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Wednesday 24 April 2019
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THE CONLEYS: Love and Basketball

Story by JEFF WHITTEN
Photos by NATALIE MCALISTER

Hollywood sometimes mirrors real life. Sometimes it’s the other way
around, and real life inspires Hollywood. And sometimes the one
doesn’t have anything to do with the other, it just seems that way.

In this case, if you’ve seen Love and Basketball, then you’ll
know where this story is kind of headed, because both Roderick Conley
and Nikki Kerr Conley grew up loving basketball and then fell in love
and got married.

But forget the handful of differences between plot and real life.
And so what if the location is Georgia and not Los Angeles? Roderick
and Nikki say the movie is them, that they’re the real-life Love and
Basketball, and who’s to argue?

Now if you haven’t seen the movie, that reference obviously
doesn’t work. That doesn’t make the real-life story, the Conleys’
story, less worth the telling. It’s still a great story, still a love
story about two Atlanta kids who grow up and go to high school about
10 miles apart — Nikki to Druid Hills, where she’s a basketball star
who goes on to play at Fort Valley State University and later get a
Masters’ at the University of South Carolina — and Roderick to
Shamrock, where he also becomes a basketball standout and goes on to
play at Fort Valley after a stop at a community college first, then a
transfer to Piedmont College, where he graduates.

Yet unlike the movie, where the main characters grow up near each
other and have a love hate, ultra-competitive relationship that ends
in marriage and the final credits, the 6-foot-7-inch Roderick and
5-feet-2 inch Nikki didn’t know one another until they were both at
Fort Valley and already young adults.

But once they met, that was it. A one-family coaching tree was
born, among other things.

Nowadays, he’s Chief Appraiser for Chatham County and, after more
than a decade as a teacher in Atlanta Public Schools, she works for
the Georgia National Guard helping make sure the right health
resources are made available to those soldiers who need them most, and
they have a son, Roderick — he’s 10 — and an 8-year-old daughter,
Nia, both of whom are sports minded.

If that’s not enough to keep a family on the go, there’s this:
Nikki and Roderick are volunteer coaches for the Pooler Recreation
Department. In fact, you rarely get one Conley without the other
Conley somewhere nearby.

“You get me, you get her. You get her, you get me,” Roderick
says. “We’re a package deal.”

“When I’m the coach, he’s an assistant coach and he’s like the
team dad. When he’s head coach, I’m an assistant coach and a team
mom,” Nikki notes. But like the main characters in Love and
Basketball, Roderick and Nikki remain ultra-competitive, because most
top-level athletes and coaches are just that, so whether it’s in
training for the Peachtree Road Race 10K in Atlanta on July 4 or in
the giving of their time to coach kids in the community, they want to
succeed and they want their teams to succeed.

“Hard work will beat talent any day,” Nikki says, and Roderick
agrees. They can talk at length about the things coaches tend to talk
about: fundamentals, for example, but they also find that coaching
kids has to be about having fun, both for the kids and the coaches.

“Coaching is an absolute pleasure,” Roderick says. “Sometimes I
think we have more fun than the kids.”

Actually, the Conleys had so much fun after coaching their last
basketball team together, a 10U boys All-Star team that almost won a
district Georgia Recreation and Parks Association title — they
decided to keep on trucking and the pair got with other volunteer
coaches and started running weekend basketball clinics on Saturdays at
the Pooler Rec Gym.  Months after basketball season, the clinics
remain popular, they say, and around 50 children showed up at the most
recent one.

“We were in the gym the whole weekend, that’s what we do,” Nikki said.

And kids aren’t the only ones going to camps in this story. A few
years back Nikki signed the Conleys up for an adult sports camp at
Smith College in Massachusetts. It was a surprise to Roderick, but he
had a blast.

“We played all the different kinds of sports,” Roderick said.
“Golf, badminton, tennis, we rode bikes, jogged, did it all.”

And as an aside, at 14, Nikki represented Dekalb County in badminton
at the Georgia Games, and won.

As much fun as they’re having, the Conleys also are serious about
play. Nikki said the two of them “so fundamentally believe in children
being active we have a nonprofit called Health Quest Solutions, and
the premise behind it is to help parents pay some of their children’s
recreation activity fees, because they can be expensive.”

Nikki, who’s actually met Oprah Winfrey, just so you know, and
was among a handful picked from thousands of Oprah fans to travel with
the star to Australia, created the organization in 2005 and there’s a
webiste — www. healthquestsolutions.org — that explains what the
group is all about.  So far, it’s helped about a dozen or so parents
keep their kids involved in sports, but there’s always more who can
use the help, as can the nonprofit itself, which depends on donations.
Nearly every penny of the money raised goes toward the kids.

Full time jobs, part time coaches, a nonprofit and being full
time parents may sound like a lot. It is. But after spending most of
their lives in metro-Atlanta, the Conleys have found Pooler and the
Coastal Empire is a great place to be busy, though initially there was
some culture shock.

“It took some getting used to,” Roderick said. “I wasn’t used to
all the wetlands at first, and people would try to scare me off with
alligator stories. The landscape here is absolutely different, and
when we first got down here they were just starting to do all the
development down the Parkway. But now we love it, and we rarely leave
this area.”

His wife agreed.

“You can not beat the convenience and people have been most
kind,” she said. “This is our home now.”

They also like the way Pooler Recreation Department works. “I
think they do a great job,” Roderick said. “Some rec departments want
all the control at the top, and they try to steer kids to different
coaches … this is probably the most unbiased recreation department
I’ve ever seen.”

And that fairness is obviously important to the Conleys, who
believe in providing positive influences in childrens lives, just as
others were positive influences in theirs. For Nikki, there are two,
elementary school teacher Teresa Allen and college basketball coach
Lonnie Bartley of FVSU.

Allen introduced her to a plethora of sports while Nikki was in
grade school, and she still loves playing each; Bartley made her work
harder than she’d ever worked before. “From him I really learned what
it took to be a champion, how much harder you had to work. I really
thought when I went to college that I knew it all, and I didn’t. I
never trained or worked so hard in my life until I got there. I
learned this is what it takes to be a winner, that is what it takes to
be a champion. I didn’t know it before I got there, but I learned it
then, I really did.”

Roderick lists his prep coach at Shamrock, Jerome Lee, who is now
at his wife’s high school alma mater of Druid Hills, of all things.

“I was a tweener, and back then the philosophy was to give the
seniors opportunities to play regardless of talent,” said Roderick,
who’s been tall — he’s 6-foot-7 — since middle school. “He said ‘I
believe you have the talent and I’m going to work with you,’ and then
assisted me past high school, and after I left juco and left Fort
Valley and went to Piedmont. He came to games when he was able, he
made sure I got in school, and when I started coaching in high school,
I was coaching with him, and I saw that it wasn’t just me he was doing
it for, he was doing that for everybody. It’s all about family. His
wife took us in, they took care of us and they cared about us. If I
received that, I’ve got to give it back to someone else.”

And so the Conleys do that, giving back every time they step on a
court or baseball diamond or take Pooler kids and mold them into teams
that can compete with any in the area. It’s part calling, part fun,
part basketball, part whatever other sport they might be coaching at
the moment. But it’s all love.




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