Mike Conley, fearless in the face of pain, is The CA’s Sportsperson of the Year

He played.

He played even though he had three broken bones in his face.

He played even though he had a metal plate and four screws under his left eye, and another metal plate and three screws fusing his orbital bone.

He played even though he had spent much of the previous week sitting in a dark room to mute the painful ringing in his brain.

He played for the simplest, purest of reasons. His teammates needed him. That’s it. And for Mike Conley, that was enough.

“I’m just like, ‘I’m going to do what I can and sacrifice for the team,’ ” he said.

That’s why Conley is The Commercial Appeal’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.

It was not an easy process, picking a single winner this particular year.

Paxton Lynch lifted Memphis football to heights many never dared imagine.

Marc Gasol decided to return to Memphis when he could have gone anywhere in the NBA.

George Lapides continued to do his radio show — the longest-running, continuous radio show in the country — and never mind the oxygen tank.

Phil Cannon and Mike Clary decided to step away from jobs at which they quietly excelled.

But when Conley took the court for Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors — when he decided to overrule the objections of his parents and his wife because his team needed him — he gave us not just a moment but a fable, not just a memory but a reminder of how beautiful and inspiring sports can be.

Conley had been elbowed in the face by C.J. McCollum in Game 3 of the previous series, against Portland. The doctors called it a “blowout fracture” meaning, essentially, that the entire casing around his eye had been crushed.

Conley had one broken bone under his left eye, another on the side of his eyebrow, and another near his jaw.

So Conley underwent surgery, during which doctors inserted two plates and seven screws into his face. He spent the next day, sitting in the dark, unable to keep anything down, which was especially agonizing because throwing up required him to open his mouth.

Conley emerged from this darkness to join his teammates at FedExForum for Game 5 of the Portland series, during which he was shown on the big screen.

The fans went nuts. Conley looked like he had lost a fight to a man wielding a baseball bat. He was battered and he was drugged.

But then the Warriors smashed the Grizzlies in Game 1 of the next series. Then Conley started hearing from all kinds of people, saying he had to try and come back for Game 2.

“My parents are telling me, ‘Naw, you need to sit, you need to make sure you’re healthy,’ ” Conley said. “I got all these people pulling me left and right and I don’t know what to do.”

So he did what anyone who knows Conley could have predicted he would do. He decided to throw in with his teammates, to help however he could.

That’s it. That was the entire motivation. Not the spotlight, not the glory, not the chance to prove himself on national TV. But what followed ranks as one of the great moments in franchise history, right up there with Hubie Brown winning the Coach of the Year Award, Shane Battier hitting the three-pointer to beat San Antonio for the first playoff win, and Zach Randolph lifting the Grizzlies over San Antonio in Game 6.

Shaquille O’Neal picked Golden State to beat the Grizzlies by 20. The Warriors were 42-2 at Oracle Arena for the year. The crowd was even more cranked than usual because, during pregame, Steph Curry received his MVP award.

Then Conley went out and showed that courage can be more than an overused cliché in sports. He dropped in his first three-pointer, though a misting mask. Then he drove and scored on a layup. Then he hit that little floater of his.

 

“He said he got good looks,” said Gasol. “Out of one eye.”

The second quarter brought a moment of high peril, the kind of moment Conley’s parents had worried about. Golden State’s Draymond Green smashed Conley with a forearm after the whistle. Asked after the game if it was clean, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said, “I’m not going to answer that.”

But Conley kept playing and the Grizzlies won. He played 27 minutes, scored 22 points and sent everyone involved searching for appropriately heroic nicknames.

“One-eyed Charlie,” said Tony Allen. “The Masked Assassin.”

Someone else suggested “The Phantom of the Grindhouse.”

“His face is caved in, and he comes out there and fights through it and plays lights out,” said Allen. “That guy is a beast.”

And none of that is any less true because Conley has had certain struggles this season. When has Conley’s career ever followed the easy path?

He was drafted by the Grizzlies in the year of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. He started his career in Memphis as a booby prize. Then he was labeled a bust. Then he was nearly traded. Conley wears a tattoo from those early years that says, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.”

Throughout all that, Conley didn’t just persevere, he did so with grace, with humor and that wry smile. He is even more understanding than he has reason to be. He may be nicer than any of us deserve.

But do not confuse that understanding with weakness, that niceness with a lack of competitive fire. Game 2 of the Golden State series was just the most visible example of the qualities that have driven Conley since he first arrived in Memphis. It crystallized who he has been all along.

“It’s exactly what I want people to know about me when they look back at me,” he said. “It’s not about how many points, or steals or assists I put up, but the kind of guy I was, how I played through injuries regardless of my stats. I don’t care about that stuff, I care about the guys. I care about their well being, and them being confident in me. I want them to know I’ll do anything for the team.”

So here’s to Conley, The Commercial Appeal’s Sportsperson of the Year. For reminding us that class and competitiveness are not mutually exclusive, that courage and decency can exist in the same space. In 2015, he gave us a moment to savor as long as this city has an NBA franchise.

“Just a tremendous Memphis game,” is how Joerger put it. “I know I’ll remember it the rest of my life.”

 

By: Geoff Calkins, The Commercial Appeal

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