On Nov. 29 the Memphis Grizzlies announced that Mike Conley would miss a minimum of six weeks with a transverse process fracture in his back and it seemed like all that early season buzz about the Grizzlies was about to fizzle.
But come on. This was Mike Conley. The guy who played with a broken face and played so well he nearly derailed the Golden State Warriors on their 2015 championship run.
Broken face, broken back, no problem. This time Conley missed less than three weeks.
"I was in the training room eight hours a day," Conley said. "It was one of those mind-over-matter things. You just believe in positive thinking. And you can do a lot more with the body than you think you can."
In advance of the Grizzlies' matchup with another guy doing a lot more than one would normally expect out of the human body, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Conley talked with ESPN.com about his magical healing powers, life after signing the largest contract in NBA history last summer, how he deals with All-Star Game snubs, new coach David Fizdale, and his old childhood friend, Greg Oden.
You took some criticism when you signed your first big contract. Memphis went out on a limb to give you that four-year, $45 million contract in 2010. Did you hear some of the same criticism this summer when you signed what turned out to be the biggest contract in NBA history?
Mike Conley: I probably took more criticism from this one than I did my last contract. The first go-round prepared me for the same type of situation, where I knew that it would take a lot of backlash and there would be a lot of people who don't know who I am. Never heard of me or whatever. Now all of a sudden this guy is paid more than everybody else. So I just prepared myself and took it as a challenge, just took it as an opportunity, to use it and be the best player I can be.
It does take a special mentality to be able to understand and handle the moment, handle the situation. It could eat a lot of people up.
I try to stay in the positive. In the now. I think of all the work that all the sacrifice that took me to the position to [have] this opportunity. That validates my contract for me.
I think the first time you and I talked was when you signed the contract in 2010. You hadn't yet found your footing in the league. There had been talk of trading you -- what was the deal? For Ramon Sessions, right? Kyle Lowry was playing ahead of you. And Lionel Hollins got to town and said, "Wait a minute, let's let this kid play. We used a lottery pick on him, we got to see [what] we can and give him a real shot." How did the approach you took then help you going forward in dealing with this now?
Conley: Going through that process at a young age, I was 19-20 years old, getting drafted, then the thoughts of getting traded, then the team offering me a contract that I hadn't earned yet supposedly, so I still had to prove myself and what I can be ... then getting that opportunity from Coach Lionel, my teammates, and the organization, I was able to get to work just to constantly be in a gym and not worry about what the outside was saying.
If I heard anything, I used it as motivation. I'm going to show everybody that I belong. I'm going to play out this contract and show everybody that I'm worth more than it. And that was my motivation for that.
It prepared me for what was to come. I would have never thought, eight years ago, nine years ago, that I would one day sign a contract as big as I did. I don't think anybody would fathom that. But I'm definitely blessed to have had an opportunity to do that.
Tell me about Fiz. That's what you call him right? You don't call him Fizdale?
Conley: Oh yeah, Coach Fiz. He's like a player to us. He's a laid back, West Coast, L.A. type of guy. Just laid back, as cool as they come. But at the same time he has enough in him to hold guys accountable. Enough to get angry at our best players and earn the respect of everybody in the organization.
The culture there is so well defined, the core players have been there for a while. And now there's a young coach walking in. It probably takes a minute to figure out how to find your voice and how to talk to people, right?
Conley: He did a great job from Day 1 of listening. He came in and got everybody's opinions. What he can do to help serve us. What he needs to do and what he needs to be to lead our team. I think everybody respected that from the beginning: that everybody's opinion was valid, everybody's opinion meant something to him.
Over the course of your career, there's been rivalries with the Clippers, the Spurs, the Thunder and now Golden State. Does it feel like the Warriors are the big rival now because you've had so many good games -- playoff series and regular season -- against them?
Conley: I think that's a fair assessment. I think everybody's gunning for those guys. In order to win it you got to beat them.
We've done a decent job over the years just competing with them. One being that playoff series. And I think this season we had some very good games with them.
It's a constant challenge. Every time you look at the standings, you're looking to Golden State. How they're doing? How are we going to beat them? How do we attack them? Because that's the team you know you have to beat if you want to hold that trophy at the end of the year.
It clearly brings out the best in you. Some of your career-defining moments have come against the Warriors. You're the man in the mask ... Then [you make the game-winning shot] the other night, after the 24-point comeback. What is it about them that brings that out of you?
Conley: When I play any of the top teams or the top players, it's a stage. In Memphis, we're a small town, a small market. We don't get opportunities like everybody else to get out there as much. So when we're playing against the best, one or two or three times a year, it gives you an opportunity to show what I can do, and for this team to show what we can do.
Well normally the stage where you would show you can do against some of the best players in the league is the All-Star game. But obviously being in the Western Conference has made that difficult on your end. Do you and Damian Lillard or DeAndre Jordan have group chats about it?
Conley: You know we've had small talks about it, but nothing in depth. We understand how each other feels, knowing that we've played at a high level for many years and never really getting that opportunity. There's a little bit of that respect that's left out there. Like if you could just make it, you know, get that under your belt, get that label, that people would respect you more. Because people will always say, "He never made that, he never did that, he can't be as good as this person or that person." But in reality you might just be as good, just not with the All-Stars under your belt because of so many talented guys in our league.
When you read that you're one of the All-Star snubs, or one of the more underrated players in the NBA, do you talk about talk about how you feel? Or keep it inside?
Conley: I've always kept that inside. I've never voiced my disappointment because I don't want to disrespect the guys who do make it.
I have a lot of respect for these guys and everybody who makes it, deserves it. I want to come out here this season and prove and show that I should be one. I should be an All-Star and it's obvious to the players or fans or coaches when they vote. And if I don't make it, I'm at least giving my best effort. If it happens, it was meant to happen. I always have faith that good things will happen regardless. So just keep it at that.
You were having the best start of your career. Then you've got a back injury and you're going to miss 6-8 weeks. But all of a sudden, two or three weeks later, you're coming back. What happened? Did you sleep upside down? How did that happen so quickly?
Conley: I prayed a lot on it. A lot of it was the great work we did here with our trainers. I mean I was in the training room for eight hours a day. Constantly doing whatever I could. In a cold tub, in a pool, bikes, trying to keep my conditioning.
If they told me that I was, you know, I could move a little bit more today than I could yesterday and I can do that but progress just a tiny bit. I was jumping two, three steps ahead of that. Just constantly trying to push myself.
It was one of those mind over matter things. You believe in positive thinking. And you can do a lot more with the body than you think you can. I pushed the limit for sure, with a broken back.
I mean Mike, you've now had a broken back and a broken face in your NBA career. How do you walk around, let alone play basketball at this level?
Conley: I wonder that all the time. I gotta document all this for my son.
I read that story you did for the Players Tribune about breaking your face during the playoff series with Golden State. We use that phrase casually, and it sounds kinda funny to say, "He broke his face," but you really did break your face. What was it like?
Conley: It was by far the most challenging experience I've had since I've been alive, basically, as far as injuries.
You break your face so anything from your head, your mouth, it's very very sore. But in order to take pain medicine to make it stop you have to open your mouth and that was excruciating.
I had the worst night ever when I had to take those pain meds and I hadn't eaten anything because I played a game. My stomach did not react right. I was over with the trash bag, vomiting. You can't control it. And your jaw is opened up like 10 times bigger. Just excruciating pain. Blood coming out. I was like, "man, this is like something I see in movies." It was the worst.
So you go from that to, "I'm going to put a face mask on and play?"
Conley: My face wasn't necessarily the issue. It was my body. I literally didn't eat for four days and I hadn't slept, because I had to sleep like in a 90 degree angle. The body part of it, knowing I'm going to have to play against a team like Golden State, and exert so much energy, in the playoffs, that was the challenging part of it.
I was [happier] that my body held up [more so] than my face, because I felt comfortable with the mask on.
Do people in Memphis still wear those masks?
Conley: I think they wear them for Halloween.
The other accessory that you're famous for is the wooden hat and tie. Do you still have those?
Conley: Oh yeah, I got those framed. The wooden hat is like a legend. I gotta get something new. If we make the playoffs this year, I got to figure something out.
Where do you think this team goes this year? I know you're playing differently, Z-Bo [Zach Randolph] is in a different role, Chandler [Parsons] is still working his way back. Have you have you guys found the style that you want to play with yet?
Conley: We're learning through our system still. Fiz definitely opened it up and to try to increase our pace. But we haven't lost who we are as far as being an inside-out, post, defense, grit and grind mindset. The quicker we learn to merge it all together, the better chance we have in competing for the title. We think that we are capable of beating anybody. We've beaten a lot of the better teams, and then we lose to teams we thought we could beat. So we're just trying to find that consistency.
Where is Chandler at in his recovery?
Conley: Over the last two weeks he's progressed nicely. I think he gets frustrated with not playing more minutes because he feels like his body feels that good. So that's a great sign. And I think our management our coaching staff and training staff is doing a good job of slowly bringing him along because they understand our goals are a lot bigger than you know Jan. 10 through the 22 of them you know trying to get him to play 30 minutes a game. We need him for the long run, we need him for the playoffs, we need him healthy. So I think he's doing great.
This next game is against Russell Westbrook. How do you approach defending him and playing against him?
Conley: It's definitely one of those challenges I look forward to. He's doing something the league has never seen. His athletic build, his size, and his [ability] to push the ball, are all things you have to think about when guarding him.
You've got to try to slow him down, make him uncomfortable. Put him in areas where he's taking contested jump shots and nothing where he's being the aggressor and getting into you and causing you to foul and get him on the free-throw line or finish in the paint. If you can limit the amount of opportunities, the easy opportunities he gets, you have a chance for a good night for your team.
What's the last time you talked to Greg Oden?
Conley: At the beginning of the year. The New Year. We checked in on each other.
How close were you guys growing up? He actually lived with you and your family for a while right?
Conley: Yeah, yeah. He stayed with us for a few months in Indianapolis, the first year we were together. We became really close from then on.
He just had a baby girl this summer. We both had babies right around the same time, so it's pretty ironic and cool that we're going through the same kind of process together and have each other to lean on him. He's got my back and I've got his. It will always be that way.
Some of the last stuff we've heard from him, where he called himself a "bust" and the [arrest and plea deal on battery charges] has been kind of rough. How's he doing personally?
Conley: I actually think he's doing great. He's been about as close to finding stable ground as he's been in a long time. He's kind of at peace with the basketball thing.
All the stuff that transpired from his career, he's moved on to trying to pursue different things with his post-basketball career. And now that he's starting a family, I think that really has opened his eyes up a lot. I think it's just a bunch of good things that are happening at the right time for him.
It's interesting how fast things move. One day somebody's living at your house and you're on the best AAU team in the country. The next you're signing the largest contract in NBA history.
Conley: It really is. It's amazing seeing all the people that have helped you get to where you are. All the coaches, all the camps. Your parents, family members. I mean everybody who's invested in you. And it's really -- it's really neat to see that all of their sacrifices to help you have paid off. And that now you can continue to help other people along the way.
You're kind of like Mr. Grizzly now. You've been there 10 years. Franchise leader in points, assists, wins. When people come to Memphis, are you the tour guide?
Conley: Pretty much. It's cool because I feel like this is the place I've grown up. I've grown into the person I am today. It's cool to have been here my whole career and I'm looking forward to be here, you know, for a long time.
So if you're Mr. Memphis, where do we go?
Conley: If you want to talk about food, there's plenty of places to go. Barbecue style, I like the Commissary out in Germantown. I like Japanese hibachi and there's a place 20 minutes from downtown called Stix.
Right, because when I think of Memphis, I'm definitely thinking Japanese hibachi.
Conley: I know. I'm telling you. I go there every week. I'm there all the time. There's also some good restaurants off Poplar. You got Erling Jensen's. Andrew Michael has some good restaurants. There's Hog & Hominy. There's a bunch of them. I can keep going.
Don't give away all your spots. What are the places you don't go anymore?
Conley: I don't go to fast food restaurants anymore. That's out.
Not even Gus's [Fried Chicken]?
Conley: I haven't had Gus's in a while. I do miss it. But I'm trying to eat right.
When did that happen?
Conley: Basically when Coach Fiz got here. He got to us in the summer and was like, "We're in need for culture change. We're going to change the way you know you look at food, sugar, sleep."
He's got us eating peanuts and Fig Newtons. No candy. No sugar. It's all kinds of stuff.
You probably can handle that. But what about guys like Z-Bo?
Conley: You can only go so far with Z-Bo. But he's done a good job with it.