Memphis, Tenn. • A mini-tour of the sparkling, new Chase Center in San Francisco on Monday morning included a Warriors employee’s admission that there is still a bit of work to be done on the arena, be it the installation of some permanent signage or a few technical and logistical kinks to be worked out.
Mike Conley, new Jazz point guard after spending the first dozen years of his NBA career with the Grizzlies, said he could certainly relate. His Jazz tenure — and his new life in Utah, for that matter — still feel very much under construction to him in many ways.
“Everything is new — new house, just moving in, new area, everything's new,” Conley said. “So it's just trying to speed up the learning curve of the whole thing, you know.”
Of course, the Jazz’s next game, taking place Friday night, will at last provide the point guard with a known quantity, something old, something familiar, something that is fully ingrained within him. After 12 years with the Grizzlies, he ought to know Memphis pretty well. And actually, Memphis has been a big part of his life for far longer than that.
“I’ve been coming to Memphis since I was a kid. My cousins lived there, they’re from Memphis, so Memphis is where I spent a lot of my summers,” Conley said at Thursday’s shootaround, a short time before the team boarded a plane. “So getting drafted there, I basically got drafted back to a familiar home. From Day 1, I felt comfortable. That’s why it worked so well, because it wasn’t something that was new to me, it was a place I’d been plenty of times.”
Then again, considering that his much-anticipated return there since his June trade to the Jazz will also mark his first time playing in Memphis as a visiting player, even that ensures some newness to the situation.
Conley said he’s been trying to avoid thinking too much about it in the lead-up to Friday’s game at the FedEx Forum, but has found that to be pretty much impossible.
“Yeah, just basically 'cause everybody’s been asking me about it. So I’m just trying to lock in and stay on the day-to-day basis and keep me locked in on what we’re doing here,” he said. “But, I mean, it’s around the corner and I can’t hide from it. You know, I’m excited, anxious, nervous just going back with a different team.”
For many Memphis fans, it will no doubt be jarring seeing Conley take the court in a yellow jersey with the Jazz’s trademarked “J-note” and the No. 10 emblazoned across the chest. He is, after all, the Grizzlies’ all-time leader in games played, points, assists, field-goal attempts, 3-pointers made and attempted, steals — even “offensive win shares,” if that’s your kind of stat.
“I mean, he is Memphis,” said forward Jeff Green, who was a Grizzlies teammate of Conley’s for parts of the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. “They watched him grow from a boy to a man, they supported him. He gave everything he had to the organization — great playoff runs to compete for a title, great teams, franchise leader in a number of categories, the guy did it all for that franchise.”
But given the Grizzlies’ struggles in recent seasons, and the trade of fellow franchise icon Marc Gasol to the Toronto Raptors at the Feb. 2019 trade deadline, it was apparent that the team’s famed “Grit and Grind” era was over, which all but sealed Conley’s departure from the only professional team he’d ever known.
The Jazz were more than happy to take him off the Grizzlies’ hands, finally landing the point guard they’d inquired about for years in exchange for veteran forward Jae Crowder, sharpshooter Kyle Korver, young guard Grayson Allen and a couple of first-round draft picks.
When he was introduced by the Jazz at an opulent Las Vegas ballroom on July 8 in the midst of NBA Summer League play, he was simultaneously philosophical about one chapter of his career closing and another just beginning.
“It was emotional at first. When it first happened, I couldn’t believe it — I didn’t believe it was real. I didn’t even know how to act. Kinda just sat in the car with my father. It was quiet for a moment,” Conley said then. “I just sat back and started thinking about all the years that you’ve had, all the ups and downs, the things that you went through. You sit there for about 20 minutes, and after that, I started thinking about all the possibilities going forward, and got super-excited.”
Given Conley’s extended Memphis history, his new Jazz teammates have been impressed with his equanimity these past few days. Not that they expect it to last much longer.
“He’s been real calm, he’s been real calm and collected. Obviously when he gets there, the emotions are gonna be crazy,” said his new backcourt compatriot, Donovan Mitchell. “I feel like the reception is gonna be wild. It’s gonna be real special for him. We’re gonna be all excited for him, but we’re gonna do what we need to go out there and get the win for him.”
Green likewise expects the floodgates of emotion to open for his former and once-again point guard.
“Yeah, of course. You’re talking about a city where he pretty much spent a [third] of his life in, in Memphis. He grew a family there, with kids. He grew up there pretty much, his basketball career was made there. He made history there. He’s done a lot of things in his 10-plus years there,” Green said. “I can’t blame him — if you were part of an organization for that long, and you’d done great things like Mike did within an organization, and you’re only a couple months removed from that situation, it’s gonna be emotional for him.”
Then again, in a way, it’s just one more emotional hurdle to navigate; it’s not as though Conley’s adjustment to his new situation in Utah hasn’t already seen its share of ups and downs. He got off to an infamously slow start with his new team, frequently looking lost and indecisive in coach Quin Snyder’s scheme. And in his first few games, his shot was so off, he seemingly couldn’t have thrown a basketball into the Great Salt Lake.
When the Clippers came to SLC, coach Doc Rivers theorized it was not so much the switch from “Grit and Grind” to “The Blender,” that Conley was struggling with, but all the other tangential factors that came along with the change in scenery: “I think it’s unique for Conley ’cause he was in one place for so long,” Rivers said. “I mean, he drove to the arena the same way, he had probably all his rituals — everything has been uprooted.”
Told of Rivers’ comments, Conley conceded there was a lot of merit to it.
“It takes me eight minutes to get to the arena when it used to take me 40. I used to listen to the same music for 35 minutes, for a 35-minute drive, and now I don’t have that, you know. I just go straight to the arena,” Conley said. “So it’s just like a bunch of things; I’m trying to figure out my routine as we go.”
Then again, he quipped, “I might have to go down to Lehi or something” to get that music-on-the-drive thing going again.
Actually, none of his teammates have been terribly concerned. Not only has Conley shown signs of being increasingly comfortable out on the court in recent games, they always thought he was simply too talented and too professional for his issues to last for any extended period of time.
Green, who has known Conley since their college days, was asked how the guard had most changed between then and now.
“His dreads,” the forward responded with a smile, before elaborating with a more serious answer. “Just maturity as a player, as a person. I mean, he’s grown up, obviously. You become more wise as the years go by, and he’s become that, and that’s why he’s the player he is.”
But mature enough and wise enough to be able to fend off all the nerves he’s bound to have in order to go out and play well Friday night? He’ll give it a shot, but knows he’d best make no promises.
“Memphis is all I knew for so long. It’s the city that raised me and molded me into who I am. I owe everything to Memphis — the organization, the team, the city, community, all my family and friends back there. It means a lot,” Conley said. “… [I’m] just anxious, almost like you’re trying to get it over with, just trying to get back to hooping. I’m sure it’ll get to that point. But I also want to take in the moment, too, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime-type thing that you can come back to a place like that.”
JAZZ AT GRIZZLIES
At FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tenn.
Tipoff • Friday, 6 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN, ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 8-3; Grizzlies 4-7
Last meeting • Grizzlies, 114-104 (March 8)
About the Jazz • After a tough start to the season, point guard Mike Conley is averaging 14.7 points and 4.0 assists per game, and shooting 34.4% from 3-point range. … Utah comes in having won four games in a row, beating the Sixers, Bucks, Warriors and Nets. … Through Wednesday’s games, the Jazz again lead the NBA in defensive rating, at 99.7.
About the Grizzlies • Memphis is on a two-game winning streak, having beaten San Antonio on Monday and Charlotte on Wednesday. … Rookie guard Ja Morant, the No. 2 pick in the draft, is averaging 18.3 points and 5.8 assists, while shooting 48.3% overall and 44.4% from deep. … The Grizzlies rank third in the NBA in assists per game (26.9).