As told to Christina M. Tapper
As a teenager, Mike Conley spent his summers traveling the country and playing hoops with the best of the best. In 2004, he ran the offense for the AAU Spiece Indy Heat, a team with a roster of future NBA stars — Miami Heat center Greg Oden, New Orleans Pelicans guard Eric Gordon, Charlotte Hornets forward Josh McRoberts, and guard Daequan Cook, who played for the Houston Rockets and the Chicago Bulls in 2012–2013 and in Ukraine this season.
Conley, who averaged 17.2 points and 6.0 assists as the Memphis Grizzlies' point guard this year, played 11 years of AAU ball and won five titles as a youngster, but the '04 team brings back his fondest memories. Conley spoke to SI KIDS about the experiences that helped mold his NBA career.
I began playing in AAU when I was six, but I started playing basketball a few years before that. My parents said even as a one-year-old I was obsessed with bouncy balls, so basketball was definitely in my future.
When I was 12, Greg Oden started playing AAU with me. He lived an hour away, so he spent that summer with my family and me [in Indianapolis]. I have two brothers and a sister, all younger than me. Greg was like another brother. He fit right in with us.
Greg wore big glasses and was very soft-spoken. But he was a giant. Back then it was a new experience to be around someone that big. I was around tall players, but not that tall! I'm little today, but I was tiny back then, so you can imagine the big difference in height when we stood next to each other. I remember some of the photos that were taken of us all through our childhood and teenage years, and I laugh. We bonded well, won AAU tournament championships and went on to play high school [at Lawrence North High] and college ball at Ohio State together. We were pretty much inseparable.
Team on Top
Our 2004 AAU team was real tough to beat. We had Daequan Cook, who would also play with Greg and me in college, Josh McRoberts, and Eric Gordon. I think I can count the number of times we lost on one hand during that summer. We won a lot, and we had a target on our backs because of that.
We got the job done on the court, but off the court, we were reserved and easy to get along with, which made it easy for us to jell during the games. Nobody cared who scored or who got credit. Those are highlights of our lives and played a role in our success. We all had goals of making it big, and now look at us. We're still playing basketball, but on a different stage.
My father [Mike Conley, Sr.] coached our team. He won an Olympic gold medal in the triple jump. Sometimes it was frustrating playing for my dad, because I wanted to make him proud. There were times when my teammates would rag on me when my dad disciplined me. There were some games where I just was not playing as hard as I should have. I'd get a little lazy and just wouldn't be into it. My dad would come down hard. He'd take me out of the game for two quarters! He wanted me to understand that I should always aim to do my best and that I wasn't bigger than the goal we had, which was to win. It was a valuable lesson.
Road Trips to Victory
AAU broadened my horizons. It exposed me to a lot. We traveled around the country and saw different places and things. My dad drove us to most of the games in a van that was equipped with small TV screens, so the road trips were fun. We'd travel to Virginia, Florida, Nevada, Tennessee, and Michigan. We'd be in the back of the van, playing video games or trying to rap. We'd tap on armrests to get a beat to freestyle to. There were lots of laughs in the back of that van. We got a kick out of who was terrible at rapping. We were just trying to pass the time.
During our rest stops, you could find us at a McDonald's and the table would be filled with chicken nuggets and burgers. While we ate, we'd debate who was the best player in the league. Was it Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady? Was Vince Carter the next Michael Jordan? Did Allen Iverson have the best handle? We were just kids trying to prove our points over French fries.
I truly believe we had one of the best AAU teams of the modern era. If I had to compare our teenage basketball team to a current NBA team, we were kind of like the San Antonio Spurs. Very consistent and unselfish. No egos. We played hard, won a lot, and had so much fun.
Photos: MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED