The weeks leading up to the NBA’s February trade deadline were anxious times for Mike Conley and his wife, Mary. They had spent the past three-and-a-half years in Utah, making a home in Salt Lake City for their three children while Mike pursued a championship with the talent-laden Jazz. They had found the perfect neighborhood, filled with similarly aged children for their kids to play with, made friends in the organization and the community, and with Mike at 35, could envision what life would look like in Utah even after his playing days were over.
But one by one, they had watched the core of the Jazz depart. Donovan Mitchell traded to Cleveland. Rudy Gobert shipped to Minnesota. Bojan Bogdanović sent to Detroit. Suddenly, Conley was one of the last vets standing in Utah’s rebuilding plan. Even though the Jazz had been surprisingly competitive through the first three months of that 2022-23 season, Mike and Mary knew they could be next out the door.
Conley stayed in constant communication with his agent and would even bend the ear of a journalist or two to see what they were hearing about the rumor mill. He kept a close eye on the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers, two playoff-hopeful teams in need of a veteran point guard. But as the deadline grew nearer and nearer, there was little tangible sign that the Jazz had anything substantive cooking, so the family started to settle into the idea that they would stay in Utah … at least for the rest of the season.
“It seemed like nothing was happening on the other teams,” Mike Conley said. “I was like, ‘We’re going to be in Utah.’ ”
On Feb. 8, one day before the trade deadline, Conley started going through his normal midday routine at his home in Utah before heading to the arena for a game that night against Minnesota. While playing the video game “Call of Duty” with teammates Malik Beasley and Kelly Olynyk, he heard Beasley through his headset starting a curious conversation.
What? Say what? Me to L.A.? Oh, man. Me and Vando to L.A., and Mike to Minnesota? The trade deadline can be a hectic time of year. Rumors flying everywhere. Conley did not know who Beasley was speaking to, but he started texting his agent, just in case this one had legs. In a day and age where players will often learn about trades through social media, Conley had the news broken to him by Beasley while on a video game. The Jazz traded their vet leader to Minnesota with Nickeil Alexander-Walker in a three-team deal that brought Russell Westbrook (briefly), Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damian Jones to Utah and sent Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt and D’Angelo Russell to the Lakers.
“I was like, ‘Whoa! We play them tonight. I’m going to the arena in like 30 minutes,’ ” Conley said.
Conley’s arrival in Minnesota has been a revelation for the Timberwolves. From the moment he landed, he has helped stabilize a team in desperate need of a steady hand on the wheel. With Conley at the helm this season, the Timberwolves have been one of the league’s biggest surprises. They are 11-3 and in first place in the Western Conference, the best start in franchise history. And Conley is the 36-year-old straw who is stirring the drink.
“It’s probably the best situation for me at this stage of my career,” he said. “Not only do we have a team that can be competitive to a contending team in no time, but I also get to be a part of that, like I’m not being thrown to the side where they say, ‘Hey, you know, you’re done playing. You’re not going to play much. It’s a leadership role.’ ”
The Conleys have settled nicely in Minnesota, their third stop in Mike’s 17-year career. But those early days of transition last winter were not easy. The NBA is the most transaction-obsessed league in American sports. Fans tinker with online trade machines like they’re running a front office. Teams are hyperactive in wheeling and dealing, shipping players around the league. Lost in the analysis of the deals, the celebration of a new player’s arrival and the rampant rumormongering of who is going and who is staying is the human toll exacted on those in the middle of it all.
Conley had been traded before, in the summer of 2019, when Memphis sent him to Utah. At the time, his oldest son, Myles, was just 2. Now they are a family of five. Myles is 7, Noah is 5 and Elijah is 3. They had friends in Utah. Myles and Noah were in school. The timing of the move coming during the season meant they would be without their dad for an extended period while he went to play for Minnesota. Mary and the kids would stay back in Utah to finish the school year.
“There were all these unknowns of us starting over,” Mary said. “When we got traded the first time, the kids were so little, it was just me. So it didn’t affect them as much. But now, this time, it’s like I have to start thinking about a school, sports, pediatricians, dentists, everything.” The Conleys have settled into their new digs in Minnesota after the trade from Utah. (Taylor Nardinger / Minnesota Timberwolves)
The Conleys were at ease enough with their situation in Utah on Feb. 8 that Mary decided to go forward with a planned trip from Utah to New York City with Spencer Hardy, wife of Jazz head coach Will Hardy, and several other friends from the organization. Her flight was in the air when her cell phone suddenly started buzzing with text messages.
I’m so mad right now. Oh my gosh! I think it happened. Mary was sitting right next to Hardy as the messages started pouring in, tears gushing from her eyes and panic pulsing through her body. She couldn’t call Mike. She couldn’t hug her children and explain to them what was happening. Minnesota had never really entered their minds as a possible destination. She was a mom and a wife stuck 30,000 feet in the air and hurtling in the exact opposite direction from where she needed to be.
“I just lost it,” Mary said, her eyes welling again seven months later as she sat on a couch in the couple’s suburban Minneapolis home. “It’s hard not to cry now because it was such an emotional time. And I think what made it really hard is because we weren’t together.”
Shortly after hearing about the possibility of the deal, Conley headed to the Jazz arena to investigate the situation. What followed was a whirlwind made even more unique by the fact that his new team was, by some crazy coincidence, at the same arena preparing to play the Jazz. Conley got dressed and went through some Jazz warmups to find some kind of normalcy. But when it became clear that the deal was going to go through, he showered, said some goodbyes to teammates and Jazz staff and headed for the door.
On his way out, he bumped into former Timberwolves equipment manager Peter Warden, who introduced himself and started to prepare him for the transition. He asked Conley what size shirt he wore, prompting Conley to smile at the seeming mundanity of the question as his world was turning upside down.
At the time of the trade, the Wolves were 29-28, a record far below expectations after they pulled off one of the biggest trades of the summer of 2022 when they landed Rudy Gobert from Utah for five players and a bevy of draft picks. They needed Conley, who had extensive experience playing with Gobert, and they needed him right now. Fans often dismiss the human element of these transactions, justifying it by the extraordinary salaries that so many of them command. But all the money in the world couldn’t take the initial sting away for Conley.
“You can make a lot of money, but if you get punched in the face, you’re still like, ‘Oh my God, that hurt,’ ” he said. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. But at this moment, it’s hurting me. So let me feel this for a second here and then move on.”
Conley headed back home to his children, who were being watched by Mary’s mother. He remembers a surreal scene of sitting on the couch with them while the Jazz and Timberwolves were playing on…