Mike Conley Jr. has loyal and royalty inside his DNA.
The son of an Olympic gold-medalist triple-jumper, the Memphis Grizzlies point guard has turned his own reliable jumper into a triple-efficient machine, turning up the volume over the years on scoring, three-pointers and overall usage rate as one of the Grizzlies leaders.
Alongside 33-year-old center Marc Gasol, Conley embarks on his latest challenge this 2018-19 season, as he returns from a season-ending injury to try to rebuild the 22-win Grizzlies into a playoff contender once again.
Conley and Gasol did this before, as youngsters a decade ago when together they transformed a 24-win squad, slowly but surely, into one of the NBA’s 10 best teams in this 2010s decade.
They are the faces of this franchise, just as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook are for theirs, as the only one-franchise players to log more 21stCentury minutes for their teams than Conley and Gasol.
We caught up with Conley, who was doing promo work for the Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, days before his 31stbirthday and the video game’s release October 12 (Friday).
This is the third time that I have talked to you over the phone for Call of Duty, dating back to 2012 and 2014 for past COD games. Can you talk about your loyalty to the franchise?
Call of Duty has been a big part of my life. It’s been seven or eight years of being a gamer and being involved with the game. All of my friends and family play it and it has been something that brings us all together whenever a new game comes out, or when there are nights when we want to play together. It’s something I’ve had a great time with over the years and I continue to have a love for it.
Back when I interviewed you in 2012, you told me how Marc Gasol was playing Call of Duty and that your chief competition came from former teammate Darrell Arthur, but that you still viewed yourself as the best on the team. In 2014, you said none of your teammates could touch you in Call of Duty. Now in 2018, have you widened the gap even more as the resident team champion?
There is a certain level of sweat equity I call it, when you put a lot of time into the game, regardless if it’s Black Ops 1, 2, 3 or 4. If you have been around for a long time and have played all the games, you kind of have a little bit of a head start on a lot of these guys, and your knowledge is a little bit different. I feel like I’m there, where I’ve put in a lot of work over the years to where it comes a little bit easier for me than some of my teammates.
Are there other gamers out there that you would love to play Call of Duty with?
Drake would be fun. I know he plays videogames. I remember Eminem was on one of the commercials for one of the past games. He is one of my favorite rappers.
What do you like best about Call of Duty: Black Ops 4?
There are a lot of new things going on. I’m especially excited for that Battle Royale mode that a lot of games are going to nowadays. It makes the game a lot more exciting and more involved. You kind of get a glimpse of it with Fortnite where you’re on your own. There’s something about that, being the last one standing, how you come about it, all the ways you can be creative. It really gets your mind going, your competitive juices going. It gives you something to look forward to every time you turn on that system.
The other brand you’ve been loyal to is the Memphis Grizzlies. I looked at the 21st century list of players who stayed with one franchise their whole career and the top five is basketball elite: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant. The next up would be Russell Westbrook, Marc Gasol and yourself—some great company there.
It’s definitely something that you’re very proud of because you understand how hard it is to stay in the same place, how hard it is to be last in the League for as long as we had and still be competitive each season. You just feel an investment into the community, an investment into Memphis being your home, not just a place that you play for a job. It’s a different kind of level that you are invested in, as opposed to having gone to different teams and different cities over the years. So being mentioned amongst those names is huge and that’s definitely something that I am very proud of.
Most of those stars come from small-market teams, which dispels the myth that small-market teams cannot hold onto their stars. When San Antonio holds onto Duncan and Ginobili, when Oklahoma City holds onto Westbrook and when Memphis holds on to you and Gasol, the list actually shows that big-market teams have a tougher time keeping their stars. Why do you think that is?
Right. That’s just it. When you are part of a small market and you’re drafted into the situation, you get a glimpse of what it’s like to build something from the ground up. When we got here in Memphis, we were winning 20 games a year and we had to see this thing through. We built it every year and got better and better. It’s like raising a kid. You want to see them grow up. You want to see them succeed. That’s the kind of feeling you get over the years the longer you’re in one place. That’s an advantage for smaller markets. You can hold onto your draft picks, the people who you brought up into the system at a young age. It’s still a little tough for us to bring in big free agents, as far as the free-agency market. But as far as drafting, it’s an advantage.
As you pointed out, 10 years ago when you and Marc Gasol united on a 24-win team, you guys rebuilt that to become one of the six best winning teams in the decade until last season’s falloff when you were hurt. Now you find yourself in a similar position, having to rebuild a 22-win squad. What will it take to rebuild this team?
It will take a lot of hard work. It’s not easy to make the playoffs. There’s nothing easy about being successful in the NBA. It’s hard to win. We understand that. That’s the advantage we have as veterans, knowing that we have to put the work in day in and day out to become that level and caliber of team to competition for playoff position. We are just going to continue to grind, continue to keep our heads down, stay in our lane, work every day, get better as a team offensively and defensively, build trust in that aspect. With a healthy team, we do feel we have the pieces to make a run at the playoffs.
You mentioned the word Grind, and of course, Grit ’n Grind is the team’s mantra. I look at the young players like Dillon Brooks or newcomers like Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson. They’re all elite, long defenders who just need time to learn your schemes. What’s it like to develop this level of young talent?
It’s fun. When you look at who we brought in and the IQ level of the defensive players we have, they fit right into that Grit ’n Grind mentality. They’re quick learners. They’re people who are eager to learn, which makes it easy. It’s going to be fun to get them acclimated as quickly as possible so they can get this thing rolling.
I know you are feeling pain free in your heel, but are you back at 100 percent now?
My foot feels 100 percent. I think my body is still adjusting. I played my first game in almost a year [in the preseason] and it felt great. Just trying to get used to the ground and pound of a season. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m 100 percent as far as back in the fold, as far as timing and my on-court basketball stuff. I think that takes time to knock the rust off, but I’m definitely injury-free and feeling great.
You have the experience of going to seven straight playoffs, building three straight 50-plus winning teams, highlighted by a squad that went to the 2013 West Finals. Do you think this team with all this young talent—with you and Gasol leading the way—can return to 50-win status in the 2020s decade? Can return to the West Finals next decade?
I do. I do think so. After seeing what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last eight or so years and the culture that was built here. I think that culture hasn’t gone anywhere. I think it’s only going to get better with J.B. Bickerstaff and the coaches who are leading us from our staff and the players that we brought in: Jaren Jackson, Jevon Carter, Kyle Anderson. Guys that embody everything we look for in that Grit ’n Grind mentality. I think it bodes well for a bright future for them and hopefully it’s better than what we were able to accomplish at our younger age.
This interview was arranged through Activision to promote Call of Duty Black Ops 4.