Out of all the players 30 years old and younger, there’s only one who’s been with his team for 10 years: Mike Conley, a Memphis resident for his entire decade-long career—from 19 years old, coming off of a national championship appearance at Ohio State, to now 29, finishing his first NBA season averaging at least 20 points for the playoff-bound Grizzlies.
Speaking with the NBPA, the starting point guard shared what 10 years means to him, how the city has shaped his identity, how he and the team developed together to build the “Grindhouse,” his favorite moments on and off the court, and much more. His conversation is presented below in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.
Ten years means everything to me.
It’s one of those things that you can kind of take for granted in your first four or five years being in the NBA, understanding that not a lot of players get to be in the same city for maybe more than two, three years at a time. The city has really helped shape me as a human being, made me a better person, so there’s so many good lessons I’ve learned and so many things that I’ve taken away from being in Memphis my whole career.
In the beginning, I was happy to be here and just wanted to make the best of it, because you never know in the NBA how things happen. As the years went on, I started to realize that being with a team for your entire career is rare and only a few guys do it in today’s game—Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and guys like that who are Hall of Famers and guys I look up to and idolize. Over the years, I’ve gotten into different conversations with them, and they make me understand how special it is.
They’re happy to see me still strive for all the goals that I want to achieve and do it here in a city where we went from winning around 20 games a year to being a playoff team every year, trying to win a championship. Many guys don’t get that opportunity, and that’s the most important thing you get out of it just speaking with them. I would love to be a part of that list of guys knowing that I never left. I tried to win as much as we could here with what we have and make the best of it regardless of our situation.
Arriving in Memphis
Draft night was an exciting night.
It’s hard to explain for a 19-year-old at that time. It’s just like everything is going so fast. The first day I get to Memphis, I threw a pitch out at the Redbirds game and did the whole deal—the press conferences and all that. It was just like a whirlwind and at the same time, it was, like, “Hey, this is the beginning of where it all starts.” So it was definitely a very cool time.
I actually had family members who lived in Memphis and I went there every year growing up, so it was almost like destined that I go there. I knew a lot about the city, I knew a lot about the Grizzlies. I used to use the Grizzlies on NBA Live and all the video games I played. I kept Jason Williams in there; he’s better than me [laughs]. It was just a weird coincidence when I got drafted there. It’s a small city, it’s a Southern city, good food and all those things. So I was very familiar with the area.
But I learned how tough the city is. It’s a blue-collar city—the people really take pride in hard work. It’s a culture that you have to live in it to understand. It’s overlooked because it’s a small city, a small market kind of area. And just having that kind of toughness is what the fans like about me more than anything.
When I broke my face during the 2015 playoffs, I had the easy option of sitting down and making sure that I was completely 100 percent. But my feeling was, We’re going to lose if I don’t play. My teammates understood that it’s not about me, it’s not about my personal goals and personal stats. It’s all about the team and I sacrificed everything for them.
When you first come to Memphis, sometimes people have a hard time understanding certain people’s speaking because of the Southern accent. When I first got there, they’d always say, like, “What’s up, maine?” It was “man,” but sounded like the state of Maine. I was, like, “What did they say?” All of a sudden, six months later I’m going to back to my family and I just happen to say that same phrase. And they’re, like, “What?” So it’s rubbing off on me.
I also really enjoy barbecue now, and my wife cooks Southern foods. And then there are so many good different restaurants. For barbecue, the Commissary in Germantown is really good. I like the restaurant Itta Bena. It’s downtown, it serves all kinds of food. It’s really kind of a private Southern place. You kind of have to go in the back alley to get into it, so it’s got a real cool feel to it. You’ve got Folk’s Folly, a good steakhouse. Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen is another one. It’s nationally ranked.
Outside of restaurants, where I like to go the most is the National Civil Rights Museum. It really puts everything into perspective for you—having that kind of background, that kind of historic feel to the city. A moment like that just changed America forever. And the museum does such a good job of portraying everything that went on at the time that there were struggles.
Martin Luther King and what he was doing and what happened there in Memphis, it’s a part of the city. We have a lot of pride for that, so it’s something that you try to live by. And it’s understanding that in order to go forward, you’ve got to understand what happened before you and that history for a greater cause. I think that’s what the city of Memphis really embraced, and I have as well since I’ve been there.
I think the biggest way Memphis has shaped me is it’s made me thankful to have had as much opportunity as I’ve had to go to different places, such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and Methodist Healthcare’s Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center. You really get to see what life’s struggles are truly like, and you get to be a part of making peoples’ days better. You see what effect that you can have on a community, whether it’s hosting events or going into neighborhoods and building homes.
I do a “Bowl-N-Bash” every September with the Sickle Cell Center. We raised upwards of $100,000 last year just off of purchasing lanes and donating to the cause. Sickle cell is something that has affected my family; I’ve had two cousins and a uncle with it. Memphis is actually one of the highest populations for sickle cell, so it’s definitely near and dear to me.
I’ve also worked with the Samaritans Feet organization, where my teammates and I wash underprivileged kids’ feet and provide them with new shoes. And I’ve done my own shoe event called “Shoe Up!” every month or so. I go around to schools in under-served communities and surprise different classrooms who’ve done well in school with all a new pair of shoes. I also give them basketball training. Constantly I’m trying to do something to affect the kids and let them know that we care, and that’s the biggest thing.
I think the attention that came from signing the contract last summer really allowed a lot more opportunity off the court, a lot more opportunity to build my brand. It’s more so with the community and foundation things I’m working on, and trying to work around establishing different fashion things with my stylist, Brandon Williams. I’ve been in Bleacher Report for fashion several times, and I attended New York Men’s Fashion Week in 2015. Hopefully I gain more traction with the media attention.
Through The Years
The early days in Memphis I think were the most important for me. I had great teammates, Damon Stoudamire and Kyle Lowry. Damon mentored both of us and helped us understand how to be pros and go through the phase of losing and learning how to win, learning how to be successful at this level.
The biggest advice from Damon was in order to be a good player, you have to be prepared, you have to be on good time management, and that meant not going out. But actually be in the gym two three times a day, prioritizing your life, eating right, eating healthy, always being a good pro. I still talk to Damon and Kyle. Kyle and I will go golfing in the offseason.
I thank Lionel Hollins to have the confidence in me to give me an opportunity to start in 2009, when Kyle was traded. I don’t think there was a wrong choice there. I think both of us deserved it. Lionel gave me an opportunity to really show what I could do, and really pushed me, really made me uncomfortable to the point that it made me better. It made me go to a level that I didn’t even know I could get to, and as the years went on, the team got better along with my progression.
Upsetting the No. 1-seeded Spurs with us being the eighth seed in 2011 was a crazy experience—probably next to the national championship game in 2007 I played in. It was our first playoff experience since I had been in Memphis, and we were playing against the best team I think in the last decade. Memphis had never been to the second round before, so it was all new for everybody. The city was just so electric, everybody was so excited. It’s just something I’ll never forget.
It wasn’t until a few years later when I realized, like, “Hey, I’m one of the better point guards in the league, and we were one of the better teams in the league.” I was able to show a lot of my ambidextrous moves. I don’t have a weak hand and it doesn’t matter what hand I shoot with honestly. It really makes you that much harder to guard and predict.
As I got better and better each year, I realized that we’re a team that just got better and better each year. That’s how the “Grindhouse” started. We have something that’s special because we for so many years played just a different style than everybody. It started to change to the run-and-gun, fast-paced game, but we were still beating you up and dominating the paint, playing defense and just hustling everywhere and just outworking people. And it took hold around the city and the fans gave us even more confidence.
Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph are like my brothers, we’re like family. We’re at each guy’s wedding and we’re visiting each other’s family when they have a kid. Nothing would be possible for me without those guys because they sacrificed so much to make me better. I’ve learned how to be a better player from that. And I’ve learned a lot on defense from Tony. Even still today, he’ll guard me in practice just so he can talk trash and stop me. But I think for the most part, I get around him most of the time [laughs].
This year, especially the last few years, all my work is starting to be seen I think a little bit more. I’ve especially been working on shooting, my moves to get to the paint, finishes, conditioning and my body. Now this season, I’ve been able to have more freedom and show a lot of that off, especially with this system from coach David Fizdale. And my teammates are really doing a good job of helping me learn what it’s like to score and still facilitate, while still being defensive-minded. It lets me know that I have a lot to improve on still, and that’s exciting.
I want to be in Memphis for the remainder of my career, however long that is. Another 10 years would be huge for me honestly. I’m trying to drink that same juice Vince Carter is drinking right now, so I can play another 10, 20 [laughs]. It’s just taking care of your body.
I’ve fully committed myself to the city, to the organization, to my teammates, and it’s one of those things that you want to see it through. You want to be the change, and whenever my career does end, I’ll know that I retired as a Grizzly and never wavered from that commitment from day one.
I’d also love to retire basically where I grew up. I feel like this is where I became a man, this is where I got married, this is where I raised my family. I never knew how amazing fatherhood could be. And hopefully I’ll be playing still when my son is of age to really play. That would be really cool.