In fiction and various forms of mythology, the “hero’s journey” is a common story archetype that revolves around how the protagonist grows and overcomes a challenge that allows him to fully become a hero. In his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the general narrative pattern of the hero’s journey as this:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
For Mike Conley, his journey has definitely been a heroic one with the Memphis Grizzlies, although it has certainly been an uneven one as well. After all, he very well may be the only player in NBA history outside of Steve Nash who had such a huge improvement in production after nearly a decade in the league (they both should really be in photographs next to the word “late-bloomer” in your favorite dictionary).
But the fact that Conley’s path to becoming one of the NBA’s elite point guards has been an uneven, arduous journey is what makes him so compelling—and yes, the greatest player in the history of the Memphis Grizzlies.
That’s not to say that he’s necessarily the best player in franchise history. That honor probably belongs to Zach Randolph, who played like a bona-fide superstar as he led the Grizzlies to their first playoff series victory in 2011 (it’s still a tragic reality that we didn’t get to see Zach Randolph and Dirk Nowitzki play against each other at their absolute peaks in a playoff series that year). Of course, a case could also be made for Marc Gasol, who has been one of the NBA’s best true centers over the past decade. If you’re feeling particularly nostalgic, go ahead and throw Pau Gasol in there as well.
However, what sets Mike Conley apart from Randolph and the Gasols is not necessarily his skill or ability, but rather his story. When people reflect on the greatness of Michael Jordan, they don’t think about how many scoring titles he won or how many points he averaged each year. No, they think of the “Flu Game” or “The Shot” over Craig Ehloe. Greatness will always be defined by stories and never by just numbers or statistics. And stories are why true greatness never fades—because the great ones will continue to be told time and time again.
So what exactly is the story of Mike Conley? And why does it make him the greatest Memphis Grizzly ever?
The answer is fairly simple: His story is ours as well.
Have you ever been told that you aren’t good enough at any point in your life? Or have you ever felt that you are in over your head? That you will never measure up to your peers?
While confidence and boldness are two admirable character traits, I think it’s fair to say that some measure of self-doubt is a universal part of the human experience and something that we all wrestle with at some point. And while I’ve never had a conversation with Mike Conley about this particular topic, I’d imagine he probably felt some amount of self-doubt in the early years of his NBA career in Memphis.
And how could he not?
Now let’s be clear here: Mike Conley was not a good NBA player in his first few years in the league. Matt Moore of Action News Network can probably say it better than anyone else can. Especially over his first two years, Conley had a legitimate case to be considered the worst starting point guard in the NBA. He was generally deficient in most areas of the game outside of defense, which ironically is the weakest area of his game now due to injuries and age.
And while Memphis is and always will be a basketball town, it is also not much of a forgiving one at times. So when its professional basketball team is seemingly being held back by the failings of a former number four overall pick, the people of Memphis will be quick to, ahem, voice their displeasure.
The friendly confines of FedExForum were not-so-friendly those first few years for Conley. And he almost didn’t have to worry about it anymore when the Grizzlies almost traded him for—wait for it—Ramon Sessions and Joe Alexander back in 2009. Considering that Ramon Sessions is now out of the league at 32 and Joe Alexander sounds like an overpriced steakhouse that your parents take you to after graduation, not trading Conley was definitely the right move.
Yet at that time, Conley seemingly didn’t have much of a place with the Grizzlies or in the NBA as a whole. His 5-year, $45 million extension that the Grizzlies gave him in 2010 was ridiculed as one of the worst contracts in the NBA at the time. It was far from a given that he wouldn’t flame out of the league in a few years.
But somewhere along the way, things began to change.
There was never a lightning-in-a-bottle moment where Conley just became an all-star caliber player. Rather, he slowly progressed into the star that he is today over the course of many years.
He first became the Grizzlies game manager, a calm eye in the middle of the storm that they soon learned they couldn’t survive without.
That game manager then began to evolve into a captain (which of course inspired one hell of an awful nickname), a respected and lauded playmaker that could hold his own with any of the game’s best on any given night.
And finally, that captain truly completed his full evolution—even as he entered the latter part of his prime—into one one of the NBA’s elite point guards.
That is what makes Mike Conley the greatest Grizzly ever: He is a living reflection of what the city of Memphis truly is. Of course, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen embodied the heart and spirit of the city, but it is Conley who put that spirit into practice throughout his career more than anyone else. He has been overlooked and forgotten throughout his career, but through hard work, grit and determination, he has grown into the player that he is now. He is a reflection of our own individual shortcomings and eventual success in overcoming them.
Of course, there are many stories that reflect Conley’s greatness with the Memphis Grizzlies—stories that we will tell our children. But whether it was his “Masked Man” comeback performance against the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 playoffs or the time when he outplayed a seemingly unstoppable Kawhi Leonard in the 2017 playoffs, you can always expect something memorable from him when the stakes are at their highest.
So while Mike Conley may not be here next season, celebrate him now. He is Memphis’ favorite son, the son that grew up before our eyes and chose to stay when there were other attractive options available. Celebrate him and cherish him.
Because whether you agree that he is the franchise’s greatest player or not, there is an important lesson to remember: Some hero’s journeys, such as in the case of Mike Conley and Steve Nash, take longer than others. But when those journeys finally reach their destination, man, do you have a story to tell.