By Bill Sorrell
One recent evening, Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley was eating with his father, Mike Conley Sr., at a local restaurant.
“Mike Conley, can I have your autograph?” a fan interrupted. As Conley Jr., reached to sign the paper, the fan snatched it away and gave it to Conley Sr., a world champion and Olympic gold and silver medal triple jumper.
“My dad started laughing and he was like, ‘Yeah, you are still my son. I am no longer known just as your dad,’” said Conley Jr.
Staying humble is one of the character traits that Conley said his father taught him, along with being respectful and honest, working hard, and carrying himself at a high level.
Conley’s mother, Rene, added another ingredient: faith.
“My mother is my biggest spiritual role model,” Conley said. “She has a great faith and has always been very religious; her mother and her mother down the line. Everything she has done in raising me, I really look up to her for it. She got me headed in the right direction.”
Conley was baptized at age 10 at Christian Life Cathedral in Fayetteville, Ark. When he was 12, his family moved to Indiana, where he attended Eastern Star Baptist Church in Indianapolis.
“It’s something that changed my life,” said Conley of the move. “It got me really focused on basketball and allowed me to get to where I am today.”
At Lawrence North High School, Conley was a McDonald’s All-American and a runner-up as Indiana’s Mr. Basketball (he finished second to his high school and Ohio State teammate, Greg Oden).
Conley prays “multiple times” during the day. He attends Bible studies before road games. He’s a member of New Haven Missionary Baptist Church in West Helena, Ark., where his uncle Rodney Corbin is pastor.
“Like is much easier (with faith),” said Conley. “You cut out a lot of the nonsense. There are obviously a lot of temptations in the NBA. Being on TV, running into a bunch of people, you are always vulnerable to a lot of things. Being able to block that out and concentrate on your faith and living a good life is important.”
Conley says his faith helps him get through hard times. Over the years, he has watched his family overcome difficult situations, including the death of loved ones. Last year, he and his teammates experienced the deaths of two colleagues and friends — Dana Davis, vice president of basketball operations and team programs, and Kenny Williamson, assistant general manager.
His faith compels him to give back. He is one of two players who have served on the Grizzlies Foundation board of directors (ex-Griz Pau Gasol was the first).
“Jesus means everything,” he said. “It’s what I live for. He is what I do my work for in the community, passing on as much as I can to anybody that needs it.”
The Grizzlies drafted Conley in 2007 in the first round (fourth overall) out of Ohio State. The 6-1, 185-pound guard, has had his share of critics, who say he’s too small and doesn’t assert himself enough. Conley turns a deaf ear and relies on his favorite Bible verse, Isaiah 54:17: “No act performed against you shall prosper.”
“I forgave them (critics) after awhile. I have learned there is nothing that I can’t overcome,” said Conley. “There is no injury, no critic that I can’t fight through. Handling adversity, I try to use whatever is negative and turn that into a positive thought and how I can change it. You go about your business and worry about getting better.”
The guard — who wears No. 11 because of his Oct. 11 birthday — has spent his entire career in Memphis, improving every year. This season, he has career highs in scoring (14.9 points per game), steals (2.3 per game) and 3-point field goal percentage (. 425).
He became the franchise’s all-time assists leader on Dec. 21 when he passed former Grizzlies point guard Jason Williams. He has 2,208 assists and averages 5.8 per game, similar to the conference-most 6.1 assists he averaged while making All-Big Ten Conference at Ohio State. Conley is 11 steals away from passing Rudy Gay’s franchise record of 640.
Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph said Conley was brought to Memphis to be a leader. “He’ gets on to us,” Randolph said. “He’s not a rah-rah guy. He is a great person. He’s got a great family and his faith has always been there.”
Conley’s goals are to become an All Star and win a championship in Memphis. Tony Parker, an All-Star point guard who has won three NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs, calls Conley one of the league’s 10 best point guards.
“He is one of the guys I have a lot of respect (for),” Parker said. “He is a great competitor and I like the way he plays the game. He is very unselfish and aggressive when he needs to be. He plays good defense. He knows when to shoot, when to pass. He has great tempo and great patience.”
Conley’s patient faith is serving him on and off the court.
This season, filled with trades and rumors of trades, as well as a change on ownership and top management, has been difficult for the players.
“Having faith and staying strong, just believing not only in myself but in my team and my new teammates and my coaching staff that we’ll be all right, is getting us through,” Conley said.
Off the court, Conley recently became engaged to Mary Peluso, whom he met at Ohio State. “We have not set a (wedding) date. We are being real patient,” said Conley.