By Ben Cohen
Memphis – There are too many NBA games with too many close officiating calls for a player not to occasionally snap at a referee and receive a technical foul. It happens to nearly everyone—except Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley.
Conley has never earned a technical foul in his entire life. Not in the NBA. Not in college. Not in high school, summer tournaments or any other level of organized basketball. The league’s highest-paid player is also its most polite.
It’s almost impossible to be in the league as long as Conley and completely avoid unsportsmanlike conduct. Conley has played about 23,000 minutes over the last decade. That is 43% more than anyone else in the NBA without a tech, according to Stats LLC. No one with as much experience as Conley has anything close to a clean record. The average number of career technical fouls for those players: 39. In fact, according to their rate of techs per minutes played, Conley should have 24 by now.
“Well, I’m way below that,” he said.
As the NBA’s oldest player, Vince Carter has the perspective to appreciate Conley’s streak. He told Memphis rookies about their teammate’s pristine behavior in the preseason, and Carter remains so impressed by his record that he recently shook Conley’s hand simply because it crossed his mind.
“It’s unbelievable,” Carter said. “He’s mastered the ability to approach the referee in a civil, sane way in a hostile moment.”
What makes Conley such an outlier is the correlation between how good a player is and how many techs he gets. Every one of the seven players with more than 13 this season was an All-Star. DeMarcus Cousins alone had 18—more than the combined total of all the San Antonio Spurs and their coach Gregg Popovich.
The truth is that a long career means a lot of technical fouls. Dirk Nowitzki has played more than anyone in the league and has distinguished himself as a global ambassador for the sport. Nowitzki also leads active players in career technical fouls, according to ESPN’s statistics, which is a surprise even to referees. “Get the heck outta here,” said retired NBA official Steve Javie.
Conley especially could afford the $2,000 fine that would come with his first technical foul. Last summer, he signed a five-year, $153 million deal, the richest in NBA history. He lived up to expectations this season by scoring more than ever—and extending his run without a tech past 700 games. It may be the most ostentatious thing about him.
His demeanor comes from Mike Conley Sr., the gold medalist in triple jump at the 1992 Olympics, who has a similar personality. When he coached his son’s childhood basketball teams, Conley Sr. said, he received a single technical foul. His outburst consisted of two one-syllable words: “Oh no.”
Conley Sr. raised his son to keep calm by making him play against older kids from a young age, and his resulting disposition is particularly useful for a point guard. “He would get thrown left and right and end up laying on the ground, and his mom would always tell me to go out and get him,” Conley Sr. said. “I would never go out and get him.”
It only got worse in high school. Conley Jr. played in one unforgettable game for which thousands of fans arrived hours in advance while hundreds were turned away at the door. The game itself was even more chaotic. “We’ve seen seven-car pileups with less violence,” one Indianapolis columnist wrote afterward.
In the first half, Conley took an elbow to the head during a dead ball. In the second half, Conley was tackled on a layup. His defender fell on top of him, and then another defender fell on both of them.
They wanted to goad Conley into getting kicked out. But they picked the wrong person to bait.
“He just laid there and let them be idiots,” said Jack Keefer, Conley’s high-school coach.
Conley still relies on that training more often than he might like. Two years ago, he fractured bones around his left eye. This year, he fractured vertebrae in his back. In the upcoming playoffs, he’ll be playing with gnarly stitches after a recent collision on the court opened a cut above his right eye. “I got used to being pushed down, getting my eye split open and guys talking trash,” Conley said. “You have to learn to live with it and adapt to it. That’s what I did.”
He’s now the leader of a team that protects him. The Grizzlies play by the mantra “grit and grind,” and it has become such an embedded mentality that even the arena’s trash cans say: “Grit. Grind. Recycle.” Conley’s teammates take care of him when they sense that Memphis could use a strategic technical foul. “I told him I’ll be the one to get the technicals for him for what he wants to say,” Carter said.