VOL. 132 | NO. 184 | Friday, September 15, 2017
Life After Tony Allen? A Lot More Boring Than Life With Tony Allen
By Don Wade
Tony Allen at his best was the best. Or as he loved to remind us all with a gesture and a shout: FIRST-TEAM ALL-DEFENSE!
But God love him, he was never easy.
No player, just like no person, is always at his best. We know this. We all have our highs and lows. Thing is, most of us spend much of life in that vast middle ground of our own, personal, averageness.
Not Tony Allen.
Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen (9) leaps to swing at the ball against Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) in the first half of a 2015 game in Memphis. (AP File Photo/Brandon Dill)
He was a main reason you went to a Grizzlies game. Or, the part of a Grizzlies game you just couldn’t understand. Hadn’t you just seen your 9-year-old daughter make a layup that looked exactly like the one that No. 9 just missed?
Such was the Tony Allen Equation.
The best Tony Allen inspired praise from the always-proud Kobe Bryant. When Bryant was on his farewell tour, he gave Allen a pair of autographed shoes: “To Tony, the best defender I ever faced.”
Which also meant the toughest.
So it’s not just Memphis myopia, understandable though that would be, to celebrate Tony Allen on the occasion of his leaving and signing a one-year $2.3 million contract with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Allen really did make the NBA All-Defensive Team six times in his seven years in Memphis (three first-team, three second). He got inside the biggest stars’ jerseys, took the ball and their lunch money, once kicked Chris Paul in the face (gracias, El Grindfather) and for a long time was pretty much a crazed rat taking huge bites out of Kevin Durant’s confidence.
Still, for all of that, Tony Allen was never easy for his team. Beloved by Memphis Grizzlies fans, sure, and rightly so. He authored “Grit & Grind.” FedExForum became The Grindhouse because of TA. The seven straight playoff appearances are covered with his steal-happy fingerprints.
Allen was appreciated by sportswriters near and far, too, because let’s face it, it’s not every day a player says with glee, “Milk that horse!” Only Allen would play the air-faucet on-court and yell “turn the water off!” Or walk through the middle of the Golden State Warriors’ kid dance team routine like he’s out for a stroll at Overton Park.
He was a must-follow on Twitter and usually the first stop in the locker room postgame. He had his stock line, “We got to hang our hat on the defensive end,” but somehow when Allen said it, it just sounded better. You could picture this magician of defense hanging up his top hat when he returned home, his night’s work done.
But he wasn’t easy. Lionel Hollins, Dave Joerger and David Fizdale all had their internal coaching struggles with the Tony Allen Equation, with the undeniable truth that Lord Tony’s game was in a constant state of giveth and taketh away.
Doc Rivers always understood this. When he was coaching Boston, he pushed for the Celtics to select Allen, which they did with the 25th overall pick out of Oklahoma State, in the 2004 NBA Draft. Rivers believed Allen to be “an instinctive player,” but that took on new meaning up close and personal.
In 2014 when the Los Angeles Clippers were at FedExForum, Rivers recalled his early experiences with the Tony Allen Equation. It went like this: Coaches devised a coverage, Tony immediately broke it.
“You couldn’t yell at him,” Rivers said, “because he always covered up for it. It became comical with all our coaches in Boston.”
With Memphis, Allen once infamously punched O.J. Mayo on a team flight over a card game. But look at their careers, the way Allen overachieved and Mayo underachieved, and you can’t help but think in some cosmic Tony Allen sense, he must have been in the right.
Teammates, of course, both loved him and were exasperated by him. The night Allen coined “Grit Grind” in a sideline TV interview, after wrecking the Oklahoma City Thunder, Zach Randolph reached in to give him a pat on the head and Marc Gasol virtually hugged him.
Allen could amaze even those who played next to him, who knew him best.
But he was never easy. He’d walk away from huddles to think about whatever Tony Allen thinks before going out and disregarding the team plan to make a game-changing play. He could be mopey. His injuries often seemed to linger.
Yet when he channeled his inner Grindfather, he changed the temperature for everyone. Late in the 2014 regular season, the Grizzlies were playing LeBron James and the Miami Heat here, still chasing the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Allen’s stat line was pedestrian: six points, four fouls, three steals, two assists and one rebound in 24 minutes. He did, for what it’s worth, have the game’s highest +/- at +16.
Anyway, Allen entered the game with 4:45 left in the first quarter and the Grizzlies trailing by seven points. Getting Bad Tony out of the way, he shot a wide-open 3-pointer off the side of the backboard and missed a layup. But soon enough, he was atoning for a Mike Conley turnover by stealing a pass from LeBron and then whipping a possession-saving behind-the-back pass while flying out of bounds.
That possession ended with Conley passing the ball to Randolph for a 3-pointer that cut the lead to two. At game’s end, the Grizzlies had a 107-102 victory. Allen’s trademark, red-hot chaos, had overcome LeBron’s supernatural gifts and 37 points.
“When Tony’s being Tony … he doesn’t have to say a word,” Conley said that night. “The energy in the building is different. The energy for our team is different.”
But here’s what is forgotten about Tony Allen: Even though he’s strong and athletic, it’s never been easy for him to be this player. He has had to work at it, to study the opponents, to learn the tendencies, to know it all so well that what he does always just looks instinctive, crazy, chaotic, maddening, whatever you want to call it.
A couple of years ago, Tony was at AutoZone Park for the annual Grit & Grind Night. His task was to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. He had been given this honor a few weeks earlier at a White Sox game (Allen’s from the south side of Chicago). That experience had not gone well, his pitch more errant than his worst missed layups.
So, before Allen walked onto the field at AutoZone Park he retreated to the underground batting cage to make a few throws. This time, he was going to be ready.
“I underestimated it,” Allen said of that pitch he threw in Chicago. “I didn’t use my practice time.”
Even just to throw out a no-count ceremonial first pitch in Memphis, Tony was engaging in a little Grit & Grind. å
Now, Grit & Grind has a satellite office in New Orleans and Memphis headquarters needs a new mantra. When the season opens here on Oct. 18, Tony Allen will be with the visitors in a Pelicans uniform. Fans will stand and cheer, presumably the organization will offer up a video tribute, and then for the first time in a long time we will all be on the other side of the Tony Allen Equation.
It’s not going to be easy.