Mike Conley is back in Columbus and putting down roots. The 29-year-old star Memphis Grizzlies point guard recently bought a house in Columbus and returns to where he earned All-American status at Ohio State in 2007, and was recently named to the 2017 class of the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame. On top of moving back to Columbus, Conley is dedicated to a new project fighting sickle cell disease.
For Conley, the disease is personal. Two of his cousins suffer from the disease, and it’s become his mission to increase awareness for it, and for the potential cure that could be available. For sickle cell disease, bone marrow donations from matching donors is an exceedingly successful cure.
The Buckeye has partnered with Be The Match, an organization that collects cheek swabs to build a bone marrow donor database. They then look through the database to match a donor with a person in need, generally someone who has been struggling with sickle cell disease or a blood cancer.
On his partnership with Be The Match, Conley told me in a recent interview, “I heard about all the good work they [Be The Match] were doing and I really wanted to be involved with it because I’m really engraved in the sickle cell fight down in Memphis and across the world. I saw the work they did to fight those kinds of diseases [sickle cell], and blood cancer and things like that and I just wanted to be involved in it the best I could.”
He talked a lot about how his work with Be The Match is for the community as a whole and such an important way for him to raise awareness and give back, saying, “It’s not just about my cousins, that’s the reason why I’m here but it’s about everybody.”
His involvement in raising awareness about sickle cell and blood disorder cures is largely through Be The Match’s new Heritage Holds the Cure campaign, targeting the African American community, who have a disproportionately lower bone marrow donor sign-up rate. The lower rate is significant since African Americans, and Hispanics, both have the highest incidence rates of sickle cell disease. The campaign, headlined by Conley, seeks to highlight this and try to reverse the trend within the communities.
Conley is committed to working with Be The Match on the new campaign and doing what he can do to give back to his community and his family. Conley is also heavily involved in the Grizzlies foundation, being named an NBA Cares Award Finalist for his efforts.
“It’s been great to be an NBA Cares Award Finalist and that all the work I do in Memphis and around different cities is paying off slowly but surely, and every year you see the progress. I’m just proud to represent my team and to represent Memphis as a city,” the Buckeye said about his passion for giving back.
In addition to his off the court work, Conley is still focused on basketball, which showed this past season in what was a career-best year. After signing one of the largest contracts in NBA history, Conley put up career best numbers averaging roughly 20 points, 3 rebounds, and 6 assists per game.
Conley explained the reasoning behind last year’s success, “I think if anything changed it was just my role. With a new coaching staff and offensive scheme, it allowed me to really show what I can do offensively and allow me to show what I’ve been working on the past few years. I think my game didn’t necessarily improve just the opportunity was there to show different things.”
The Buckeye also doesn’t shy away from being a positive role model on the court; he’s a 2-time NBA Sportsmanship Award winner. For Conley, “Being a sportsmen of the year means you don’t yell a lot, being a role model, don’t get a technical. Currently I don’t have a technical. You take pride in that kind of work, it doesn’t just show who you are but who your family is.”
His Grizzlies this last season lost 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs but things are looking up for one of the youngest teams in the NBA. Asked what they need to get to the next level Conley explained, “I think number one, we have to continue to develop our young talent. I think we have some great guys we have drafted over the years that haven’t gotten the chance to play yet, so once they get the opportunity they have to be ready to go. With injuries that happen every season no matter what team you’re a part of, your team has to be ready to play. Hopefully over the summer we can get our young guys to the point where they’re contributing and really helping our team.”
Despite his success in Memphis, Buckeye fans know Conley mostly for his standout career as a Buckeye. Despite only playing in college for one year, his work as an All-American point guard for Ohio State in 2006-2007 is what stands out. Leading a team as a freshman that included Greg Oden, Daequan Cook, and Jamar Butler, among others, to a NCAA finals appearance was an incredible achievement.
Riding the high of the incredible year Conley left for the NBA, he told me about his one-and-done decision, “It was very hard, it took a lot of thought and because I loved school and the college environment and the campus was very electric that year. It was a fun year to be in Columbus, I probably thought in my mind that’s what it was going to be like every year. It was hard to weigh my options leaving that behind to chase my dreams in the NBA. It has worked out for sure.” The move clearly paid off for him as the additional development time in the NBA helped him reach where he is now.
Conley still has a connection to the OSU Basketball program, he keeps in touch with Oden, and teammates Mark Titus and Matt Twillinger regularly, but also had his own thoughts on the highly-publicized state of the program.
Conley said on the past few years of Buckeye basketball, “I’ve been following them and unfortunately it’s been a rough few seasons. It’s tough, you have guys who transfer, and guys who leave after one year like D’Angelo, similar to what I did. You recruit these guys to help and hopefully stay but they’re so talented they end up leaving and you’re left with a void and if you can’t fill that quick enough you’re left with seasons like the Buckeyes have had over the past few years.”
This interview was conducted before the Thad Matta firing but Conley revered Matta saying, “Thad’s a great guy, a great coach, he’s one of the best (coaches) in the game, and you just hope that players still want to come to the school and the value of playing under a guy like Thad.”
For Conley, basketball also isn’t the end all be all, he wants to go back to school when he’s done, as teammate Greg Oden did. Outside of that one of his biggest passions is his golf game, which he works on at his backyard putting green and his trips to the course. Along those lines, he told me not to rule out him becoming a professional golfer after he’s done on the hardwood. With a handicap of 7 that would be a tall order but Conley is used to exceeding challenges and expectations.
Be the Match has launched their Heritage Holds the Cure Campaign to get more people tested and registered in the fight against Sickle Cell disease and blood disorders, to learn more and see how you can get a quick and easy test kit visit heritageholdsthecure.org.