Why Mike Conley can’t celebrate the richest deal in NBA history

Mike Conley signed a five-year, $153 million contract to remain with the Grizzlies. (Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images)
Mike Conley signed a five-year, $153 million contract to remain with the Grizzlies. (Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images)

It’s hard to imagine someone feeling anything other than elation after landing the biggest contract in NBA history. To hear Mike Conley tell it, though, he’s been having a hard time kicking up his heels.

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The Memphis Grizzlies held a press conference on Thursday to reintroduce Conley, their longtime lead guard and captain, after the 28-year-old set pen to paper on a five-year, $153 million maximum-salaried contract that will keep him in Beale Street blue through the end of the 2020-21 season. He’ll join fellow Memphis linchpin Marc Gasol, who re-upped on a five-year max deal last summer, and newly acquired forward Chandler Parsons, imported on a four-year max pact this summer, to form the core of what front-office executives and fans alike hope will be the team that finally gets Memphis to the top of the mountain and delivers the first championship in franchise history, just like the Cleveland Cavaliers got theirs back in June.

Before he can lead the Grizzlies to postseason glory, though, Conley said Thursday that he feels compelled to lead a different charge. In light of the recent unrest in the country after the police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., the police killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., and the killing of five police officers by a lone gunman at an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, and the protests and demonstrations that have followed, in Memphis and elsewhere, Conley feels compelled to do what he can to lead the city that’s embraced him and that he’s adopted as his home to calmer waters and a brighter future.

It’s obviously a sensitive topic, I know, for a lot of people, especially for myself. You know, this last few weeks … This is supposed to be the most exciting time for me. You know, getting a new contract, getting to come back home to Memphis. But I haven’t celebrated. I haven’t celebrated, not one day, in light of all the events that are going on in this world and in America.

I mean, for me, it’s hard to wake up knowing that this injustice is still going on. The violence against police officers and the violence against innocent citizens has to stop. We have to make a change. However hard that is, however uncomfortable it is.

And it’s not comfortable for me to sit up here and talk to you about it, to be honest. I’m a quiet guy. You all know that. I’m very reserved. But at the same time, as much as I want to lead by example, I know when it’s time to speak up, and right now is that time.

Conley’s comments were just the latest in a string of statements on issues of police-community relations, racism and gun violence in the basketball world in recent days.

Four members of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx wore shirts bearing messages reading, “Change Starts With Us,” “Justice & Accountability” and “Black Lives Matter,” as well as the names of the deceased Castile and Sterling, and the Dallas Police Department’s shield. In response to their statement, four Minneapolis police officers who were working at the game as independently contracted security personnel walked off the job. Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau said she did not condone the off-duty officers’ actions; the president of the city’s police union, Bob Kroll, commended them for their response; Minneapolis Mayor Besty Hodges called Kroll’s comments “jackass remarks” and said he “sure as hell doesn’t speak for me about the Lynx or about anything else.”

New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony publicly called for his fellow prominent athletes to take action to stand for black rights and a cessation of violence. He also wrote an op-ed piece for The Guardian in which he suggested he might, as a member of Team USA at next month’s 2016 Summer Olympics, “make a statement […] or send a message [through which] we can show the world that we’re united.”

At Wednesday’s 2016 ESPY Awards, Anthony joined friends and fellow NBA stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul in a show-opening statement urging their fellow athletes to “look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing to create change?'” and to “use this moment as a call to action, to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence.” The four All-Stars also spoke of the importance of athletes going back to their communities, and investing their time, resources and energy in rebuilding and strengthening them.

“It was inspiring, what they said — the message that they sent out to communities across the world,” Conley said Thursday. “It’s inspired me even more. It’s a challenge, you know? It’s a challenge that I’m willing to take. It’s a challenge that I hope that you as a community, as people of our community in Memphis, are willing to take as well, to do what we can. It’s not about money. You can put all the money you want into things, but we have to make a change. We have to be on the forefront and be in there to set an example for the kids going forward.

And then, Conley spoke about the other thing that’s inspiring him to redouble his efforts to make a change.

“I’m about to have my first kid, man,” he said. “I’m as excited as ever. Two weeks, so it’s exciting. And every time I think about him, I think about all the children in Memphis and the communities around America that don’t get the opportunities and are behind the 8-ball for whatever reason. And man, we have to make a change.”

And while it’s not all about money, money can certainly help in that regard. That’s why Conley’s donating $1 million to the Grizzlies Foundation — the team’s nonprofit arm, which focuses specifically on helping “children living at risk” — to go toward programs aimed at helping young underprivileged Memphians find paths out of poverty. From Conley’s statement announcing the donation:

The situation in many urban neighborhoods throughout the country is volatile. It feels like all too often we play witness to senseless tragedies like the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the shootings in Dallas, all punctuated by civic protest and unrest.

Today, too many of our young people grow up with too few opportunities and no hope. That has to change. Closing the achievement gap is important. Access to opportunity is imperative. The support of caring adult mentors is critical. There is no quick fix.

Still we all have to do better. We have to be accountable to see that all kids have what they need to be successful in school and in life. And we all need to be part of the solution.

Grizzlies owner Robert Pera will match Conley’s $1 million donation.

“I’ll continue to be there for this community to help make change,” Conley said, according to Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

That, if nothing else, sure seems like something to celebrate.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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