Grizzlies' Mike Conley, after the fall
Before the pain came the daze. Whatever messages Mike Conley’s brain had hoped to convey to the rest of his body in the moment were drowned out by all the ringing. Conley fell to his knees as if the sound itself had crushed him, and lowered his head to the court in an attempt to quiet it. There was no use. “The ringing was just…constant,” Conley said.
Weeks later he looks wearied by the mere memory of it. A collision with the forearm of Blazers guard C.J. McCollum during Game 3 of the Grizzlies’ first-round series had turned Conley’s skull into a percussion instrument. The sensation of the hit resonated so strongly that it left him disabled for minutes. Conley closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he found his nose was streaming blood without it suffering any kind of direct hit. Then came the worry.
Oh man, Conley thought. This isn’t good. His fears were loud enough to pierce through the ringing.
Conley was attended to and gathered by Memphis trainer Drew Graham and a host of concerned teammates. Together they ushered him from the floor. This is where the public experience of Conley’s night ended. The game itself, only in the third quarter, continued on. Conley’s absence was noted and felt but pushed to the background as the Grizzlies aimed to take a commanding 3-0 series lead. All the while, deep in the Moda Center’s interior, team doctors pored over every inch of Conley’s head in search of damage.
“They were feeling around my orbital bone and cheekbone and they felt that it was caved in,” Conley said. He was told that he may have a blowout fracture—a break in the bone framing that contains his eye—but that a full, immediate diagnosis could only be done at the hospital. Conley showered and gathered his things as quickly as his state would allow and was shuttled off to find clarity.
By feeling around his face, the team’s medical staff could only tell Conley so much. A CAT scan would offer a more detailed view, and—in this particular case—a scope of damage that Conley hadn’t even considered.
“After I got the CAT scan, they told me I did have a blowout fracture,” Conley said. “I had three fractures at that point: one under my eye, one on the side of my eyebrow, and then there was one that was a displaced fracture almost where my jaw is.” Doctors also told Conley that he had very nearly broken his jaw and likely had a broken nose.
“Okay, well, thanks for all that,” Conley quips in his retelling. The good news, insofar as there can be any good news at all when breaking what amounts to the entire left side of your face, was that surgery looked like a promising possibility once the swelling reduced. Alternative solutions involved hoping for the best after 2-3 months of recovery without the slightest guarantee. A hopeful timetable for his non-surgical mending would put Conley back in action in July—a full month behind the crowning of an NBA champion.
“[Surgery] was the only option,” Conley said. “If it was the quickest one for me to play, that's the one I was gonna do. I just wanted to do whatever I could to get back out there.”
While in a hospital bed, Conley could see—through hazy vision and only in short doses—exactly what he was missing. Put a point guard, a trainer, and a team doctor in a room together during their own team’s playoff game and their collective anxieties may well tune a TV like a remote control. Focusing for too long on the screen only intensified the throbbing pain in Conley's head. Yet his viewing party kept him plugged in by tracing the works on the floor and the announcing the Grizzlies’ lead as the game wound down. Memphis would win Game 3, 115-109.
The moment’s pause in the hospital was also Conley’s first reminder of the fact that he lives in a larger world. He checked his phone for the first time that night to find it glutted with the attention of friends and family. He called his wife and mother, as one must. He read what few messages the stinging pain in his head would allow. The vast majority of his messages, though, went unanswered for days. You’ll find no clearer communication of Conley’s pain level. The 27-year-old is almost impossibly polite; to let well wishes sit idly in his inbox must have brought his nagging conscience to agony.
It was jointly decided that Conley’s surgery would take place in Memphis. The immediate swelling so complicated the potential procedure that the doctors thought it best to wait it out. Moreover, the transition from surgical table to post-op recovery tends to be simpler when not interrupted by a multi-hour flight through a highly pressurized cabin. The comforts of charter flight are no match for the human body’s natural response to being sliced open and shifted around.
To accommodate that timeline, Conley would have to spend a night in Portland without repair. He was given strict instructions: Keep elevated (as to reduce swelling), sit up straight, avoid leaning on the left side (to ensure the swelling didn’t extend further toward the eye), follow a specific regimen of alternating ice packs and masks in 15-minute cycles, and make sure to take the prescribed pain medication. It seemed he would need the pills most of all.
“[The pain] was excruciating, to be honest,” Conley said. “But it was interesting because my pain wasn’t necessarily up [near my eye]. It was my mouth and my jaw and my teeth. I couldn’t feel any of my teeth or the back side of my jaw. So I couldn’t really open my mouth to talk. It hurt so bad. That was the only thing my mind was on.”
Conley’s jaw was in such a state that he could only attempt to eat tiny servings of apple sauce. It would have to do. He ate what he could and followed the rules to the letter. His body had other plans; whether due to how little he could choke down, the strength of his painkiller’s dosage, or a combination thereof, Conley spent his night revisiting every bit of food or drink he dared to put in his system.
“That night, I was throwing up,” Conley said. “And every time I threw up—because when you do it, you can't really control this—I'd have to open my mouth. It would just kill me because I couldn't really open my mouth. Then, all of a sudden, blood would come out of my nose and I was like: I think I'm dying. It was crazy.”
To have one’s fractured face and misaligned jaw repeatedly taken over by the involuntary spasm of vomiting sounds like a heartless sort of torture. Conley’s default state was already one of misery. His body then responded for hours with exactly the sort of physical convulsion that would trigger raw, horrific pain. Conley, sitting upright with an ice pack to his face in between his trips to the bathroom, didn’t sleep a wink.
Even Conley’s best efforts could only do so much to reduce the swelling that comes with such significant structural damage. By morning his left eye had swollen shut—confirming the need for Conley’s planned follow-up with an eye doctor in Portland. Throughout, Conley was confident that he had avoided any lasting damage to his eye. His vision was sharp the night prior, despite the fact that the surrounding bones had been a landing pad for McCollum’s elbow.
“The only reason I was a little worried is because once the swelling started getting bad, my eye was shut,” Conley said. “It was shutting and I didn't know what it'd be like once I was able to open my eye or if it would be different. It was a little frustrating. I had to get my eye dilated a few times and make sure everything was reacting right.”
Once cleared, Conley was driven to meet up with his teammates for the first time since leaving the court the night prior. His eye was black and swollen, his cheek puffy, his orbital bone visibly dented. All of which, naturally, looked perfectly normal according to Tony Allen. Zach Randolph saw a teammate who not only took the worst of a hit to the face, but did so on top of the foot, wrist, and miscellaneous injuries that had hampered Conley throughout the year.
“You can’t catch a break, little bruh,” Randolph told him. To be fair, Conley had caught three, maybe four, and almost five—all suffered in the space of a single collision.
That would soon be remedied. Hours later, Conley’s plane touched down in Memphis in preparation for his surgery. His wife, Mary, retrieved her husband from the airport with what Conley insists was relief.
“She was just so happy that it wasn't anything worse,” Conley said. “...But still it was pretty bad.”
Together they went home and had something vaguely approximating a normal night, in that Conley’s body seemed slightly more receptive to both food and medicinal help. In no way would his jaw allow for a normal eating experience. But that Conley was able to get any food down whatsoever was a relative victory under the circumstances. He settled in to sleep (or whatever sleep-like state can be achieved while sitting up straight) around midnight to awaken five hours later. His surgery was at 6:37 AM, a time Conley recalled to the minute off the top of his head.
“They let me know that [the surgery would] be close to an hour or so,” Conley said. “That obviously I'd be under [anesthesia], that they'll have to make incisions outside of my eyelid and fold it back, and one on my eyebrow. Then they were giving me possibilities like, 'If this is an issue, we may have to go through your mouth, under your lip, and make an incision there.' So they were giving me all the what-ifs, all this stuff. I was comfortable, I trusted them, and they did a great job.”
A successful surgery, in this case, meant installing a metal plate and four screws into the bone beneath Conley’s eye, along with another plate and three more screws on the side of the orbital bone. His jaw had been realigned to heal more naturally, though weeks later he still didn’t have much feeling in his teeth and jaw. He’s been told that feeling will return and that his jaw will heal in time. "As long as I don’t get smashed again," Conley said.
With the completion of Conley’s surgery also came new rules—including the utterly terrifying instruction not to sneeze under any circumstances—and conditions that bordered on purgatorial.
“It sucked because with the anesthesia and all those things, I was sick,” Conley said. “I was just constantly going from my bed to the toilet, from my bed to the toilet and throwing up. I wasn’t eating, still, so I was just constantly sitting in a bed, with my eyes closed, in the dark. I didn't have any lights, no sound, because all that stuff was hurting my head. I was literally sitting there for 12 hours in the bed, not moving.”
Conley did this for days. Doctors weren’t able to give him any kind of definite timetable for recovery; it’s not as if he had pulled a hamstring or tweaked an ankle. Everything depended on Conley’s own swelling and senses, and those were reassessed regularly. Days went by without Conley participating in any basketball activity. He was left, literally, in the dark, with his isolation-chamber recovery interrupted only so that he could take in Game 5 from a box at the FedEx Forum.
“I was worried,” Conley said. “There wasn't a date. There wasn't [an indication] that you're going to be out from this date to that date. It was just: You need to have surgery, right now, to fix this. Then we'll be able to gauge after that.”
Conley paused, then added: “I hate the unknown.”
Yet for a time, Conley had no choice but to live in it. All he could do was wait for the swelling to subside and for his head to allow for the kind of movement and sensory overload that come with playing NBA basketball. The Grizzlies refused to rule him out. Conley traveled with the team for the start of their conference semifinal series against Golden State. He sat out Game 1, still affected by the lights and noise of the arena while sitting on the bench.
When Conley took to the court for Game 2, however, he consistently found the means to bring Oracle Arena—one of the craziest venues in the league—into a calming silence. His every jumper and floater en route to Memphis' surprising victory brought quiet. The game, at times, is its own therapy.