I felt bad yelling to my wife, who was in the other room, but I didn’t know what else to do. I was going to throw up at any moment.
I had been stuck in my bedroom, in the same spot in bed, for a day and a half, ever since I flew back home to Memphis for surgery on my orbital socket.
Just three days before, I had fractured the bone above my eye in Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs in Portland. I barely remember the play. I was driving to the basket on CJ McCollum and the next thing I knew, I was grabbing my face.
Luckily we were able to win games 4 and 5 to advance to the next round. Back at home, my wife was taking care of me and my parents came down to Memphis to help out. The Warriors series was less than a week away and I was propped up in my bed at a 45-degree angle, with a pillow behind my head, rotating an ice pack every 20 minutes.
“I need another trash bag!”
Every time I yelled, my face twitched. The doctors said the swelling would get worse before it got better. I could feel my pulse beating right above my eye. It was like terrible music I couldn’t turn off.
My wife tiptoed into the room without turning on the lights and handed me a new trash bag. I tried to whisper “thank you,” but I don’t know if she heard me.
The swelling in my face made it impossible to eat, so I hadn’t had solid foods in 36 hours. There was medicine to reduce the swelling, but it felt like a lose-lose: If I took it, it would reduce the pain and swelling in my face, but the side effects were making me want to throw up. I took the pills and reached for the trash bag.
This felt like the worst possible timing. We had finished the 2015 regular season strong with a 55-27 record. We had the best big man in the game: Marc Gasol. Of course, that’s my opinion, but I don’t think it’s even close. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen were playing some of their best ball. We knew the odds were against us, but we had been looking forward to the Warriors matchup all year.
It was the lowest point in my basketball career. The season was on the line and I was useless: sitting in bed with an ice pack on my face.
All I had were my thoughts. No TV, no radio, no conversation. I couldn’t even have the lights on.
I found myself thinking back to my rookie year.
A couple of days before training camp my rookie year, I rolled to the arena to get an early look at my locker. I was a little eager, I guess. I didn’t think anyone would be there. When I walked in, I saw this little guy standing on a stool. He was fishing through a locker. Above the locker, a placard said, “Biggie.” What’s this guy doing? It was Damon Stoudamire. Mighty Mouse himself. All 5’9” of him. One of my all-time favorite guards to watch growing up. “What’s up, rook?” I’m not even sure if he knew my name, but he hopped off the stool with this big smile on his face. I said hello and started to put my things in my new locker, a few rows down from him. He walked right over to me. “Let’s play one-on-one.” “Right now?” I asked. I was still in my street clothes. “Right now.” “Uhh, O.K.” I was the rookie. He was the vet. I laced up and met him on the main court.
Once I got onto the court, his smile was gone. He looked like he meant business. In my head, I was kind of laughing. I was 19 years old. All respect to Damon, but I looked at him and thought, C’mon, I got this guy. He’s 34.
Nope. Nah. That’s not how it went down at all.
Damon dominated me. The game was over in like 15 minutes. I may have been fast and I may have been in better shape — I was even a few inches taller than him — but he outmuscled me. He went right at me, posting me up and pushing me off my spots.
I left with a bruised ego, but it was the beginning of a friendship. Throughout the season, we kept up our one-on-one battles. They turned into training sessions. Damon had a lot to teach and was extremely generous with his time.
Midway through the year I actually got to start in his place. I hit a couple early jumpers and was feeling pretty good about myself. When I subbed out of the game, Damon chewed me out for not attacking the basket.
“You never even went into the lane,” he said.
I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I hit my shots. I didn’t make any turnovers.
“You’ve gotta go inside and get hit. Take your bumps and bruises.”
The Warriors series was coming up fast, and I had to find a way to play. Man, I can’t sit here and watch anymore. I gotta come back. But I was in no shape to suit up for Game 1. I hadn’t slept or eaten much in a week. The team doctors shook their heads: No way. Not tonight. Before Game 2, I was in and out of sleep the whole night — almost waiting for the alarm clock to go off so I could get out of the bed. Until shootaround, nobody knew if I would play or not. Not my teammates, not my coaches, not the fans. Four days before, I had been fitted for a face mask. The Rip Hamilton mask. I had never worn one or even seen at one in person. When I put it on, there was a minor problem. My swelling had gone down since the time the mask had been molded to my face. So now it fit snug on the right side of my face and was too big on the left side. You probably wouldn’t have noticed, but the whole left side of my mask was just hanging off my face. The trainers added some extra tape. Tip-off was 20 minutes away and we went back to the locker room. That’s when I heard Tony yelling. Now, if Tony Allen is yelling, that doesn’t usually raise any eyebrows in our locker room. The dude is yelling 50% of the time.
But this time, I knew he was trying to get my attention. He was calling me by my initials.
He came up to me and grabbed my jersey. He made a noise like a gun.
“Blattt! Leave it all out there, MAC.”
Then he shoved me in the chest one time, really hard, and the momentum sent me out the door into the hallway. This has always been Tony’s pre-game ritual. If you want to leave the locker room in one piece, you have to go through Tony. No choice. He’s our hype man. Tony is the guy you want on your team and definitely don’t want on the other team.
It tells you a little bit about how special our team is. We have each other’s backs.
That night, I needed it more than ever.
We were on the road at Oracle. Steph had received his MVP trophy in a pre-game ceremony that night. The stage was set.
In the first few minutes, I was tired and stiff. Before the game, the team doctors just kept repeating the same thing: Avoid contact, avoid contact, avoid contact.
Making an early shot helped my confidence. Zach Randolph set a good screen and I think Steph tripped a little bit getting around it. I walked into an easy jumper. Then, in the middle of the second quarter, I drove the lane and ended up on the floor with the ball trying to call a timeout. Draymond reached for the ball and pressed it against my mask, tearing out the stitches above my eye. When I got to the bench, blood was coming down the left side of my face.
I felt the same pulsating sensation above my eye. The trainer looked at me like, This isn’t good. He cleaned up the wound and I went back in.
I’m not superstitious, but I think having my stitches torn out was best thing that could have happened to me. It took me back to those battles with Damon. I needed to get hit. I needed that blood. I needed that Welcome to the playoffs moment.
I felt battle-tested. Now I wanted to dominate. I finished the game with 22. Zach had 20 and 7. Marc added 15. We won 97-90. In Oracle.
We ended up losing the series, of course. It was tough. It wasn’t our goal to put out a good effort and be happy with losing in six. We expected to win. We expected to beat Golden State. It was a frustrating time, but also very gratifying seeing that we accomplished a lot with our backs against the wall. In our minds, it was just a small glimpse of our potential as a team.
Last year, we carried that same grit into the season. Then Marc went down with a broken foot right before the All-Star break. Then my Achilles injury ended my season in April.
That’s when we started hearing the chatter.
We started to hear that tossed around a lot. Injury-prone, or just injured? Marc and I have both averaged more than 70 games for our careers. Fact.
Conley’s never made an All-Star team.
It’s all good. I’ll just be here building an All-Star team in Memphis.
Doubting the Grizzlies? We’ve heard that before. Old news.
Memphis is a basketball town, but we’re not viewed that way on the national map. Maybe it’s because the Grizzlies aren’t on TV as much. If you’re not a Grizz fan, you might not even know what we’re up to until playoffs come around. We get forgotten and sometimes slighted.
And I’m tired of that. I’m tired of being underrated. I’m tired of being overlooked. We all are.
In Memphis we don’t talk. We ball.
Our guys signing long-term deals will tell you everything you need to know: Marc signed a deal to stay in Memphis because he knew we had work to get done. Tony and Zach are staying, too. They’re here for the long-term. It says a lot about our chemistry. Teams like this aren’t built overnight.
That’s why I’m coming back to Memphis. Not just for a year or two. I signed a five-year deal because we’ve just barely scratched the surface on the things we’re planning to accomplish.
I guess Damon Stoudamire had been right all along. Nothing is given to you in this league. You’re going to have to fight for it.
Way back as a rookie, when I was a back-up to Damon and Kyle Lowry, he was telling me about the bumps and bruises you’re going to take on your journey. I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but now I get it.
Now I feel like everything that’s happened during my career has led up to this point. This is the launching point. This is just the beginning. It’s time to get to work.
It’s time to #BelieveMemphis.