This is the fifth consecutive season the Memphis Grizzlies have made the NBA Playoffs, and the third year in a row they’ve won at least 50 games. To put that into perspective, the only other teams to have reached the 50-win plateau in three straight seasons are the Spurs and Clippers, who, incidentally, are facing off in the first round of the playoffs.
That kind of success would lead one to believe the Grizz would find favor beyond Shelby County and the borders of Tennessee. But a cursory look at the league’s 30 teams points toward a painful truth: They are only slightly more recognizable than the post-Chris Webber Sacramento Kings and the Jordan-owned Charlotte Hornets (née, Bobcats). I’ve met people who – perhaps understandably – were under the impression that the Grizzlies were a hockey team.
The recognition problem begins, as usual, with relative fame. Memphis players have little to none, and when they do, it’s of an inverted sort. Their most visible players, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, are the type of workmanlike big men who usually remain market-proof, but here, for sharply different reasons. To many basketball fans, Randolph is still best remembered as a member of the arrest-prone, early aughts Portland “Jail Blazers“. To the wider public, Gasol is firmly cast as the rough-hewn younger brother of thinner, Hollywood-ready Pau. But digging deeper, the most unremarked constant on this unremarked team is point guard Mike Conley.
The 27-year-old Conley was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the son of 1992 Olympic triple-jump champion Mike Sr. According to his father, at just 13 months, junior picked up a ball and started shooting with his left hand, only later to discover he was right-handed. He continues to shoot with his left to this day, but his ambidexterity can show up suddenly, like a sprung skeet pigeon: too-casual floaters from the right hip, unsteady leaning jumpers that look like a man just learning his form – except that, more often than not, they go in.
Over eight patient seasons, Conley has made himself into a smooth and unpredictable scorer, an adept passer and a top-tier defender. According to teammates, he exudes an unruffled calm, which could be one reason he out-shoots all other point guards in the final minutes of games where the lead is five points or less. But what he does best is absorb and facilitate the flow of the game, stepping in when he needs to and unobtrusively coaxing forth his teammates’ intrinsic strengths. As the Grizzlies gear up for Game 2 of their playoff series against Portland, Rolling Stone caught up with Conley to learn more about what makes him tick.
When did you start playing basketball?
I think I probably had to have been two or three when I fell in love with anything that bounced – any kind of ball that bounced, I was running and screaming after it. I learned about the game of basketball and became a fan. I would always try to practice and work on my game, from three years on.
Did you have a favorite player growing up?
Well, I think for everybody, Michael Jordan was the idol. He’s one of my favorite players, but I had a few different guys I liked to watch, like Gary Payton and Isiah Thomas. Isiah was a guy I really loved to mimic my game after. There were a bunch of old-school guys I loved to watch.
I know most of your time is probably consumed by basketball, but what do you like do away from the court?
I’m a big golfer, so in the offseason, that’s all I do – golf and play basketball. But during the season, I like to go bowling, watch movies. I love going to the movies. I go to the movies in every city we go. And when I’m at home I play video games all day.
What games are you playing now?
I have every system – PlayStation 4, the Wii, but I play the Xbox One more than anything. I play Halo and Grand Theft Auto and UFC, NBA 2K, FIFA. I’ll play anything.
So what do you bowl?
Probably around 180. I have my own ball. When I play, I like to take it a little serious. I try to work on my game every now and then. It seems easy, but then you start having some success with it, and you try to be perfect, it really becomes frustrating. It’s crazy.
Now golf’s another story. How often do you golf?
During the season, not too much, because of the travel schedule and the weather. But during the offseason I golf four-to-five times a week, and any day that’s sunny I try to go out and hit some balls. I’m addicted to it. This is probably my seventh year playing. I just picked it up my second year in the NBA. I was fresh new to it. I love it. It’s a good getaway too.
You were saying you watch a lot of movies. What kind of movies do you like?
I love horror movies. Any scary movie – if one comes out, I go see it, even if it’s supposed to be bad. I want to get my own opinion of it.
Have you seen It Follows?
No, that’s the one I’m gonna see! Hopefully this weekend. Whenever I get a chance.
What’s the last movie you saw?
Insurgent, the sequel to Divergent. It was solid. There was nothing out either, so I didn’t have a lot of choices. I went to see that one when we were in Dallas.
Do you guys generally hang out together?
Every so often someone will have everyone over to their house and watch games or play cards. Just a few days ago we had a little cookout with a bunch of the guys. And some nights we go bowling or something like that. We try to do things together as often as possible.
Speaking of your teammates, is this the year Memphis makes it to the NBA Finals?
Hopefully we get it done this year.
Golden State looks tough.
Oh, yeah. They’re really good. That’s our comp, so we’ll see. We got a shot.