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From Draft Bust To Masked Legend: Mike Conley and Memphis

Finally, the time has come for Mike Conley to take his place as a Memphis icon as he signs his max contract. But...what is that place, exactly?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Later today Mike Conley will sign a 153 million dollar contract with the Memphis Grizzlies, as Geoff Calkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported on Tuesday.

I'm guessing you already know that. For some great analysis of the situation, consult your favorite NFL media personalities. Once you've read hot takes such as "Money much big. Too many lots of dollars. Many moneys not good. Uhhhh FOOTBALL", I invite you to return here. I will wait...

Back already? Welcome.

With Conley locked in for five more years, I thought it might be a good time to take a look at one of my favorite Grizz topics: the relationship between Grizzlies fans and Mike Conley.

It starts with Memphis. I don't think I'll need to convince readers of this piece that the relationship between city and team really is a little bit different here. Yes, many fans across the country want to believe this about their team but enough informed outsiders have made this observation that I feel safe in claiming it to be true.

It wasn't always like this. Things have helped along the way. The Grizzlies' marketing department does a fantastic job and the game operations crew is one of the best in the league. Being good also helps. All those things are nice ingredients for building a solid relationship with the fans, but they aren't the things that make the Grizzlies different.

The special bond between team and city begins and ends with four players. They were brought together by luck, fate, or maybe even shrewd maneuvering (you may spin your Chris Wallace Wheel of Credit here). However they were assembled, they changed everything

The breakdown of those four players and their individual connections, is where things get interesting. Three of the four are easy to explain, complex but not entirely complicated.


He is Memphis. You know the deal. He had a bumpy road before finding his place in Memphis. You might even say he's a blue collar player in a blue collar town. He's relaxed, easygoing, and big. Of course, the easygoing part flies out the window if you mess with his teammates. Beyond all those (somewhat tired) things, he's made his home here in a real way. He's part of the community. He's said repeatedly that regardless of where he finishes his career, he will live in Memphis.

Quick aside: How awesome is it going to be to have old Z-Bo bouncing around town, talking about how today's players could never hang in his day?


What can you say about TA? Of the "Core Four" he might be the hardest and most enjoyable to explain to future generations. His story is one of a role player who changed the culture of a franchise and accidentally created a marketing campaign that is the envy of small market franchises throughout professional sports. All Heart, Grit, Grind might be tiresome to some at this point but that shouldn't diminish the original brilliance of it. Despite reduced activity as of late, he's a Twitter king. He hangs out in studio with Chris Vernon and is willing to talk about pretty much anything. We know Tony.


Did you know he went to high school here and he was a big boy? Did you also know he was traded for his brother? FUN TIDBITS! He's Marc Gasol of Memphis.


That brings us back to Conley, a more curious fit with no natural connections. He didn't go through struggles elsewhere before finding a home here. He didn't play a smaller role in a bigger market before achieving cult status in Memphis. He didn't spend formative years in the city and arrive with a built-in narrative as a result.

Conley has strong ties to other cities and his personality isn't as loud or celebrated as his Mount Grizzmore counterparts. Beyond that, his career started in rocky fashion with the Grizzlies. Sure, the other three certainly had question marks, but they endeared themselves in short order through their play and personalities.

A segment of the fan base (me) viewed Conley as an unprepared guard who simply rode the coat tails of Greg Oden. Throughout his early years, he struggled. Many people (me) wanted him traded. Even after he signed what became one of the best value contracts in the NBA, many (me) were outraged over the deal. For years criticism of Conley was easy to find. He heard it himself. He dealt with in typically classy Conley fashion, but he heard it.

Mike Conley's personal journey to becoming a Memphis folk hero is different from those of his "Core Four" comrades.

Things calmed down. He got good. He got really good. The haters retreated and he became the second best player on one of the best teams in the NBA. His reputation shifted from overpaid to underrated. While he caught up with and eventually surpassed two of the core four on the court, he never seemed to quite reach their level of connection to the fan base off it.

Then C.J. McCollum broke his damn face and it changed everything. Conley in that luxury box looking like he'd visited Tony Allen's Sky Casino was an all-time moment. As great a moment as it was, it also suggested a depressing reality: this guy was not going to be able to play basketball again for a very long time. And so the Grizzlies closed out the Blazers and prepared to take on the dominant Warriors without their captain.

After a game one loss, the whispers began that Conley wanted to come back, and soon. Despite concerns from his friends and family, Mike Conley put on the mask and played a game that will go down in Grizzlies history. To play at all would have been a good story and a nice morale boost, but he didn't just play. He dominated on the way to a victory in Oracle Arena. He was the best player on the floor on the night where Stephen Curry accepted his MVP award.

Moments like those are the point of all this. We all know the Warriors went on to win the series in six games and eventually become champions. It doesn't diminish the memory of thousands of Grizzlies fans putting on their own masks for game 3 at FedExForum. It doesn't make my bootleg t-shirt, featuring a masked Mike Conley, any less wearable. It won't keep Grizzlies fans from reliving those moments for decades. It doesn't erase the night that made Mike Conley a Grizzlies legend.

Is Conley on the level of the other guys in the fan connection department? I honestly don't know. I imagine there's a wide range of opinion on that. Will he live up to the contract he just signed? I don't know that either. The odds are probably against it. I do know that he's been the steady hand of an unlikely group that put the Grizzlies on the NBA map.

So here's to Mike Conley's quest to prove he deserves his contract yet again. Here's to five more years of the Baddest MC in the game beep beeping his way through the lane and punctuating clutch threes with his signature salute.

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