Utah Jazz’s Mike Conley announces $200K donation for COVID-19 relief, discusses his impending return to Salt Lake City

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) focuses on his free throw as the Utah Jazz host the Orlando Magic in their NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Dec. 17, 2019.

Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley said that when the coronavirus pandemic broke out nationwide, “my knee-jerk reaction was to do something right away.” The problem was, he had no idea where to focus his time, effort, and money, no idea who could most benefit from his help.

And so on Wednesday, with the hindsight of a few months to assess how COVID-19 has most impacted people, Conley announced he was donating $200,000 to programs in five communities nationwide that he has a connection to, with the funds going to “address food insecurity, homelessness and remote learning needs exacerbated by COVID-19.”

Conley’s donation will be distributed among Utah Food Bank in Salt Lake City; CodeCrew in Memphis, Tenn.; Community Shelter Board and the Columbus Urban League in Columbus, Ohio; the Indianapolis Public Schools Foundation in Indianapolis; and the New Haven Missionary Baptist Church in West Helena, Ark.

“As I grew up, my parents just kept reiterating the importance of giving back and the importance of our communities and our future, our young kids and their development,” Conley told reporters in an afternoon Zoom videoconference call. “It's vital that we who have a platform like we do and a stage like we do utilize it the best we can, because who knows how long my voice can mean something? And while it does, just try to use it as much as I can and use my time and money and resources to help.”

The point guard said he chose the Utah Food Bank specifically because, after seeing staggering unemployment figures, he knew that so many more people might not know where their next meal is coming from.

“The Utah Food Bank and what they do in providing meals for so many people who are in tough situations — I figure that there’s a lot of people [in Utah] going to be in that situation,” Conley said. “… It’s something that I plan on continuing to do, because this is not going away anytime soon. I just love the great work that they’ve been doing there in Salt Lake City and throughout the state.”

Conley said that when he was a small child, and he saw his father — a famous track and field star — get involved in charity events, they didn’t initially mean much to him beyond an opportunity to meet a celebrity or some well-known athlete, such as one specific run-in with Michael Jordan. But after getting drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies and becoming that well-known athlete himself, he saw the impact he could have.

He recalled being in his first or second year in the league and getting involved in a mentoring program in Memphis, and then discovering, years later, how it had paid off.

“There is a kid that I met that I would spend time with, an hour out of the day a couple of times a week. He might have been 7, 8, 9 years old, somewhere around there, and not in the best place, his family wasn’t in the best place. And he didn’t have the resources and things like that,” Conley said. “I was constantly just trying to tell him that he could do everything he wants to put his mind to, that kind of stuff. We stopped seeing each other after about a year and a half or so, and fast forward to eight, nine years later, there’s this grown man that walks up to me, he’s in a suit, and he’s looking wonderful, and tells me, ‘Hey, I’m the kid that you used to mentor, and without your words, I would have never made it to college.’”

Conley said he is heartened by people who tell him that his example has prompted them to donate however they are able to.

That is why he views himself as a role model, and why he considers it imperative to speak up about issues he is passionate about.

“As athletes, we have a platform that we can either utilize or we don't,” Conley said. “And I've always been one to try to make the most of it. And while I'm gonna be playing this sport, or while I'm in the public eye, I want to be that guy.”

In the meantime, over these past few months, he’s been a guy mostly taking it easy at his offseason home in Columbus. He settled in that area, he said, because he met his wife at Ohio State University, and most of her family is from Ohio. “I love Columbus. She loves it. I kind of had no choice once we got married — where she wanted to live is where we’re going to live,” he said with a laugh.

He said that the past two-plus months have “been pretty similar [as] if this was a normal offseason.” He’s mostly stayed inside, worked out, played with his kids. The only real signs that anything has been unusual are that he hasn’t been playing golf, and he’s been limiting his trips to the store and wearing a mask when he does venture out.

Still, asked when he might be returning to Utah, he noted that he and other Jazz players who left the state when the season went on hiatus are planning to return soon, and just awaiting some definitive word on if or when the games might resume.

“Now that states are starting to open up, or at least slowly kind of get there, it’s a lot easier for all of us who might not be in Utah right now to think about that day when we come back,” Conley said. “And I think a lot of it has to do with if we know anything about our season, too. And if it’s on the horizon, I’d be there — I could be there next week or tomorrow or whatever the day may be I need to be back. But we all planned on coming back at some point because we just don’t like to leave a place for too long. A month and a half is kind of a long time. But we’re going to be back as soon as we hear even more encouraging, positive news from our league.”