by Spencer Suk
April 29, 2012
I had a chance to make my first trip to the FedExForum, home of the Memphis Grizzlies. My beloved Los Angeles Clippers were playing in the playoffs for just the fifth time in my 22 years of life (and three of those appearances occurred before I was 5). Luckily, I was attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and decided to make the 3-hour drive to Memphis to root my team on in Game 1.
The game was a memorable one. The Clippers made a historic 27-point comeback. Reggie Evans transformed into our MVP. Swaggy P drained three consecutive 3’s in the 4th quarter. And I blacked out when Kenyon Martin locked down Rudy Gay at the buzzer. But the thing that stuck out most to me that night wasn’t our miraculous win.
On the long drive to the Forum, my friends and I were debating which Grizzly player was likely the most popular. Was it Zach Randolph? Rudy Gay? Marc Gasol? Mike Conley?
While there was a good mix of Z-Bo and Gay jerseys, there was another jersey that popped up with alarming frequency around the arena: #9, for Tony Allen.
Now Allen is a terrific role player, but the overwhelming amount of love for him was a little confusing (imagine if Clippers fans loved Matt Barnes as much as Blake Griffin or Chris Paul). Allen has become a Memphis mainstay in the last few seasons, but at the time, my friends and I had no inkling of his local popularity.
Chicago & Stillwater
Tony Allen has never had anything handed to him in life. Allen was raised in a single-parent home, living in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago with his mother and three younger siblings. The streets of his hometown always seemed to bring trouble to Allen, but they also ingrained the fiery, dogged style that would come to define his game: “When you went into the lane, you might get an elbow to the eye. It would be swollen for a whole week,” Allen said. “Busted lips. Scraped arms. If it’s game point, they’ll keep fouling you. You have to throw in a half-court shot just to win a game. But it gives you a tough mindset."
Allen was bursting with talent at Crane High School, where he played alongside future NBA veteran Will Bynum. However, his off-court issues deterred big schools from recruiting Allen. Eventually, Allen decided to play his freshman year at Butler Community College. He enjoyed a successful season, averaging 16.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.8 steals, but ran “into a little trouble at Butler” and decided to transfer to Wabash Valley College. Allen added another impressive year to his resume, leading the school to a 32-6 record and a 4th place finish at the NJCAA Championships.
But Allen still had bigger things in mind. He transferred one last time for a chance to play Divison I basketball under Coach Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State University. Allen thrived in his two years in Stillwater, winning Big 12 Player of the Year and leading the OSU Cowboys to the Final Four. Yet, the biggest growth in Allen had nothing to do with basketball.
“Of all the players we’ve had here, Tony has made more progress off the court than any of them,” Coach Sutton said. “This is why I’ve stayed in coaching.”
Allen always declined offers to join Sunday service at Eagle Heights Baptist Church when asked by the team’s equipment manager… Until he agreed to go one day. And he kept going until he eventually got baptized: “Before I got saved, I was worried all the time,” Allen said. “I was worried how my life was going to go, worried where I was headed, whether I was going to be a failure. A lot of worrying. I thank God that He now has a purpose for me.”
With the 25th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, Tony Allen was drafted by the Boston Celtics, where he slowly grew and developed under Coach Doc Rivers. By his third season, Allen had really started to gain Rivers’ trust and earned more playing time:
While the raw numbers illuminate his development, they are actually a bit deceiving. Allen was actually improving at an even faster rate. Look at his first 5 games in January in the 2006-07 season:
These numbers are outright STAGGERING. Allen, who has never, ever, ever been known to be a great shooter, was draining from everywhere (even the 3-point line!). This stretch of games could be chalked up to a hot streak; realistically, Allen couldn’t keep those shooting numbers up, and averaging 4 steals a game would have given him the single-season NBA record for steals per game (the current record is 3.67 steals per game by Alvin Robertson in 1986). However, it seemed that Allen was beginning to put everything together. He was finally maturing and becoming the complete player he was always meant to be.
But just when everything was finally going right for Allen, this happened. After all the hard work and progress, a meaningless dunk after the whistle resulted in a torn ACL and MCL. Sadly, we never got to see what a healthy Tony Allen was capable of after those 5 mind-blowing games in January.
Allen missed the rest of the season and never truly got his chance in Boston. The Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen formed the next season, and Tony’s role on the team was reduced. While he did get that coveted NBA Championship ring, Allen seemed to know it was time to move on. So when his contract expired in 2010, he bolted to Memphis.
February 8, 2011
Tony Allen had already begun to win over Grizzlies fans in his first season with his defensive prowess, but one fateful February night in Oklahoma City would come to define Allen’s tenure in Memphis. The Grizzlies arrived at the Chesapeake Energy Arena without key players Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo. With no star wing players left in the rotation, Allen was assigned the daunting duty of guarding Kevin Durant, the league’s premier scorer.
Durant proceeded to score 31 points and grab 10 rebounds, but Allen made life tough for him. In overtime, Durant was harassed, only shooting once. And in the last 20 seconds, Durant coughed up a costly turnover, securing the win for the Grizzlies.
On top of that, Allen produced a ridiculous stat-line of his own: 27 points on 9-12 shooting, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 steals, and 3 blocks.
But the most memorable part of that night was not Tony Allen’s defense, or his 27 points, or even the unexpected victory. Rather, it was Allen’s post-game interview. In a few words, Allen unintentionally shed light on why Memphis came to adore their hard-nosed 6’4” shooting guard.
Tony began by describing how he ended up guarding Durant: “I was so upset that day because I took all of that time studying James Harden and I had to guard Durant. I didn’t even look at that dude. But it worked out for the best.”
But his next two sentences summed up his approach to life, as well as the mindset of the many residents of Memphis: “It’s grit and grind. It’s what we live by.”
Memphis is a blue-collar town where people feel they must earn everything they get, as nothing has ever been given to them. In fact, a 2011 report shows that Memphis was the poorest city in America. It’s quite clear why Memphis fans didn’t appreciate my "spoiled" and "entitled" Los Angeles demeanor at the comeback game (it didn’t help that I was bellowing at the top of my lungs as the Clippers chipped their way back to win).
And this is why Tony Allen is so loved in Memphis. As good as a Marc Gasol or Mike Conley can be on the court, Tony Allen embodies Memphis to its core. Nothing ever came easy to him: he grew up in a poor, troubled neighborhood, dealt with a multitude of off-court issues, attended two junior colleges before getting a shot at OSU, tore his knee apart in his breakout NBA season, and yet here we are. Allen toiled and labored his way to two straight First All-Defensive Team Awards, led the league in steals per 36 minutes in 2011 and 2012 (of players who played at least half of the season), helped carry the Grizzlies to the playoffs in each of his four seasons there, and became a fan favorite.
Oh, and Allen coined the Grizzlies’ motto and style of play in that interview: “Grit 'n' Grind.” In fact, Allen is so intertwined with Memphis’ cultural and basketball identity that he has been donned the Grindfather.
April 26, 2014
My friend and I had to visit the FedExForum one more time. Our senior year was almost over and we had one last chance to watch the Grizzlies, who were leading the Thunder 2-1 in a tight first-round battle. While we both vowed to root for the Grizzlies, we were also excited to see the reigning MVP, Kevin Durant, in person for the first time. We couldn’t wait to see Durant splash jumpers from every part of the court.
But we should have known better after watching Allen’s defense in Game 2. While Allen usually “limits” Durant, he completely stopped him in Game 4, holding him to 15 points on 5-21 shooting and forcing 5 turnovers. Furthermore, Allen had a team-high 13 rebounds, 10 of which were offensive rebounds.
Just like the first time, all I could pay attention to was Tony Allen, his suffocating defense, and the roar coming from the sea of #9 jerseys. The Grizzlies may have lost the game, but Tony Allen won me over again.