MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The crowd greeted Mike Conley with thunderous applause when the Grizzlies legend was introduced as a visitor at FedExForum for the first time Friday night. The fans gave Conley an even longer, louder standing ovation during the first timeout after the arena played a tribute video that caused him to tear up.
However, Grizzlies fans spent much of the rest of the night roaring for Ja Morant, the rookie point guard who replaced Conley and ruined his Memphis return.
On a night when Conley struggled for the Utah Jazz, making only 5 of his 19 shots from the floor, Morant starred. Morant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft, had 25 points and eight assists in Memphis’ 107-106 victory, hitting a floater that put the Grizzlies up for good with 1 minute, 32 seconds remaining.
Several of Conley’s former teammates lined up after the game to express their appreciation for him. Morant also shared a moment with Conley, whose 12-year run as the Grizzlies’ point guard essentially ended when Memphis got lucky enough to move up six spots in the lottery to land Morant and officially was over when the Jazz traded for him before free agency.
“I just told him, ‘I love your game. Just keep working. You’re a special player. You’re going to be here a long time,'” Conley told ESPN.
“He’s a talent, man. He’s really talented, with the finishes and the things he was doing at the end of the game. And he’s poised. He’s not turning the ball over. He’s making plays in traffic and doing the right things in big moments. That’s special from a 20-year-old that’s played only 10 games. He’s got some fire in him, too.”
Morant also has a lot of flair, which was on full display in the first of only two Grizzlies games that are scheduled to be broadcast on national television. He had a few spectacular highlights — a full-speed, behind-the-back Eurostep leading to a scoop off the glass; an alley-oop that he threw down in transition after soaring over 6-foot-11 teammate Jaren Jackson Jr. to catch the pass; and a ferocious two-handed dunk to finish a one-man fast break.
“I’m just having fun,” Morant said after the Grizzlies’ third consecutive win. “My teammates and the coaches just allow me to go out there and play freely and do what I do.”
Morant insisted that Conley’s return didn’t provide him any additional motivation.
“I just play with the same chip every game,” said Morant, who is averaging 18.9 points and 6.0 assists per game.
It was certainly a unique experience for Conley. Despite the Jazz not having a shootaround, he came to the arena in the morning to meet with the media because of the interest in his return. He did a podcast with Memphis media fixture Chris Vernon and longtime teammate Tony Allen in the afternoon. He had countless conversations with people he used to see on a regular basis. And he never really got in a rhythm on the floor.
“It’s hard, man,” said Conley, who finished with 15 points and was frustrated that he missed so many good looks. “I came in thinking that I could stick to just work and make it a businesslike trip, and then immediately when I got here, everybody I saw was somebody I knew.
“Obviously, it was hard to play like that, but as the game went on, I tried to get in the flow of it. But it was one of those moments where you know you’re not going to get this again. Just soak it up, because next time I come back, it truly is all business. I’m not going to be talking to everybody. Gotta be ready to go. I tried my best to do it this time, but it was too hard.”
Grizzlies owner Robert Pera has promised that Conley’s jersey will one day hang in the FedExForum rafters, alongside those of fellow Grit n’ Grind era mainstays Allen, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Memphis fans made sure Friday night that Conley felt their appreciation now.
“There was a lot of love in the building tonight,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “I’m super happy for Mike Conley and his family. This was special. He has meant so much to the organization, to the city, and to have all the fans come and show that love and support, that’s dear and that will last forever.
“Then to show that same thing for the new generation of Grizzlies, too — it was just a fun night all around.”