OKLAHOMA CITY — Long before Tony Allen became a fixture on NBA All-Defensive Teams and back when the Oklahoma City Thunder still belonged to Seattle, some Oklahoma basketball fans cheered a hard-scrabble Chicago kid who serendipitously landed in rural Stillwater and has never stopped surviving.
Those Oklahoma faithful might now wish the most influential father figure in Allen’s life, a career college basketball assistant coach named Glynn Cyprien, had never left Oklahoma State to later wind up at the University of Memphis. Because the man who delivered the little-known junior-college guard with a knack for finding trouble to Eddie Sutton’s Oklahoma State Cowboys in 2003 also greased Allen’s free-agent signing seven years later, leaving the championship-caliber Boston Celtics for the then-middling Memphis Grizzlies.
“We never would have gotten him without Glynn,” said Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who also has longtime ties to Cyprien. “Tony helped put us over the top.”
Named to a third consecutive All-Defensive Team on Monday and a second consecutive First Team selection, Allen is tormenting overtaxed Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant and breaking the hearts of Thunder fans in this semifinal series the Grizzlies lead, 3-1.
Allen and the Grizzlies return tonight to Oklahoma City (9:30 ET, TNT), about an hour drive southwest of Stillwater, to try and close out the reigning-but-wounded Western Conference champs in Game 5.
Memphis had never won a playoff series before Allen signed in 2010. It hadn’t made the postseason since 2006. But this blue-collar bunch, epitomized by Allen’s tireless and genuine grit, is one win away from the team’s first conference final in its 18-year existence.
Allen’s story is all about timing, trust, belief and resiliency. Start with beating back life’s hard knocks — a father in prison, an adolescence set up to be knocked down like bowling pins — with an unbreakable spirit. He’s scraped away at a nine-year NBA career that’s finally in full bloom, having persevered through season after season of seemingly two steps forward, one step back. His is an evolutionary journey of constant self-improvement and forever proving his worth — through six seasons in Boston and, even initially in Memphis under coach Lionel Hollins — just to play.
In his second season at Oklahoma State, Allen carried the Cowboys to the 2004 Final Four as the Big 12 Player of the Year just two years after getting kicked out of his first of two junior-college stops. But that misfortune landed him at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill. That’s where Cyprien was dispatched by Sutton, not to recruit Allen, but to bring back a stud named Antwain Barbour, who would eventually sign with Kentucky and never play a minute in the NBA. It was Allen who kept catching Cyprien’s eye.
“Tony’s statistics weren’t great, but he had an overall good game, he played defense, he ran well and bottom line he was just real tough,” said Cyprien, now an assistant coach at Texas A&M. “When the game got late, he made tough plays.”
It’s his NBA calling card. And Durant and the Thunder are witnesses. Allen tilted the razor-thin margin in this series when Hollins finally called upon the 6-foot-4, self-proclaimed “junkyard dog” to sic the three-time scoring champ in the final three minutes of a nip-and-tuck Game 2. The call could have come in Game 1, when Durant scored 12 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter including the game-winner with 11 seconds to play. But Hollins was sticking to his original declaration that Allen would be no match for the impossibly long Durant.
Allen shrugged and suggested Hollins got desperate as the Grizz were in jeopardy of falling into a 2-0 hole against a team playing without its All-Star point guard, Russell Westbrook.
Yet maybe that’s just the way it’s supposed to be for Allen, nothing ever coming without outside doubt, nothing ever certain, always having to prove himself over again. Even to his coach of three seasons, unless, as Allen was asked after the Game 2 win when he held Durant scoreless in those decisive final minutes, maybe Hollins was trying to inspire him.
“I don’t play mind games. I just go out there and do my job,” Allen said. “My confidence is always sky-high. If you try to limit me, then you limit me. But I will continue to show you that I work and I continue to get better each and every day. Whatever your limitations are on me, I am always ready to prove you wrong.”
The walk to Memphis
Wallace, the Grizzlies’ GM, worked in the Celtics’ front office when Boston drafted Allen 25th overall in 2004. In 2007, Wallace took over in Memphis. In the summer of 2010, after Allen had made his biggest impact of his six up-and-down seasons in Boston during the team’s run to The Finals, Wallace called the Memphis Tigers assistant coach he had known for years through basketball circles.
“Wallace calls me,” Cyprien said, “and Chris and I did the deal.”
That Allen left Boston for a quickly arranged three-year contract with Memphis took the Celtics by surprise. For Allen, it came down to a fresh start within a circle of trust — with the man who played a pivotal role in drafting him and the man who recruited him to OSU and stuck by his side during a sometimes bumpy road.
“It all came together simply on the strength of those guys having a good relationship,” Allen said. “Chris Wallace had the blueprint, believing that I could help change the organization around. He told me if I come here and play hard and things of that nature, we’re going to be fine. We was missing a toughness-type of attitude. He sat me down and told me all these things, and from Day 1, ever since I came here, I tried to fill that void.”
And there was this, too, a player sensing his time and place.
“I just felt a new situation would be better for me,” Allen said. “I don’t know, I was under that Paul Pierce shadow for a long time, so it was just about time for me to step out and make a name for myself.”
‘A loyal guy’
Cyprien is the thread that runs throughout Allen’s basketball life.
It took Cyprien’s campaigning to convince Sutton to offer Allen a scholarship. It took an even better one from Cyprien just a week into Allen’s time on campus to convince the old coach that he hadn’t made a major error in judgment.
Allen got involved in a fight at a Whataburger restaurant, although it was his new teammates who were actually involved in the brawl. It wasn’t until after things calmed down and the police had an instigator handcuffed in the parking lot that Allen strangely put himself in the middle of the action. Allen confronted the guy in cuffs and punched him in the face.
“I was young,” Allen said. “I didn’t even notice that was a police officer.”
Cyprien asked Allen what in the world possessed him to punch a guy the cops already had in cuffs.
“Those are my teammates,” Allen told him.
“Tony’s a loyal guy,” Grizzlies teammate Zach Randolph said. “Tony’s going to stick through thick and thin with you. When you go to battle, he’s going to be there. He’s a great person and a great teammate.”
That night at the Whataburger, however odd and nearly disastrous, Cyprien said it served as the ultimate game-changer. Allen got it knocked into his head: Screw up again and your NBA dreams will land back on those cold Chicago streets.
“From that point on I was able to break him down,” Cyprien said. “When someone talks about where they’ve come from, Tony graduated in two years, was the newcomer of the year, Big 12 Player of the Year, went to the Final Four.”
Early Memphis blues brighten
Allen’s signing might have been a coup, but it didn’t mean much when it came to Hollins’ rotation. Allen was coming off an injury and he started his first season in Memphis toiling on the bench. Hollins moved O.J. Mayo to a backup role and started rookie Xavier Henry. It was a humbling way for Allen to get started in Memphis, considering he had finally carved out a role with Boston as a defensive agitator off the bench.
Injuries finally provided opportunity for a rotation spot and then, to start, surpassing Mayo. Allen has never relinquished the job.
“I had to fight my way. Wasn’t nothing given to me,” Allen said. “That’s why you never really see me upset for too long. I can always smile after something goes wrong because I know can’t nothing break me.”
Allen is now widely admired as the best on-ball defender in the league. Along with his second consecutive All-Defensive First Team selection, which is voted on by the league’s coaches, he finished fifth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, which is cast by the media. He was the only player under 6-foot-6 to finish in the top 10.
“He has a strong, aggressive personality,” Hollins said. “I’ve said it many times, he’s one of the most consistent people in preparation that I’ve been around.”
Allen’s late-game defense has been rugged and visibly frustrating to Durant, who seems bothered by Allen’s low and sturdy posture as opposed to the length and less physical nature of small forward Tayshaun Prince. Since Allen has tailed Durant in the fourth quarters starting in those series-altering three minutes of Game 2, Durant is an eye-wiping 3-for-20 from the floor for seven points, with two assists and two turnovers spanning 32 minutes of the last three fourth quarters plus overtime in Game 4.
After Game 1, Durant’s remarkable accuracy in the clutch was the talk of the playoffs.
“KD is Kevin Durant; I can’t just sit here and say I can stop the best scorer in the league,” Allen said. “But what I can say is I can compete with him. I’m going to compete with him and play as hard as I can and do as much as I can for my team.”
Making Grindhouse a (permanent) home?
Allen, 31, is again set to a be a free agent. He’s never hit a big payday, in NBA terms, earning $3.3 million this season, a bargain for the Grizzlies. Memphis, even with Rudy Gay’s contract extracted, has nearly $58 million locked into Randolph ($17.8 million), Marc Gasol ($14.8 million), Mike Conley ($8.2 million), Prince ($7.2 million) and a few other role players for next season.
Wallace’s position as GM is uncertain under the new ownership group that assumed control at the start of the season. Hollins is a free agent and Randolph’s name was a constant during the trade-deadline rumor mill.
“All I can do is be a piece to a puzzle right now,” Allen said. “The organization already got their mind made up of what they want to do right now. I believe so. I don’t have a clue, but like I always say, my heart bleeds blue and I put it all in God’s hands.”
There is a notion that part of the strategy in dealing Gay was to create room to re-sign Allen, whose number of potential suitors is likely to grow.
The market for Allen’s services will be set once free agency opens on July 1. His preference, he said, is to remain in Memphis, where he’s made a comfortable home. A few years ago, he won custody of his daughter, Antekia, a 13-year-old seventh grader. In July, Allen is getting married.
“I love it here, the quietness, the slowed-down pace of the city, the Southern hospitality, I just like the city,” Allen said. “I got everything I worked so hard for. I feel like I finally got my career off the ground playing here. As far as there being other offers, that’s all part of the negotiations and having people put their trust in you.
“Everything that I went through to be the man that I am now, it was a roller coaster, but now I’m at the age where everything is done for my family. That’s why I go so hard.”