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Ex-Robinson High coach shares memories of Desmond Allison

Ask former Robinson High coach Scott Wagers for the story that best sums up former Kentucky basketball player Desmond Allison, and it doesn't take him very long to come up with his favorite.

Since Allison always put up a fight every time Wagers substituted for him in the second half of a blowout victory, the coach gave the 6-foot-5 wing a rare opportunity to get back on the floor in the final two minutes of a game late in his senior season. Wagers once scored 12 points in two minutes of a high school game in the pre-three-point era, so he bet Allison a steak dinner that he couldn't match that feat without taking a shot from behind the arc.

"We waited until the two-minute mark, I put him in the game, and he got 16," said Wagers, now an assistant coach at East Tennessee State. "Every time he scored, he'd look at me with a smile. At the end of the game, I was taking him and his teammates home, and I said, 'Dez, we'll have to go out tomorrow and I'll get you a nice steak dinner.' He said coach, 'I don't want no steak. I want four double cheeseburgers with fries and a large shake.'

"Then that night, as we're going through the McDonald's drive-thru, he says, 'Hey coach, since I'm getting McDonald's instead of steak, can you take care of my boys?' So we get this giant bag and they're all loading up on McDonald's cheeseburgers. Cost me $25. But that's Dez. Blue-collar guy. He didn't want no steak."

Allison, 31, died outside a Columbus, Ohio, apartment complex from a gunshot wound to the chest, a tragic end to the life of a man friends will remember for his infectious smile and fans will remember for his extraordinary, albeit untapped, athletic gifts. Here's the rest of my interview with Wagers in which he touches on his reaction to Allison's death and his memories of Allison's high school heroics.

JE: What was your initial reaction when you heard about Desmond Allison's death?

SW: I was driving when I heard, and to be honest with you I had to pull over and shed some tears. He was very special to me just like all those kids were. It was a tough group of kids that was from the projects. They understood family, togetherness and team. They had each-other's back. We spent time off the court, they stayed a lot of times at my house. We were one pretty tight unit. It hit me hard, to be honest with you.

JE: I think we all remember Desmond's athletic gifts, but what type of a person was he off the court?

SW: He was the kind of guy that nobody who you were, he'd talk to you and treat you like he'd known you his whole life. He never had an ego, and the dude was hilarious. He could have went on a comedy tour. He was a blast to be around. He was always in a good mood, always laughing and always smiling. A lot of kids get an ego when they reach superstar status, but he never did.

JE: Put into context how good Desmond was in high school. Was he the best athlete you can recall at that level?

SW: The best I've ever seen as an overall athlete. I've coached over 20 years, 12 years in college, coached against high-level guys and in the NCAA tournament. The best athlete, and I'll put him in a class by himself, his toughness. I've never been around a tougher defender. I've watched kids today that think they're good. Let me put Desmond Allison on them defensively. He was a tough-ass hombre.

JE: You've praised Desmond's toughness a lot. Describe what you mean by that.

SW: He was one of the toughest dudes I've ever been around. I was talking to his mother and she said the guy who was with him when he died said he died he didn't even shed a tear or go into shock. He calmly said, 'Tell everyone I love them.' That's right up Desmond's alley. I can visualize that because I know the kid. He was on a different level of toughness than most people. I've never seen that guy nervous or scared.

JE: The game in which he outplayed Tracy McGrady in high school is the stuff of legends now. How much of that is fiction, or did he really shut McGrady down?

SW: We did so much trapping and pressing that it wasn't a one-on-one thing, but I do know if you asked Tracy about playing with Desmond, he'd probably say he couldn't keep up with him. Dude was really, really fast, and the style we played, we didn't let him rest. We played a style of play right up Desmond's alley. It was designed for chaos and toughness, and he flourished in the midst of chaos. That's where he was home.

JE: How much do you think the environment that Desmond grew up in contributed to some of the personal demons he battled later in life?

SW: These kids were all out of the projects and they saw family members murdered. I had a couple that saw their sisters or moms get shot or stabbed in front of them. That was the norm for them. Those kids were born in such a tough environment that it's not surprising they make mistakes. Until you're in their shoes, the average guy doesn't know what they've gone through. I've had a couple guys ask me today, 'How did he blow his opportunity?' Well, how would you handle an opportunity if you were in that situation?

JE: The last we'd heard of Desmond publicly, he had played football at the University of South Dakota and was still trying to latch onto a pro basketball roster overseas. Do you know what brought him to Columbus?

SW: He went there to take a job. I'm not sure what job it was. He was living with the mother of his kid, working somewhere and playing in some leagues, still kind of chasing it.

JE: Do you think he regretted the way his Kentucky career ended when he got dismissed from school because of a DUI?

SW: He very seldom talked about anything serious, but the last time we talked, I could tell he regretted so much about how he let his opportunity at Kentucky slip away and it was really starting to eat at him. I think it just tore him up that he blew that opportunity, especially when his buddy Tayshaun Prince is a millionaire and he's struggling to make a dime. You didn't see him ever show sadness or despair (as a kid), but as he got older you could feel it more than before.

JE: How much better off would he have been if Kentucky hadn't had the zero-tolerance rule at the time and he'd have gotten a second chance?

SW: That was a stupid rule. Those kids need help. You don't just kick them out. He made the mistake, and I'll tell you one thing, he was mature enough to deal with it. He never blamed anyone but himself.

JE: In spite of everything he went through, did you still always think that he was going to latch on somewhere as a pro athlete just because of his talent?

SW: I wouldn't have been shocked if he made the NFL and it wouldn't have shocked me if he ended up overseas, but I think with his past troubles, teams were scared to make a move on him. But some of the guys he played with or against that are in the league, he was just tougher. And they'd probably play the same.

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