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Minnesota Timberwolves’ Mike Conley balances family with a playoff push

A midseason trade has veteran guard away from his wife and three kids, a reminder of his childhood as the son of a star athlete

Mike Conley Jr.’s three young sons were confused when he returned to his Salt Lake City home while the Utah Jazz were playing the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 8. With the game being shown on their television, the new Timberwolves point guard explained to his sons that he was going to being playing for the team in white rather than the team in purple now because he was traded before the game started.

Myles, the middle child of Conley’s sons, was immediately excited because as a big animal fan he could now cheer for a Timberwolf. What wasn’t fun for the youngsters to hear was that their dad would now be spending more time away from the family due to the midseason move to Minnesota.

“I went home to my kids and tried to explain to them that they no longer will be cheering for the home team, which was Utah,” Conley said. “My 6-year-old kind of understands a little more than the rest of them. So, they were all like, ‘Minnesota? I’ve never heard of it. I’ve never been there.’ So, they were getting a little excited. But then I told them I’d be leaving the next morning, going on a flight with Minnesota, and I won’t be back for a while.”

It’s been nearly two months since the Timberwolves added Conley as their starting point guard. The Timberwolves have needed someone like the 16-year veteran to make offense easier for their star trio of Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. Along with veteran leadership, Conley brings a calm voice and a respected reputation for defense with more than 1,400 career steals. Through 18 games with Minnesota, the 35-year-old Conley is averaging 13.3 points, 5 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 31.2 minutes per game.

Conley also adds veteran playoff experience (73 games).

“We know what we are going to get every night,” Edwards said. “A floor general who can make shots at any time of the game. He just keeps everyone balanced. He is very controlled out there.”

Said Towns: “An aggressive Mike is a dangerous Mike. He’s doing a great job getting his points with how well he can shoot. He is making us better [by] keeping the ball moving. He’s doing a good job. He’s doing a really good job, actually.”

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mike Conley (center) with his wife, Mary (second from left), and their sons Elijah (left), Myles (second from right) and Noah (right).

Mike Conley Jr.

While the Timberwolves’ marriage with Conley has been an amazing one so far, the impact has been tough for the NBA veteran and his family to deal with daily.

It was challenging enough for his wife, Mary, to be left with three young boys — Noah, 6, Myles, 4, and Elijah, 2 — while their father went on Jazz road trips. With the trade happening in the middle of the school year, Conley had to go to Minneapolis by himself. His wife and kids have visited Minneapolis once, but also have another upcoming trip. Most communication with his wife and children has been on FaceTime.

While being in the NBA is “still a dream” for Conley, being away from his family has taken a personal toll as his kids are having increased behavioral challenges.

“They’re acting out and being disobedient, crying a lot and not listening. You can just tell that they’re off,” Conley said. “One time, my 6-year-old came to wife and said, ‘I miss having two adults.’ That was his words. Having two, as opposed to just having one. So, those things kind of hit you and you’re like, ‘Man, what can I do?’ Other than that, we spend as much time as we can on FaceTime, and staying in touch, and calling every night before bed, and read to him and do stuff like that.

“They had some rough days and were making life hard on mom for a little bit because I’m not there. But they’re coming back soon. We have a home game against the [Los Angeles] Lakers, and I’ll be in for three or four nights. But they love it. They’re excited to get to Minnesota. I don’t think they want to finish school now. They just want to go to Minnesota.”

Conley can relate to what his sons are going through because he had a similar experience growing up with a father who was a track and field superstar.

USA Track & Field describes Mike Conley Sr. as “one of the best combination jumpers in history.” The National Track & Field Hall of Famer is a two-time Olympic triple jump medalist who won gold in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The five-time World Outdoor Championships team member earned the gold medal in 1993 in the triple jump. He won the gold medal in the triple jump in the World Indoor Championships in 1987 and 1989, and was World Cup long jump champion in 1985, and triple jump champion in 1989. Conley currently holds the World and American triple jump indoor record at 17.76 meters (58 feet, 3.25 inches) set in 1987.

Conley Jr. and ardent basketball fans are also familiar with his dad being a three-time winner of the Foot Locker Slam Dunk Fest (a dunk contest between non-NBA athletes).

“I went to the slam dunk contest in Phoenix, but I was really little,” Conley Jr. said. “It was just fun to be around him and to support my dad.”

Conley Jr. has had quite a memorable professional sports career himself.

Conley Jr. played only one season at Ohio State before he was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies with the fourth overall pick of the 2007 NBA draft. While playing in Memphis from 2007 to 2019, he became the franchise’s all-time leader in games played (788), points (11,733), assists (4,509), steals (1,161) and 3-point field goals made (1,086). The 6-foot-1, 175-pounder made his lone NBA All-Star appearance as a member of the Utah Jazz during the 2020-21 season. The 2019 NBA Teammate of the Year is also a three-time NBA Sportsmanship award winner.

“I figured that he’d go to college for three years or so,” Conley Sr. “So, he exceeded all those expectations. And then, to last in the league as a 6-1 point guard this long and accomplishing almost everything he wanted to accomplish up to this point. Obviously, a championship is something he really, really wants. I’m thrilled for him.”

Conley Sr. and his wife, René, had four kids in Mike Jr., Jordan, Sydney and Jon. Conley Sr. said it was very tough being a father while traveling the world as a track and field star. The 61-year-old still laments missing important moments with his children. Conley Sr. was decades away from FaceTime and cell phones during the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, to keep in touch with his wife and children, he had very expensive hotel phone bills that could run over $800.

“I missed my second son’s birth,” Conley Sr. said. “I was rushing back from Europe, and I made it a few hours late. So, yeah. It was tough. And I’d be gone for months at a time sometimes for the big championships. And that made it tough. And I think it was Michael, I think the first words I heard him say was on the telephone, ‘I love you, daddy.’ And I was 10,000 miles away.

“That hit me hard at that moment. One was the joy of hearing it, right? The first words, what the words were, but then, man, I’m not there. I can’t even hug him. And at that time, he was my only child.”

Conley Sr., however, bonded with Conley Jr. through basketball.

Conley Jr. started playing basketball at the age of 6. His father also started coaching once he began playing and was his AAU coach from elementary school through high school. Conley Sr. coached the renowned AAU Spiece Indy Heat team that included several NBA players, including Conley Jr., LA Clippers guard Eric Gordon, former No. 1 pick Greg Oden, 11-year NBA veteran Josh McRoberts and 2009 NBA 3-point contest champion Daequan Cook.

In 2014, Conley Jr. wrote in a Sports Illustrated for Kids article: “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.”

Father and son now fondly recall the time they had together through AAU summer basketball.

“I know how tough it is to not have him around,” Conley Jr. recently said. “And you’re just around your mom and your siblings all the time. But I was lucky enough, AAU basketball in the summertime, he would be back around and he was our coach. Very involved. Whether he was trying to make up for lost time or not, it meant the world to all of us kids to be able to spend time with him in the summertime. This game kind of brought us together.”

Said Conley Sr.: “Even within sports, you can teach life lessons. So, I got a chance to teach a lot of life lessons on the court because that’s where we spent most of our time. I attribute him being as tough as he is because he’ll play hurt and do all kinds of things. When I used to play him up when he was 8 years old, playing with the 10-, 11-year-olds, you can imagine how skinny he was.

“He’d get thrown all over the place and on the floor and his mom would be like, ‘Go see about him! Go see about him!’ And I would always let him lay there. And I was like, ‘Either he can walk, or he can’t, and he’ll figure it out.’ And I think from those points on, he never ever looked for sympathy as it pertained to injuries or anything like that.”

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mike Conley (left) drives to the basket against New York Knicks guard Josh Hart (right) during the first half on March 20 in New York.

Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

Now it’s Conley Jr.’s time to build a bond with his young sons. Conley Sr. says he has instilled in his son the importance of having quality time with his children. With the Timberwolves in the running for a playoff spot, it’s uncertain when his entire family will be reunited. Conley Sr. said he has been enjoying seeing Junior excel not only on the court, but off the court as a son and a father.

“As it pertains to the person he is, obviously his mom had a lot to do with that too. And I’ve always said this: Mike as good as a basketball player as he is, he’s a better son than he is basketball player,” Conley Sr. said. “I think I’ve instilled with him my competitive drive. [He’s] highly competitive. And I think you see that balance of emotion where he’s the same person pretty much in all situations, which I think helps him in those crisis moments on the floor.”

The Timberwolves (39-38) entered Friday in eighth place in the Western Conference standings. With Edwards and Towns back from injury, Conley Jr. is looking forward to seeing what his new team can do in the postseason.

“We can be pretty good. I’m holding my tongue a little bit on what we can achieve, but we understand that we have a lot of potential with this unit,” Conley Jr. said. “We’re a very deep team. We can win a bunch of different ways. I think that’s what makes us a little bit different than a lot of teams, we kind of play different styles. We can play big, we can play small, and we can defend one through five. We have a lot of guys who care about that end of the game. We’re just going to go out there and take it game by game and see how it goes.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.