Allen’s grind inspiring Grizzlies’ run

One of his old Boston Celtics teammates remembers Tony Allen(notes) chasing LeBron James(notes) baseline to baseline in a playoff game. The Celtics had struggled to stop the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, but Allen had come for him with an uncommon ferocity. For a few minutes, James struggled to find space or shots, and finally there unfurled the strangest look upon his face.

Essentially, the expression asked: Who is this guy?

Tony Allen was surprised the Celtics didn't match the three-year, $9.5 million contract he received from the Grizzlies.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

“My assignment was not to let you score,” Allen was heard telling LeBron on the floor. “And I did not let you score.”

Allen is still surprised the Celtics let him leave for the Memphis Grizzlies. As it’s turned out, he has been dollar-for-dollar the most impactful signing of the biggest free-agent class in the sport’s history. His agent Derrick Powell negotiated him a three-year, $9.5 million contract, and tried to get the Celtics to match and keep him. When pressed for a rapid response, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge declined to match the offer and Allen’s heart crumbled.

“I didn’t think there was even going to be a negotiation with Boston,” Allen told Yahoo! Sports this week. “I didn’t think there would need to be a recruiting process. I just thought it would get done.”

So Allen, 29, moved to Memphis and became a folk hero, an indispensible part of an improbable eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. For the $82 million the Grizzlies used to re-sign Rudy Gay(notes), they were a better team after Gay dislocated his shoulder in mid-February and Allen commandeered his minutes. Allen has come with tenacity, toughness and grind. He’s scored the ball, slowed stars on offense and taught his teammates the lessons of dutiful defense.

And when prima donna teammate O.J. Mayo(notes) challenged Allen to a fight on a team charter flight, Allen beat him senseless.

Without speaking of Mayo in particular, insisting that the relationship was mended in short order, Allen said, “No one should have any reason to come to me in a disrespectful manner. I’m respected as a man. But before you cross that line, just know there’s a button to be pushed. And I wouldn’t advise you to push it.”

They love him in Memphis, where they started to make T-shirts with a mantra from Allen’s born postgame description of his mindset. “All heart. Grit, grind.” Most remarkable of all, Allen has changed the way people see him in the NBA. He didn’t do it with a sneaker ad, a marketing campaign, an artificial stimulant to bait and switch perception. He did it the hard, true way: Through deeds over words, through the earning of respect and trust.

Once, Allen had been cast as a troubled kid out of Oklahoma State. There were fights and close ties with bad characters in his hometown of Chicago. There were criminal charges over a barroom fight, and NBA and Chicago police buffering the Celtics at a playoff game in 2009 because some nefarious character had targeted and threatened Allen over a dispute.

This reputation came close to running Allen out of the league, but he grabbed hold of his life and made a career for himself.

“I was immature coming into the league, and I definitely had the wrong group of guys around me growing up,” he says. “I found out fast that the path I was going on wasn’t going to keep me in the league very long. I got into trouble and learned from it. You get into trouble once or twice, and that third time is going to be strike three.

Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have the Grizzlies believing they can win not only their first playoff game ever, but also their first series.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

“I got wiser, put my time in the gym and tried to build away from that negative image around me. People see me as a competitor now, a winner.”

When free agency comes, GMs will ask themselves: Where do we find our Tony Allen? He’s been a dynamic presence for the Grizzlies, and, yes, it isn’t lost on him that the Celtics miss him. He was close with Kendrick Perkins(notes) and knows that together they brought an unmistakable toughness and defensive presence to the Celtics. They grew up there, wanted to stay, but Boston never did want to commit to them. When the Celtics traded Perkins to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green(notes) and Nenad Krstic(notes), Allen was one more befuddled Celtics fan.

“I guess they wanted to get more offensive-minded,” Allen says. “They got rid of me, and, well, now who do you get to defend the perimeter? OK, you guys got shooters. Now you get rid of Perkins, and who sticks the best post man? Who sticks Dwight [Howard] and Amar’e [Stoudemire]? Well, I guess they want to spread the floor a little more. I don’t know. It all caught me by surprise. I guess they want to be more of a shooting team than a defensive team.”

Now, the Grizzlies get the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference playoffs, and once Manu Ginobili(notes) gets healthy, he’ll see a lot of Allen on him. Grit and grind, Allen calls it. From LeBron to Kobe Bryant(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) to Ginobili, he’s made his rep clinging close to the sport’s biggest stars in a most relentless, resourceful way. He knows his job, and Tony Allen advises you spare yourself the consequences of pushing his buttons. He has his assignment in these playoffs and plans to carry it out.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Apr 15, 2011