CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mike Conley has a complicated relationship with All-Star weekend, but he says he has nothing against it. The Memphis Grizzlies guard has attended before, played in the Rookie Challenge in 2008 and swears that, despite the fact he has still never made an All-Star team, he is excited to be in Charlotte. On Saturday, he will compete in the Skills Challenge.
"You know my story," Conley said. "I want to be an All-Star and never had the opportunity. There's no animosity toward it or anything. I still enjoy everything that the NBA does, genuinely, with the All-Star weekend."
Conley brought his family and thinks it will be fun for his kids to see him participate in something other than a regular basketball game. On Friday, he went to an apartment complex in west Charlotte, where United Way of Central Carolinas was working with the NBA to refurbish a community space. Conley called it "special" to work with the volunteers there, and said that he couldn't take opportunities like this for granted.
It is also notable that, when painting, he alternated between using his left and right hands. This should not surprise anyone who has watched his floaters and layups.
"Painting, one arm gets tired, I'll use the other one and be just as effective," Conley said. "So, yeah, I've always used both arms. I just like to be balanced in life, I guess. That's my little thing, my OCD, whatever it is."
Memphis' season, however, has been anything but balanced. It started 12-5, and for a while it looked like it would be the rebound year that he wanted. A five-game losing streak in December dragged the Grizzlies down to .500, though, and a six-game losing streak followed shortly thereafter. In mid-January, Conley and fellow franchise pillar Marc Gasol sat down with owner Robert Pera to discuss the direction of the team. Memphis had the best of intentions for 2018-19, but, with the playoffs no longer realistic, the front office had to look into trading them.
Last Thursday, trade deadline day, the Grizzlies were in Oklahoma City. Conley and Gasol were still on the roster, but they'd spent the previous two weeks talking about what might happen. Conley just wanted it to fast forward to 2 p.m. CT.
"It was emotional, man," he said. "It was hard, 'cause part of me, obviously, is trying to lock in on my job and just worry about Oklahoma and really, like, watch film and prepare. But I can't help but, like, the other 90 percent of me is like I'm about to get traded or Marc's about to get traded."
Conley's thoughts raced: Where am I going to go? Do I have to call my family? Am I even going to play in this game tonight? Within 70 minutes of the deadline, Memphis had an agreement to trade Gasol to the Toronto Raptors. There were rumors that Conley would wind up in Utah or Detroit, among other teams, but the Grizzlies decided to keep him.
He wished Gasol good luck, but their goodbye was not the sad, sentimental moment you might have pictured. They had prepared for this, and they know they'll get together with their families in Memphis in the not-too-distant future. Conley was mostly just relieved that he wouldn't have to think about potential trades anymore, as the countless calls and texts about his future would finally stop.
"I'm not going to lie," Conley said. "This year has been one of the more emotionally draining and physically draining years of my career."
Gasol's old locker now belongs to Jonas Valanciunas. His old seat on the plane belongs to the talkative C.J. Miles. (I suggested Conley and Miles should start a podcast together, and he completely understood why I'd make such a suggestion.) Conley said he is enjoying his new teammates, and, after all the team has been through, all you can ask of the Grizzlies is that they play together and have fun as they try to win games.
Conley has asked Gasol about what it's like playing with former rivals Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and he has received all sorts of texts and photos from his former pick-and-roll partner: "There's something new every day." Now that the dust is settled, Conley will do the professional thing, concentrating on the games in front of him, but he acknowledged that things feel different without the man he had teamed with for more than a decade.
"Man, it's really weird," Conley said. "I sat next to the guy every bus ride, every plane ride, so it's weird when you look over to the right and the guy is not there and it's a different person. You're like, what are you doing here? But we knew at some point it would happen, and I'm just happy he got to a situation where he can succeed and have a chance at winning a championship."
Conley's chance, meanwhile, will have to wait, just like his dreams of playing in the All-Star Game. For now, you can catch him on TNT on Saturday, and then in the same place you're used to seeing him, giving his all for his team and catching opponents off-guard with his ambidextrous moves.
"I'm just happy to be back in Memphis and doing what I do," he said.