The Utah Jazz point guard is now back in the bubble after going home to be with Mary for the birth of their third son, so the Conleys' journey has had some extra twists and turns this summer.
With the COVID-19 pandemic changing how we do, well, everything, the NBA was forced to come up with a new game plan to finish their 2019-2020 season.
The solution—the much-discussed bubble—saw some 300 players from the league's top 22 teams sequestered in one of three Disney World resorts for up to three months as they strive to be crowned champions of this long, strange season.
But what about the those on the outside feeling as if their bubble had burst? With their partners locked down in Florida, scores of women have been left to navigate work responsibilities, bedtime routines, middle-of-the-night feedings, meal prep and, in some cases, even childbirth without their teammate. And now they're speaking exclusively with E! News about that new normal. These are their basketball diaries.
Mike Conley Jr. always planned to leave the NBA bubble so that he could be back home in Ohio for the birth of his third child.
It's just that the baby had a different plan.
Mary Conley went into labor on Aug. 16, 11 days early and certainly before the Utah Jazz point guard expected to leave Orlando—where 22 teams resumed their suspended season last month after the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down in March—and Mike was still en route to the hospital in Columbus when his son was born, so he ended up watching the delivery via FaceTime.
Just one more major event taking place on video chat these days.
"In the words of our oldest son, 'Welcome to the world Lightning Thunder Michael Alex Conley'!" the 35-year-old athlete wrote on Instagram. "We settled on Elijah Michael Conley instead.. close enough though. What an awesome reminder of what's important in life and what motivates us to be better! #mommydidgreat #blessed."
Happily, it wasn't too much longer before he was at his wife's side, cuddling his newborn son (they had waited till his arrival to find out the sex) and enjoying skin-to-skin bonding, after which the family of five—Elijah joining big brothers Myles, 4, and Noah, 2—made the most of the time they had together before Dad had to go back to work. (Where Mike, who was averaging 18 points and five assists in the bubble before he went on leave, was required to quarantine for at least four days, pending daily negative COVID tests, before he could rejoin his teammates in the first round of the playoffs.)
"You know, signing up to be a wife of an NBA player, you are prepared for your spouse, your significant other, to leave, to travel, to be gone for long periods of time," Mary shared in an exclusive interview with E! News about a week before she welcomed Elijah. "And that was something I was always mentally prepared for. Having him gone for months at a time was something that I was not ever prepared for."
And to be honest, she said, "when COVID first started, I felt really bad for all the women who were due to have babies during that time and you know whether their spouse couldn't be there, or they were only allowed one person [in the hospital]. I was so grateful, selfishly, that I wasn't having my baby in the early spring. Well, here we are in August and COVID is still affecting everybody and affecting me big time with them in the bubble."
And even when the NBA's bubble plan finally took shape as a reality, "I thought I would get to go early," Mary said. "I thought they would make an exception since we had the baby coming."
As in, the league would have to let some family members in who were going through life events that called for the players to be with their partners, and she could give birth in Orlando—but no. For teams that make it to round two of the playoffs, a certain number of guests per player will start being allowed into the hotels and arenas, where their husbands have been mainly only hanging out with each other and playing in front of largely empty stands. (Families of crew members and coaching staff will still be watching on a screen.)
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So, with that hope dashed, Mary figured she could handle four to six weeks, and if the Jazz kept winning she'd pack up the boys and head to Orlando.
"At the beginning it was okay, just because I was with my in-laws, I was with my parents, and just trying to stay as busy as possible and try not to think about it," she recalled. "But then, once we're just back home and [going about] everyday life, it's actually much harder than I thought it was."
In a pre-labor interview that got sweetly emotional ("I knew going into this I was gonna cry at some point because I cry…It's hard to go a day without crying, honestly"), Mary Conley told E! News all about what it's been like keeping her family connected with Mike in the bubble, trying to make their sons feel better about missing Daddy while she was dealing with her own emotional overload and how she was tending to her mind and body while nine months pregnant.
"Thank goodness FaceTime exists now," Mary said. "So pretty much, I would say 95 percent of our calls are FaceTime rather than a regular phone call, especially with the kids that they can see him." On a road trip in normal times, they might FaceTime once, but nowadays, they're checking in three to five times a day—"in the morning when [Mike] wakes up, he says hello after practice, before nap time to say hello."
Those efforts at least make it feel "like he's kind of here," she said. Then he'll read to Myles and Noah at night, having discovered the Caribou app, which makes reading books via video chat more interactive. "It's the boys' favorite thing," Mary shared. "They don't want me to read at all anymore, like, [I'll say] 'Daddy will read a book and then I'll read a book.' No, they're like, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy," and I'm like, 'Alright, Daddy. It's all you!' We try and find time in between meetings and, you know, one game got in the way but not too many, so he gets to sing little songs that they like before bed—all on FaceTime, which is really, really nice.'"
"We laugh whenever I'm pregnant cuz I'm an emotional person anyway, and you turn these hormones and then you throw in, I know him being gone and it's just like I, I like to see him on FaceTime and I cry," Mary said of her college sweetheart and husband of six years. He'll ask what's wrong, and her reply is, "'Seeing your face makes me miss you, hearing your voice makes me miss you.' It's awful on my end but, you know, I just laugh at it."
While Mary, founder of the lifestyle site Living LeReve, would have at least brought a nice candle or a framed photograph on her travels to make her hotel room more homey, Mike…
Well, Mike is a guy. She at least encouraged her husband to unpack so he wasn't living out of suitcases for a month.
But she and the boys are on the case. "We've sent him two care packages so far," she said, "so I'd probably say every two weeks, we'll send him a little something with snacks, a picture, little things, you know how the boys make some things. The first one I put an ultrasound photo of the new baby in there, and the boys both drew a picture, and I had them write a message that I wrote out for them. And then this past one, we sent a few more little snacks and a framed photo of our family so he could put it somewhere…
"I just think that that's probably really important to them [the players], to have some sort of connection. Plus, it's fun to get like a little surprise box—who doesn't like that?!"
She and her boys always watched Mike's games, but now 4-year-old Myles is getting more into it.
He "understands it a little bit more, so it's much more enjoyable to watch the game with him," Mary said. "Both [he and Noah] get really excited and they know it's the white team or the blue team [depending on if the Jazz are wearing home or away uniforms] and who we want to score and things like that, so it's just fun to see." She had Mike record some videos talking about upcoming games, "so if we can't get a hold of him I can play it for the boys, so that they think they're talking to him. He'll say, like, 'Hey, I have a game today, I'm going to see you when I'm on the TV, so make sure you wave to me.'"
So, she continued, "even though he's not actually waving at the boys, you know, they get really excited so it's a little more interactive."
They missed celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary on July 5 together, but Mike didn't forget, writing to his wife on Instagram, "Happy 6th Anniversary! We are so blessed to have our beautiful kids all of our loved ones who have molded us into who we are! Can't wait for baby #3 in August! This bubble won't keep me from that!"
Though they sort of commemorated all the summer birthdays in the family with a little party in June, Mike was away when Myles turned 4 this month. Naturally, he saw the singing and the indoor scavenger hunt Mary arranged via FaceTime, but she felt bad telling their son that Dad couldn't be home for his birthday.
"I was more upset that he was missing Myles's birthday than I was any of the other events," she shared. "Just because Myles is getting to an age where he knows who is missing—I'll probably cry again talking about it." They were getting ready for the party and she was telling him how his grandma and some aunts, uncles and cousins would be there (though nothing too big, due to the ongoing need to social-distance).
"And," she recalled, "he's like, 'And daddy?' and I was like, 'Oh, no, Daddy can't make it right now because, remember, he gets away for basketball?' And he said, 'Do you think he could come next year?'…It's just so sad that he had asked if his dad could come to his birthday party. So that broke my heart."
Health and wellness are essential parts of Mary's daily life, pregnant or not, and when she spoke to E! News, she was still working out in her 38th week.
"I definitely can't run but we went on a walk this morning," she said. "It just clears my head and makes me feel good. I know it's good for the baby, it's good for my body, and can hopefully make me have a better delivery as well. I know that's something that I focus on a lot, because [giving birth] takes a lot of strength. I had a c-section with my first and I had a vaginal birth with my second—and after that I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I had no idea that it took that much strength to get a baby out.' It was mind-blowing. But I was very thankful that I worked out."
When it comes to her food choices, "if you want to indulge do, but you just can't all the time," Mary, who graduated from Ohio State with a degree in biology, advised.
The body may demand 300 more calories when you're pregnant, she said, but it's best to supplement one's diet more consistently with snacks such as nuts and yogurt or apples and peanut butter than with just anything.
Then again, she added, "that first trimester, the only breakfast I wanted was bacon, egg and cheese on a croissant." Which she'd then have, but would balance it with lighter foods for the rest of the day.
"Eat what you want so you're not thinking about it all day long, but at the same time," Mary said, "it's important to balance your diet."
Mary's middle name is LeReve, which was her grandmother's name, and that's how she came up with the name for her site, Living LeReve—literally, "living the dream."
"I just want everyone to do that for themselves," she explained, "no matter what you're doing or how you're doing it, something that is making you happy that is fulfilling in life. So, that's what I did and kind of everything I share on it is meaningful to me." At first she was surprised to find out how much she had in common with so many of her readers as a wife, mom and businesswoman, and now she relishes connecting with people from all over the world.
She's also been able to hear more about the perception some people have about so-called basketball wives, the presumption being that they live privileged, pampered lives thanks to their husbands' huge contracts, the end. (Mike signed a five-year deal said to be worth $153 million with the Grizzlies in 2016.)
"I thought for sure that everyone just assumed that because he's signed a big contract and we have a lot of money, that we buy a lot of things and live a luxurious life and don't have to work hard or don't have to do much," Mary said. And she was curious about how she was coming off, on her site and social media.
"That's where we share so much but that's where it gets so tricky, because it seems like we share a lot but it actually is only a small small fraction of who we are, in what we do in our everyday lives," she noted. "And I was blown away at all the positive responses…Even just [the ones that say] how much you seem to love your kids and enjoy being a mom and support your husband and love to be outside—like everything that I truly feel is what they said they saw through social media, so I was really happy about that."
"And," she continued, "I do worry a lot about the misconception of athlete families and wives and stuff like that, but I think I hope it's getting better. I feel like it kind of goes in waves, of how we dress at games and how we are looked at, what we say and things like that, but I've just met so many incredible women who are like me—really really good friends today that I'm so thankful for and I can't imagine not having them in my life or people saying negative things about them, or anything like that, so I'm very lucky."
Mary's mom, a retired pediatric nurse who "knows anything and everything," lives about and hour and a half away but was planning to come up and stay once the baby was born to help out, and Mary's got her sister nearby in Columbus.
"She's easy to call and is incredible, so she'll be around a lot," Mary said of her sister. "She's a teacher right now, so her job is up in the air. If they're starting, when they're starting, how they're starting—so around the due date she should be around, but also she's on call. She came over at four in the morning during my last pregnancy to come be with Myles while we went to the hospital. We have a regular sitter who started back up in August." And they have "a really good family friend, and she is also a teacher but was able to take some time off work to come help us out, which is amazing, so the boys love her."
Mary was used to Mike having to be away for days at a time on road trips, but this has been a whole new ballgame.
"Partially because the kids, they're constantly like 'Where's daddy? Where is he?' and I miss him too," she told E! News. "My oldest son hates when I cry and when they cry, I always cry. So I just have to explain to them that it's okay to be sad and…. It's a good thing when you miss somebody, that shows how much you love them, so we're definitely getting through it.
Processing that their father is at Disney World and they aren't is a little weird for them, she added. "They're like, 'Oh I've been there before. Why can't I go?' They're always asking when is he gonna be home, and they don't have a sense of time yet. So if I say, you know, three to four weeks," the countdown to three weeks begins.
Plus, at the time, more change was on the horizon: "We have to very carefully navigate how we are going to bring Michael home, bring the baby home, and make sure everybody gets the right amount of attention for the few days that we have before he leaves again."
Their plan for Mike to be back in time for the birth already rested on the assumption that labor would take awhile. (Never mind that son Noah also arrived a week early…)
Mary told E! that the idea was to call him as soon as she felt the first signs of labor coming on, and he'd rush to the airport. "I'm not keen on the idea of scheduling an induction or C-section," she explained. "I just prefer to let my body naturally do what it's ready to do, which makes things a little tricky because they don't have the time, as opposed to if I scheduled something." She acknowledged that it made logistics "a little trickier, but we both know what we're comfortable with and what's gonna be best for my body."
The then-mother of two noted, "Labor takes a while anyways so I would think, hopefully, we'd have, like, eight to 10 hours… We feel good about the way we're going to do it."
Fast-forward less than two weeks and Mary is marveling over how quickly Elijah popped out.
"It broke my heart that Michael wasn't able to make it for the actual birth but we waited as long as possible and the baby was just ready to come!" she shared with E! News by email five days after Elijah was born. "Thank goodness for FaceTime, which sounds so weird to say. Michael was able to be there virtually and I was able to see him and hear his voice, which was really encouraging."
Reuniting at the hospital "was probably more surreal for him since he missed the last couple of months of my pregnancy, and now here we are with a baby."
They only had to spend one night in the hospital before she and Mike brought the baby home to his "beyond excited" big brothers—"and then to find out their daddy was coming home too was just perfection," she told us. "Just picturing the boys running to see Michael makes me cry, it was really beautiful."
She continued, "To keep the beauty going, we then got Elijah out of the car and the boys were so sweet with him. I knew our oldest would be and I was surprised at how sweet and gentle Noah did with him, he has stepped into the big brother role very nicely."
Ultimately Mike only ended up spending about 24 hours in Ohio in order to get back to Orlando to make sure he was ready to suit up for at least some first-round playoff games, factoring in four days of quarantine. Mary said it was actually easier taking him to the airport this time than it was when he first left, "because I knew everything was okay, the baby was here and perfect, and everyone was doing well. I had also mentally prepared myself for him going back to the bubble after the baby was born, which helped. My heart still aches."
She was also worried about how Myles and Noah would handle having to say goodbye to their dad again so quickly, "but they did way better than we both thought," she said. "I think having the new addition to our family was a great distraction!" And now, "they want [Elijah] everywhere they go. At night when we go back to read books, they always want the baby to come with us. He's usually sleeping and I'd prefer to leave him as is so I can focus on our bedtime routine, but I know his presence is really important to them.
"They love to hold him and give him kisses, Noah is great at singing him songs and Myles loves to tell him stories. The second he makes a fuss or a slight cry they are the first to tell me the baby needs to eat!"
On the question of whether she thought bubble life was harder for her on the outside, or for her husband, who is away from his family and has to abide by the strict protocol in place, Mary—in the interview before she gave birth—simply said it was difficult for both of them, but not necessarily in the same way.
She compared going off to the bubble to a player getting traded—as Mike was last summer, to the Jazz, after 12 seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that drafted him out of Ohio State in 2007 following his freshman year—and being "taken away from their hometown, their city, their family, whatever it is." But, she observed, they still have a team, a coach, and a routine that they follow that keeps them busy. It's a job.
"We don't have that schedule to keep us busy," Mary pointed out. "I don't know, I would have to ask him and see. You know, he's taken away from all of us, his wife, his home, his dog, all of that—when at least I have my kids in the home. You know he's missing [us] but we have more downtime to think about how we are missing him, so I think it's probably equal but just in different ways."
But even when this weird NBA postseason ends and Mike returns home, life won't just bounce back to normal. He may have to quarantine again and, who knows, will the next NBA season begin in a bubble too?
They "kind of have an idea" of what to expect when this unprecedented season is over, Mary said, but everyone's learning as they go along.
As for next year (or later this year, with the 2020-2021 season now set to start Dec. 1), "I just can't imagine them taking these guys away from their families [again] for as long as they have," she told us. "I just don't think that's right and I don't think that the players would want to do that, either."
At the very least, she hopes that they'll "have the logistics of the bubble figured out" so that families can be together—if a bubble is necessary. "I mean," she added, "fingers crossed that's not the case."
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