Not many in Lawrence can reflect on watching TV at the age of 6 sitting beside a 12-year-old “geek, had the glasses, kind of just like a noodle” by the name of Greg Oden.
“We were close,” said Sydney Conley, a freshman horizontal jumper and sprinter on the Kansas University track and field team. “We would watch Disney Channel together. He was like a big kid. He would stay at our house a lot. We would watch cartoons, eat our Cheetos together and just laugh. He was like another brother to me. It was nice.”
Oden would go on to become the No. 1 pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, by the Portland Trail Blazers. He teamed with Sydney’s oldest of three brothers, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr., from sixth grade through freshman year of college at Ohio State. Mike Jr. was the fourth pick in the same NBA Draft and is the starting point guard of the Grizzlies.
“I’m a true lefty,” Sydney said. “(Mike Jr.) really is a right-hander, but he just chooses to use his left hand. He’s a true righty. When he was little, he started out with his right and switched to his left. But when he does his floaters, he does it with his right. He can’t shoot them with his left.”
Their father, Mike Conley Sr., won a gold medal in the Barcelona Olympic Games in the triple jump in 1992, eight years after winning a silver in the Olympics in Los Angeles.
“Every big meet, he was always right there,” Sydney said of her father. “My senior year, at nationals, the top five jumpers in the country are at that one meet, and I was panicking. I might have been in like sixth place heading into my last jump. He was like, ‘Relax. All you have to do is relax and run.’ I did exactly what he said, and I won the whole thing.”
Her father’s gold medal and sliver medals are displayed prominently behind glass in Arkansas’ athletic Hall of Fame. Sydney is happy to talk about her famous father and brother and the one-time No. 1 overall draft pick. She takes pride in all of them, but talks of them only when prompted. She came to Kansas not just to put more distance on her jumps, but to get far enough away to escape secondary fame.
“Arkansas recruited me,” she said. “Everybody expected me to go there. ‘Why don’t you go to Arkansas? Your dad went there.’ I just want to do my own thing. I want to be able to have my own name and just do something new at my own place. I didn’t want to be living under his shadow for four years.”
Saying no to Arkansas, she said, was difficult because she became friends with so many of the track athletes there during her days as the state’s most dominant sprinter/jumper competing for Fayetteville High. The family moved from Indianapolis, where her brother and Oden starred for Lawrence North High, a few weeks into her freshman year of high school.
Conley first signed with Alabama, but she said that she found out too late that the school required her to take the written portion of the SAT, so she received a release from her letter of intent and reversed the emotions experienced by KU track coach Stanley Redwine when she called to let him know she would be signing with Alabama. Conley wasn’t just saying no to a coach, she was saying no to her uncle. Redwine and Mike Conley Sr., teammates at Arkansas, are married to sisters.
“My aunt, coach Redwine’s wife, introduced my mom to my dad,” Sydney said. “They all four were real close.”
Sydney said she made the call, which she cited as “the toughest part” of the recruitment process.
“My mom told me, ‘You’re an adult now. You have to handle that yourself.’ It broke his heart,” she said of the heart she mended months later by reversing her decision.
Sydney refers to Uncle Stanley as “coach Redwine,” not “Uncle Stanley.” She takes her instruction from horizontal-jumps coach Wayne Pate, who has coached five Olympians, 48 All-Americans and seven national champions, and also appreciates guidance from teammates. Long jumper Francine Simpson, a senior from Jamaica, placed fourth in the NCAA outdoor championships. Triple-jumper Andrea Geubelle, a senior from University Place, Wash., is reigning NCAA indoor national champion and finished third in the outdoor NCAA meet and the U.S. Olympic trials.
Geubelle quickly proved to her new teammate that she considers track a team sport.
“I think we were doing hurdle drills, and (then) we had to jog around Anschutz,” Conley said. “It was hard. I don’t really like long-distance stuff. She had already finished her workout. Her work was done. And Andrea just started running beside me, telling me to keep going, to come on, keep pushing. That’s when I was like, ‘Man, I really like her. She really wants me to get better.’ She knows I have potential, and she wants to get that out of me, which I think is cool.”
For now, Conley’s best events are the long jump and sprints. Some, including her father, have told her the triple jump ultimately could become her top talent, but she is the first to say she has a long way to go in mastering the technique.
Conley, who turned 19 on Dec. 11, gets wide-eyed when talking about current KU athletes but doesn’t when talking about famous folks she has known all her life.
Diamond Dixon, the 4X400 Olympic gold medalist who can be found on posters all over campus, smiling and taking a bite of her gold medal?
“I was just hanging with her,” Conley said with a smile. “She’s really nice, and she’s really humble, which I like about her.”
And she’s not afraid to share her gold medal.
“I just touched it,” Conley said. “She has it right there in her room. I took pictures with it. That gold medal, words can’t even explain. Being able to hold a gold medal is just kind of like, wow, just like, wow, and for her to be able to say, ‘I won a gold medal.’ That’s all we want in track. That’s all we work for is to get what she already has. That’s all we look forward to, being able to win a gold medal, or even compete in the Olympics, period.”
Conley said her basketball days — she started as a junior for the Arkansas state champions, but did not participate as a senior in order to concentrate on track — are behind her. She still enjoys watching the sport and has taken in men’s and women’s games at Allen Fieldhouse. Count her among those amazed at the extraordinary feel for the game exhibited nightly by senior All-American candidate Angel Goodrich.
“I feel like she’s one of the truest point guards I’ve seen,” Conley said. “She just gives it up. If somebody’s wide-open, she’ll give it to them before she takes the shot. She can see the floor real well. Some of her passes get me (faked out). I’ll be watching, and she gets me.”
Sydney said she went to several of her brother’s games at Ohio State but expected to experience no ambivalence when watching Saturday’s Kansas-Ohio State game in the Schottenstein Center from the family’s home in Fayetteville.
“Kansas,” she said of where her loyalties lie. “Why not? I go here. My brother doesn’t play there anymore. I only liked them because he went there.”
Thus far, Conley has been limited to a role as a spectator for Kansas. A hamstring injury suffered sprinting in practice forced her to scratch from KU’s first indoor meet. She said she expects to be ready to participate in the Jan. 5 Bill Easton Classic in Anschutz Pavilion. That represents a start. Her goals stretch all the way to Rio de Janeiro, site of the next Summer Olympics.
“That gold medal’s really nice,” she said of Dixon’s jewelry, a symbol of past accomplishment and a motivating force for many. “I hope to be able to bite one of mine one day, 2016. That’s the goal.”