All across the United States, and even the world, there are athletes that are looked up to by the old and the young alike.
Feats of athletic prowess are easy to get lost in, fun to be inspired by, and are a key part of the human condition. Whether it be the ancient Olympics, gladiators and chariot races in Ancient Rome, or the bouncing of a ball throughout history for various reasons, the idea that we as people are attracted to those among us capable of physically improbable feats is nothing new.
Consistently, our faith in the fleet of foot is not rewarded. Perspective is required, of course - these genetically superior men and women did not ask to be placed on a pedestal, and the idea that just because you can run fast or jump high should make you a hero in the eyes of anyone is optimistic at best, foolish at worst. We are all imperfect, flawed...even those who appear outwardly to have little to no blemishes or pitfalls. We look to our athletes like we do most other celebrities, though - gifted, almost “chosen”, the very best of us. We hope that is indeed the case...but rarely is it so.
In the case of Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies, it is indeed so.
As has been discussed here, there, and everywhere, Mike Conley has never been an NBA All-Star. He very often is overlooked by the casual NBA fan as “just another guy”, a random NBA player on a random NBA team that some don’t even know exists, much less care about. Despite the accolades he has earned, and the success of the franchise over the course of the past decade that he was a key part of, he still at times is not viewed as the great player he truly is.
So when facts like this are brought to the attention of those that follow the Association, perhaps surprise is more present than it should be.
MIke Conley has done it all for Memphis. pic.twitter.com/dfqmHe5xdy— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 28, 2019
Yes, he’s that important.
He is our LeBron James. Our Reggie Miller.
He was drafted here. Has become a husband here, a father here.
A man, here.
He has supported multiple charitable causes, and made his home in a city that did not embrace him at first. He grinded out the early stages of his career, enduring boos and trade rumors. He sustained, and eventually thrived, despite organizational overturn and malpractice. It can easily be argued that Conley has done more, with less, than lots of other players that get more attention than him nationally considering all that impacts him that he has no control over.
Look at the Grizzlies draft record the past ten seasons.
Look at the failed free agent signings...even the ones not named Chandler Parsons, which you can argue was necessary partially if you hoped to keep Conley long-term years ago.
Look at the numerous coaches, the ownership questions, the roster change the past two seasons. And yet, here’s a player that was clearly shaken when placed on the trading block. That instead of forcing his way out to a contender asked to stay. On a team that was struggling, that has little to no hope of being relevant any time soon as a playoff contender...he wanted to stay.
Because he sees Memphis as his home.
Is that a reason to keep a player long-term, for sentimental value alone? No. He will almost surely be back on the trading block this summer, and he may well not be a Memphis Grizzlies player for much longer. The ironic reality of the Grizzlies possibly achieving their publicly stated goal of conveying their 1st round pick to Boston this season is that it opens up room for a full-blown rebuild of the roster. Not one where you try to be good while doing it...one where you’re young and bad, not “tanking”, but just not good. Mike Conley is your best trade asset to acquire another young player to put alongside Jaren Jackson Jr.
So no, it isn’t a reason to keep Mike. It is a reason, though, to stop and acknowledge just how special Conley is.
He is the hero of Memphis, as our Nathan Chester wrote. Nate correctly points out that Mike’s journey is our journey. We feel his success and failure almost like he does at this stage, because the city of Memphis still holds on to the organic connection with the Grizzlies that developed during the Grit and Grind Era, even though essentially everyone from that era - aside from Mike - is gone. He is the last thread binding us to the most successful run in Grizzlies history. If and when Mike moves on, so too will Memphis in to a very uncertain future.
And that’s what makes sports so special...and so scary. You experience real, raw emotion because of a group of players, and then once they’re gone you still support the team they played for hoping the front office and coaching staff in place can keep that success running. That’s not to say the natural love between the Core Four and Memphis can be replicated - that’s part of the fear. But just because an era is different and new doesn’t make it bad, or lesser than. The Grizzlies can rise again.
It’ll just likely be without Mike Conley.
So here’s a toast to you, Mike. Being the all-time leader in scoring, made threes, assists, steals...that is extremely impressive, and a testament to your time in Memphis. But more than that, you are a shining example of why the Grizzlies came to Memphis in the first place. You’re a leader, a unifying force across multiple eras of Grizzlies basketball. You’re a star who stayed, who chose to be a impact player both on the floor and in the community. You are an icon that is worthy of the word, something that isn’t always true of our athletic idols, and someone who truly is their nickname - a conductor for all that you reach.
But most importantly, regardless of where you end your career, you are and always will be ours.