<
>

Mike Conley's quest for technical perfection -- and how it almost ended

play
Conley drains half-court shot (0:15)

Mike Conley banks a shot from half court with 1.5 remaining on the shot clock. (0:15)

David Fizdale is about to go viral.

Sitting at the microphone after the Memphis Grizzlies' 96-82 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 2 of the opening round of the 2017 playoffs, the Grizzlies' then-coach begins in a calm tone.

"It's unfortunate that I got a guy like Mike Conley, who in his whole career has zero technical fouls and just cannot seem to get the proper respect from the officials that he deserves," Fizdale says. "It was a very poorly officiated basketball game."

Suddenly, Fizdale picks up the verbal pace, firing off statistics be believes support his beef with the referees.

Zero free throws for Zach Randolph, whom Fizdale refers to as "the most rugged guy in the game." Nineteen free throws for Kawhi Leonard. The Grizzlies took 19 shots in the paint in the first half and got only six free throws, compared with the Spurs' 11 shots in the paint and 23 free throws.

"We had 15 free throws for the game!" Fizdale shouts. "Kawhi shot more free throws than our whole team. Explain it to me."

Then, Fizdale pivots again, going back to a bone he had already picked.

Fizdale, seconds before smacking the lectern and exiting with the immortal "Take that for data," reinforces what has been a sore point in Memphis over many years and several coaching staffs.

"We don't get the respect that these guys deserve because Mike Conley doesn't go crazy, he has class and he just plays the game."

When Conley returns to Memphis' FedExForum on Friday for the first time as a visitor, his class will be celebrated as much as his production as the point guard of the Grizzlies' Grit 'n' Grind era. That era ended when Conley was traded to the Utah Jazz over the summer.

Conley was the even-keeled conductor of the Grizzlies' "Core Four," complementing the snarling intensity of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen and the emotions-on-his-sleeve style of Marc Gasol.

Conley, who was heavily invested in the Memphis community and won the NBA's annual sportsmanship award three times and Teammate of the Year once, has built a perfect on-court citizenship record: zero technical fouls on his NBA record.

Just like in college. And in high school. And in AAU. And in every other level he has played.

"I'm very [proud of] it," Conley says.

But is the nicest guy in the NBA actually too nice for his own good?


THE WHISTLE BLOWS yet again, and Conley can't believe it.

It's Nov. 23, 2018, and the surprising 12-5 Grizzlies are in Los Angeles facing the Clippers at Staples Center. Memphis leads by eight with 2 minutes, 51 seconds remaining when Avery Bradley flops in front of referee Mitchell Ervin and the Clippers' bench.

The call? An offensive foul on Conley, who had nudged Bradley with his left arm more than 20 feet from the basket.

play
1:15

Conley collects four fouls in 4th quarter

On Nov. 23, 2018, Mike Conley Jr. fouled out after being called for four fouls in the fourth quarter.

It's his fourth foul of the fourth quarter -- the third on the offensive end -- and his sixth of the game.

After the whistle, Conley hops in the air and turns to Ervin, mouth agape and palms in the air. He quickly turns away instead of arguing, his head shaking side to side as he briskly walks to the Grizzlies' bench.

Conley then watches helplessly as Memphis blows its lead and loses in overtime.

The Grizzlies, as they frequently did over the years, sent clips to the league office documenting instances when they believed Conley didn't get a fair whistle.

Most of the time, those clips are of calls that Conley didn't get on drives to the basket. But then-Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff eventually gets sick and tired of the private pleas to the league office having no effect and decides to go public after a Dec. 29 home loss to the Boston Celtics.

Bickerstaff, appalled at a no-call when he thought Al Horford had hacked Conley on a late drive -- leading to a turnover and Celtics layup in transition instead of potential go-ahead free throws -- unloads.

"Mike Conley is one of the class acts in the NBA," Bickerstaff says during his postgame news conference. "Time and time again, he drives to the basket, there's contact made, but there's no whistle.

"He doesn't complain. He doesn't get technical fouls, but for whatever reason, he doesn't get the respect that I feel like some of these other guys at his level do."

Bickerstaff, who, like Fizdale, would later be fined for his comments, refers to the issue as "a running theme."

The Grizzlies' concern: Conley didn't get calls because referees knew he wouldn't be confrontational. Today, Conley is also convinced that's the case.

"I think it's just human nature, in a sense. The refs are trying to do the right thing. They're trying to make the right calls, but if you put a lot of pressure on them as far as being in their face, it's embarrassing. They don't want to get yelled at a fourth, fifth time.

"If I were more vocal, more in their face, maybe that [referee] is like, 'Oh, I don't want him to go off. I know he's going to go off if I blow this whistle and it's 50-50.' That's where it kind of hurts me."

"I don't know what can make me go over the edge. I'm afraid that if I did go over the edge, I'd get ejected. It's not even going to be close."
Mike Conley

Conley, however, has never considered altering his approach. He's polite by nature. He's not the kind of man to construct an alter ego to confront officials when calls don't go his way.

"You don't want him to lose himself in trying to be something else," says Fizdale, now the New York Knicks' coach. "The biggest thing that I wanted him to be was offensively more aggressive, and he did that, so I thought I got enough out of him from that standpoint.

"To get him to be a little more fiery with the officials and things like that, it just wasn't going to be healthy."

Utah's front office hasn't been shy about lobbying the league on officiating; its push to enforce the rules forbidding contact on players rolling to the rim was a factor in center Rudy Gobert setting an unofficial NBA record for dunks last season.

The Jazz say they won't hesitate to advocate on Conley's behalf if they see calls not going his way. But it's not a pressing concern for them at this point.

"It's hard to imagine that handling yourself with poise and respect can ever be a negative," Utah coach Quin Snyder says.


"MIKE CONLEY CALLED for a technical foul?"

Grizzlies play-by-play man Pete Pranica's voice oozes with surprise as he looks on during Memphis' Nov. 13, 2014, home game against the Sacramento Kings.

Yes, Conley's unblemished record has one tiny asterisk.

The quick whistle blown by veteran referee Monty McCutchen comes when Conley turns to him and mutters a few words of protest about a no-call: palms up, hands near his hips, hardly showing up the official. Conley had just been undercut by Kings forward Rudy Gay while driving off a backdoor cut and Marc Gasol pass.

play
0:53

Conley called for a technical foul vs. Kings

In 2014, Mike Conley Jr. was served a technical foul vs. the Kings, but the call would later be rescinded.

As McCutchen makes his way toward the scorer's table, Grizzlies wing Courtney Lee meets him near the 3-point line on the right wing, backpedaling with his palms in the air, asking what Conley possibly could have done to deserve a T.

"Well, I can tell you what he didn't say -- something off-color, because he doesn't," Grizzlies color commentator Sean Tuohy says on the broadcast.

The free throw put the Kings up by 17 with 8 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, but the Grizzlies' comeback was about to begin.

Conley drives on Memphis' next possession, getting a whistle that Kings center DeMarcus Cousins apparently considers a makeup call.

Cousins, a player on the opposite end of the spectrum from Conley when it comes to patience with officials, gets hit with a quick technical for voicing his displeasure. Conley scores nine points and dishes the ball for three assists to lead the Grizzlies' rally after he got T'd up.

The Grizzlies win by a point when Lee catches an inbounds lob with 0.3 seconds remaining and lays it in (the Kings would argue that Lee couldn't have gotten the shot off before time expired and filed an appeal with the league office, which was later denied.)

Oh, and that pesky T?

It disappeared from Conley's ledger the next day, rescinded by the league office after a review.


AS CONLEY WRAPS up his pregame shooting routine, he walks over to a courtside seat to catch up with Nick Van Exel, who just started his new job as a scout for the Dallas Mavericks after spending the previous three seasons as a Grizzlies assistant coach.

Conley is getting ready for a preseason game at Utah's Vivint Smart Home Arena, which doesn't quite feel like his new home arena quite yet. After exchanging pleasantries with Van Exel, they make small talk about Conley's transition from Memphis to Salt Lake City and discuss some of the golf excursions Conley has made to gorgeous courses in Utah and surrounding states.

When it comes time for Conley to head to the locker room to continue his pregame routine, Van Exel has some parting words.

"I still got your fine for your first technical," Van Exel tells Conley, who laughs in response.

Indeed, there's a long list of teammates and coaches who have volunteered to pay the $2,000 fine if Conley ever does actually get called for a technical foul that sticks. He has no plans to ever collect.

"I don't want a tech," Conley says. "I don't want to get one. I don't really care to, and especially now. I didn't think of it until the stat came out. I can't get a tech now. I can't go all this time and become another person."

Yet, just as the fine money was a long-running joke in Memphis, Conley's Jazz teammates have started conspiring to ruin his perfect record.

"He's got to get one!" Donovan Mitchell says.

"No one cares. Just get one!" Joe Ingles chimes in from a chair over.

"He has to get one," Mitchell repeats, and then Ingles offers a plan.

"I'm going to try to get one but stand so close to him that they think it's him," Ingles says -- never mind that his Australian accent is quite distinctive.

"You've got to curse the ref out from behind and then just walk away," Mitchell says.

Ingles is already thinking a step ahead: "Then when they try to rescind it, me and you can call the league."

"Nah," Mitchell says, pretending to talk to a league official, "he meant everything he said."

Conley smiles and shakes his head when told about his teammates' plot. Teammates have been trying to get him T'd up for years.

"It's who I am," Conley says. "You win awards for sportsmanship and whatever, but that's just me being me. I'm not doing anything extra. It's the same thing with the refs. You can't change who you are.

"I don't know what can make me go over the edge. I'm afraid that if I did go over the edge, I'd get ejected. It's not even going to be close."

Conley grins again. He's playing make-believe at this point.

"I'm going to get ejected, throw a water in the stands," Conley says. "You never know."