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.” (more…)