• The Grizzlies are one of the NBA's premiere organizations in involving community engagement. Franchise cornerstones Marc Gasol and Mike Conley talked to The Crossover about representing the community and why being in Memphis is bigger than basketball.
By Karl Bullock
March 12, 2018

Philanthropy and altruism are the distinctive traits off the court the NBA has embraced heavily over the years. The humanitarian projects the league takes on across U.S. cities and globally is an extension of the NBA’s brand to elicit change as far as their arms reach will allow.

With outreach initiatives like Grizzlies Go Green, Samaritan’s Feet Shoe Drive and Black History Month celebrations, the Memphis Grizzlies symbolize efforts to donate, educate and raise awareness about the issues affecting communities league wide.

As part of their Hoops for St. Jude Month foundation, Grizzlies players Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Dillon Brooks and Mario Chalmers surprised patients at during the St. Jude Design Party at FedEx Forum.

Patients of St. Jude got an exclusive experience personalizing Nike sneakers with their own designs with the assistance of Memphis artist Jamond Bullock to bring their illustrations to life. Grizzlies players autographed the shoe creations made by patients.

Since 2009, the NBA has supported Hoops for St. Jude and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to educate and help the world understand how they treat and fight childhood cancer and other diseases. As part of the Hoops for St. Jude Week (March 11-17) the sneakers the kids design will be auctioned during the week which the Grizzlies have opted to continue for the remainder of the season.

NBA Power Rankings: These Raptors Are For Real

Grizzlies players will be wearing special sneakers autographed by each of the kids at games later this week.

At the end of the event, Mike Conley surprised each of the patients with their very own pair of Air Jordan 1’s.

Conley, along with Marc Gasol are the Grizzlies ambassadors for St. Jude and both have been working them since coming into the league.

The Crossover talked with Conley and Gasol after the event where the pair dished on community engagement, their on and off the court relationship and who changed the culture of style in the Grizzlies organization.

Memphis Grizzlies/Joe Murphy

Conley and Gasol on the length of their involvement with Hoops for St. Jude and being ambassadors.

MC: It was an easy decision to want to be a part of Hoops for St. Jude and St. Jude as a whole because of all the good work they’ve been doing for young people and the fight they have to go through in their lives. I’ve been a part of St. Jude the last 10 years since my career has started, and I’ve been an ambassador for the last four or five seasons. It’s something I’m passionate about and I want to be a part of every year going forward.

MG: My parents were both volunteers for St. Jude, my brother [Pau] is still an ambassador for them and I’ve been involved with St. Jude ever since I’ve been in Memphis. That’s quite some time. Since Day 1. My family has always been involved and St. Jude was fortunate enough to help us be involved with them and it’s been a great experience for all of us.

On what has been the most fulfilling part of working with St. Jude over the years.

MG: Oh man, so many stories, so many memories. People that you meet are inspiring. How much they teach you on how to fight, put things in perspective all the time. They don’t complain, they might feel tired or feel like they don’t have all the strength, but they continue and do not give up and they do it always with a smile on their face. St. Jude helps put the kids in a better situation, but obviously, the battle is not done yet. We do overcome sad stories, we continue to support it whichever way we can.

MC: Like how blessed you are to have an opportunity to meet these kids that are dealing with life-threatening things. I have no idea how to start to relate to these kids and how much you learn from them or what real fighters look like. You get so humble after meeting them. That’s cool to take away.

Their take on how proactive the NBA is as an organization and its perception to push the envelope on community engagement.

MC: Yeah, I think the NBA has done a great job of being in the community and reaching out in so many different ways. The NBA is so thoughtful and such a forward-thinking business. They think of all the ways to help and how to be involved in the community to help change the situations of the people in this world by being on the ground and being in front of people actually creating change. They know that. It’s great to be a part of an organization that believes in that and goes out and asks their players to do the same.

MG: I don’t like to compare sports. I think everybody chooses their strengths where they see they can help and make an impact. I’m sure the other sports do a lot of other things that basketball is not able to reach. As long as everybody has that mindset and willingness to be mindful of helping other people, I don’t think it’s really important where you help or the cost, it’s just being able to do that. I think we’ve done a great job obviously, you always want more. In this for the long haul, you’ll always be able to help more and continue to bring awareness to the issues that we have, but the job is not done, right? There’s still kids that don’t make it and we have to continue to improve that.

They dish on the culture of the Grizzlies organization to not only step out into the Memphis community, but become a part of it and if being a part of the Grizzlies is bigger than basketball.

MG: It’s part of the same thing right. For a long time, we made a commitment as a team, as a franchise to not only be a part of the community, but THE community and be all one. I think that’s why we have the support that we have from our fans because they don’t see us as somebody that supports the community. They see us a part of them. They see us trying to help in every way possible. We’ve been everywhere here and there’s a reason why we’ve been so successful. Even though we don’t have as many of the older guys that we had here in the past, we try to teach and show, by example, the younger players how important it is for their success, on the court, to support all the people in Memphis. Without the support of the people of Memphis these things are not going to happen. For that to happen you need to support the people in Memphis and show them you care about them. It goes both ways and we have the synergy between the Memphians and the Grizzlies for a long time, and we’ll continue to do it for as long as we can.

MC: Being a part of this community, seeing it firsthand, seeing how much we can create change and how much we can affect peoples daily lives is humbling. It’s an experience that you realize it’s not about what you do on the court. It’s bigger than the game and it’s bigger than you. It’s about spreading that awareness to those who might not have it and helping those who are afflicted by certain things.

On their relationship on and off the court that has developed since 2007 when they were drafted by the Grizzlies.

MC: Our relationship has been great since day one. As you know we grew as basketball players and we grew off the court as well. We grew as philanthropists, activists and different things we hold strong to our heart and we started putting our time into that. We’re now at the point that we’re trying to continue to inspire others to take the same path that we have be as forward and outspoken on different issues that we feel are necessary to be changed.

MG: You know me and Mike are friends on top of everything. We came here literally as a kid out of college. Now we are fathers and men. So, we made this whole run alongside one another. It’s been great. That’s what you want out of basketball. You want those relationships that happen organically because you give it all. I couldn’t be happier to share that ride with somebody like Mike because he’s just a great human being and somebody that I respect so much.

Scouting the NCAA Tournament: One NBA Prospect for All 68 Teams

Giving credit to whether Conley is the source behind shifting the style of fashion in the Grizzlies locker room.

MG: Yeah, I have no issue [laughs] giving credit. He was one that kinda first started it, at least for our team. At first it’s like what were you back in school? You look at a guy and you don’t see anything like ‘what’re you trying to do?’ Not negative, but you could be a little bit uncomfortable. Mike brought the style to the locker room. I think when the NBA first allowed players to be more creative and express themselves by the way they dress, I thought Mike was one of the first guys and a pioneer in a way. In a smaller market like Memphis, it’s not easy to make a name for yourself in that category and Mike did that.

MC: [laughs] Man, it’s cool. I wouldn’t take all the credit for it. We’ve had guys come through that changed the way a lot of our guys have come up dressing. I did have an impact on certain people on our team that eventually started taking their style a bit more serious. Once they did that, a lot of other people fall in as well. I mean I take a little bit of credit, but there were guys before me that inspired me as well. It’s cool to know guys see me in that manner.

On what their style is

MG: It depends on the day and how I feel. I don’t have a style that I go with everyday. It’s something that I like. Obviously, because my body is so long I like to balance that. There’s not a style I necessarily follow. There’s days I like to dress a little more longer stuff, more baggy or tighter stuff. It depends on the mood and the weather.

MC: My style I didn’t really take it from anybody or have inspiration from anything. I was sitting down with Brandon Williams and understanding how do you want to be perceived? I’m like I want to be perceived like myself. I just want to be me. I started dressing in the way that I felt. So, it was very simple stuff. It was clean looking, nothing outrageous, nothing too crazy. That’s just not my personality. I just wanted to dress like my personality. That was enough to draw attention in that manner. That’s why it felt like it wasn’t that much thought put into it. It was just me being me.

MG: My size doesn’t come off the rack [laughs]. I’m mostly online now, with platforms like Instagram you can contact other brands that you like and try to work something out, find pieces that you would fit. Sadly, there’s not as many companies that have longer size. You’re still having that battle these days. Now that everybody is wearing extra long stuff, now’s a good time for big and tall guys like me.

Conley talks about his recovery, the challenge of being out the entire season and how he tries to impact his teammates and the game from the bench.

MC: It’s definitely a challenge. I’m used to this situation where I don’t play more than 12 games in a season. It’s not normal by any means, but it’s a new experience for me. It’s a new challenge to try and be a leader a different way. For me, I try to effect the guys with my leadership, with my presence of being at practice. Any game I can attend. Well, home games I’m not allowed to travel on the road during the process of rehab. Just trying to be in constant contact and constantly in peoples ears, trying to motivate, trying to put their minds at rest from different issues they might be going through. That’s the only thing I can do is try to be there for them mentally and try to be that rock until I get back.