watch basketball outside of Grizzlies games. I’ve lost something from this. It’s really frustrating just to sit and watch.
Me: The enjoyment’s gone?
MC: It’s completely gone. I can’t even watch the other games, the big Christmas games, stuff I used to do all the time, ‘cause I’m just so locked into our team and things like that. But if I’m not out there I’m just completely unhappy about everything else.
Me: So you don’t want to hear about, ‘well, we’ll get a good Draft pick out of this?’
MC: No, man. ‘Cause that’s not, that wasn’t our goal coming in. Whatever happens the rest of the year happens, and in the summertime we’ll deal with that. It’s just been a nightmare season to say the least from that standpoint. My cousin told me the other day, maybe it’s a blessing. You miss a good chunk of the season, and maybe it’s saving you for something else. Take some mileage off of you.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
Man was I garbage tonight! 🤢💩🤮😷!!!! Thank God for teammates. Appreciate it fellas ✊🏾🙏🏾#StriveForGreatness🚀
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 19, 2018
— LeBron James (@KingJames), Thursday, 10:34 p.m., after going 7 of 16 from the floor, including 0-for-4 on threes, and 2-for-8 from the foul line, as Cleveland blew a 23-point lead before barely holding on to beat lowly Orlando at home.
THEY SAID IT
“I put my heart and soul into this team and this city. And that’s what I’m going to do until everything is over.”
— Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker, to local reporters on Friday, after ESPN reported that Charlotte was now willing to include Walker in potential trades for the first time in his career. Walker, the Hornets’ first-round pick in 2011 and an All-Star for the first time last year, is currently second on the franchise’s all-time scoring list behind Dell Curry, and second in assists behind Muggsy Bogues.
“I really feel like I should be in this year. I think the previous two years, we weren’t in the playoffs, so that was the excuse. Well, we are in the playoffs, and I think I’ve played at a high level. And I feel like it’s not even close that’s it’s been my best defensive year. So at this point, what is the excuse? There’s no excuse. I should be there.”
— Portland guard Damian Lillard, to local reporters, on his chances of being named an All-Star game reserve this season. Lillard was an All-Star in 2013-14 and 2014-15, the second time as an injury replacement for the Clippers’ Blake Griffin.
“I know there’s been rumors about Boston trying to trade for him or whatever, and my response to that is, yeah, we’ll trade him. But they’re going to have to give us the New England Patriots and the two planes that they just bought.”
— Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, to the Boston Herald, on the Celtics’ supposed interest in his All-Star starting forward, Anthony Davis.
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here andfollow him on Twitter.
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