If you’re in the Conley household in Derby on Sunday, chances are you’ll hear the gospel song “Already Getting Better” by William Murphy at least once.
This will be the first Mother’s Day without the family’s matriarch, Ann Conley, who died from a brain aneurysm while sleeping May 1. She was 48.
The last two months have been a blur for James Conley, 20, the youngest of four siblings — the “Fab Four” as their mother called them when they were all together.
Almost two months ago, he returned from injury to become the starting point guard for Hutchinson Community College’s men’s basketball team and helped lead the Blue Dragons to the junior college national championship. He remembers how intoxicating it was posing for pictures with his mother and the championship trophy, a string of net tucked in his glasses and Ann by his side.
He also remembers the pain he felt two weeks ago when he received a call informing him his mother was on life support in the hospital and the outlook was bleak. He was paralyzed by fear.
“But I know my mom would want me to keep moving forward,” Conley said. “She had a dream for me.
“I remember she would always tell me I could be whatever I wanted to be, and I’ve always wanted to be a Division I player.”
Two days after the Conley family held a celebration of Ann’s life, and exactly a week after Conley lost his mother, he received a phone call from Oral Roberts University, a NCAA Division I school in Tulsa, offering him a full basketball scholarship. He accepted it on the spot.
It’s already getting better,
It’s already getting easier.
There’s that song.
Conley believes the more he hears it, the more true it becomes.
“We’re going to have our days when we’re up and we’re going to have our days when we’re down,” Conley said. “But we know she would want us to be happy, so we’ve got to keep a smile on our faces.
“She loved it when we would smile, so that’s what I’m going to do: keep smiling because it’s going to keep getting better.”
No one calls James Conley by his given name after meeting him.
That’s the name Ann settled on after her attempt to name her baby boy Antonio (for her love of Italian soap operas) was rebuffed by the father. So Papi it was.
The nickname helped forge a bond between the two, a mother and her youngest child. But in truth, she could never pick a favorite among her “Fab Four.”
They were raised to protect each other and be there for each other.
“No one or thing can come between us,” said Amber, Papi’s older sister. “We’re a family that sticks together.”
A staple of their family time together was attending Papi’s basketball games. From his Biddy Basketball days to Derby in high school to Hutchinson in junior college, the Conleys made sure to support Papi.
Ann was always the loudest.
“No matter how many people were there, I was always able to pick out her voice,” Papi said. “She would always tell me what I was doing right or wrong, no matter if we were up 20 or down 20.”
If the family was in any building more than a gymnasium, it was a church. Ann made sure her family’s foundation was built on faith.
Now with her gone, Ann’s teachings have helped her family cope with the loss.
“We were always taught to turn to God,” Amber said. “My mom always told us to turn to the Lord, so we knew who to turn to.
“When things are tough, we know who our best friend is. When we’re down and out, we pray and turn to God.”
Just like his mother raised him, Papi made sure his loved ones were OK. He wanted to protect his loved ones, and not just his family.
Roman Young, a lifelong friend who is Papi’s teammate and roommate at Hutchinson, was stunned to open a text from Papi asking whether he was doing all right.
“He’s asking me if I’m OK when it’s his mom,” Young said. “I think that’s just amazing. It shows you how much he really cares about other people. That’s just the type of person he is.”
Faith has guided Papi through the darkest time in his life. He has found peace through his recent accomplishments, knowing Ann would be proud of him.
Like last week, when he was awarded the Most Inspirational Player on Hutchinson’s team, or Friday when he walked across the stage and received his diploma, or Saturday when he drove down to sign his national letter of intent.
“I’m not just living my dream, but I’m living her dream, too,” Papi said. “I know with her plan and God’s plan, everything will work out.
“I’m just doing everything I can to make her smile, make God smile, and make everybody else up there looking down on me smile. I know I don’t only have one guardian angel, I have many, and she’s my main one.”
The call from Oral Roberts came last Sunday, but it wasn’t for Conley, not originally.
An assistant on Oral Roberts’ staff was calling Hutchinson Community College coach Steve Eck to ask for his opinion about another player in the conference.
“Well, he’s a fine player, but I’ve got kid that’s even better,” Eck told him.
Eck told the ORU coach to watch the film on Conley before deciding. Less than two hours later, Oral Roberts called Eck back with a scholarship offer prepared for Conley.
It was a perfect fit — a Division I program at a Christian university less than three hours from Derby.
“It’s hard not to think there was some divine intervention in all of this,” Eck said.
The first thing Papi did was phone home, sharing the news on speakerphone with his three siblings.
“You could just hear the excitement in his voice and you could tell he was smiling,” Amber said. “My mom always told him, ‘Don’t settle for less,’ because she knew how great of a player he was.
“We were all so happy to see him finally get what he deserved.”
Papi has dreams of becoming a basketball coach one day. He’s likely to pursue some type of teaching degree at Oral Roberts.
His mother won’t be there to motivate him toward these goals, but her spirit will.
“She made me who I am,” Conley said. “She made me the player I am. I know each game that I have from here on out she’ll still be in my head, telling me what I’m doing right and wrong.”
Armed with that motivation, friends and family see success in Papi’s future.
“I know he’s going to put on a show for our momma,” Amber said. “He’s going to play 10 times harder now.”
“Honestly, I don’t see how anybody is going to be able to stop him now,” said Young, his teammate.
Papi has just one request at Oral Roberts: a number change.
He wore No. 1 at Hutchinson, but wants to wear No. 2 at Oral Roberts.
“Because when I’m on the court, it will be one of me and then one of her,” Conley said. “Hopefully she’ll understand that.”
According to last year’s roster, No. 2 on Oral Roberts is available.
It’s already getting better,
It’s already getting easier.