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Sherman’s Short Shots: I survived the Grindhouse

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He wasn’t one of mine, but it didn’t matter.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The first time I watched an opposing player go against my favorite team and, simply by virtue of his performance made me change my fandom forever, it was 1986. That player scored 63 points against my beloved championship-bound Celtics team, and his name was Michael Jordan.

The second time such an unexpectedly inverted event happened, his name was Tony Allen.

How is that possible? Tony Allen is a career role player who can’t really dribble, pass, or shoot, has a shooting range out to about 16 feet (as a shooting guard!), can’t make 3’s in a league that is defined by shooting 3’s, and yet ALSO struggles to make layups (trick or treat!). Yet he is still defined by teammates affection for him (present and former), his city, and Ramen noodles.

It all goes back to 2011, where the young, fresh and upstart Thunder, sporting talent, profile, and bravado in spades, ran into a throwback team that really didn’t care about any of those things. OKC would eventually make the WCF Finals that season (losing to the Mavericks in five), but not before surviving a 7 game war of attrition with the Memphis Grizzlies in round 1, and it all began on February 8th.

That has to be my favorite post-game interview of all time, not only because it birthed the phrase, identity, and ethos of the ‘Grit-Grind Grizzlies,’ but also because: a) TA’s huge game was not in response to having to defend Kevin Durant, but because he was ticked off at his teammate Rudy Gay; and b) TA actually used the phrase, “the Sefoloshas of the world.” Yes, watch out everyone, the Sefoloshas of the world will nail you when you’re not paying attention.

I watched the Grizz battle the Thunder for years, with many games coming down to the wire, no matter how mismatched on paper the two teams were. And through it all, Tony Allen was one of the biggest reasons why OKC had such trouble, because from my point of view, he’s the only player in the league who could consistently frustrate one Kevin Durant. Allen was and is a delightfully angular ball of defensive energy who, despite his size, used his quickness, leverage, wiliness, and captivatingly odd idiosyncrasies to hound the super-scorer. Which is not to say that #35 didn’t get the best of TA from time to time, but that it was a game-by-game battle more even than you might expect, culminating in a 2013 playoff series where Allen’s Grizzlies finally wore out an exhausted league MVP and advanced to the WCF.

Zach Lowe provided one of my favorite deep dive analyses of Allen’s highly advanced metrics approach:

I will never forget chatting with Tony Allen two seasons ago about how he squirmed around pin-down screens designed to free Kevin Durant for jumpers. He didn’t accept the fundamental basis of the question — that it was a hard thing to do. “You just do it,” he would say. I would counter: “OK, so, there is one large man running at you with the singular goal of blocking your path, and a slithery 7-foot scorer directing you into that large man’s chest. What is the best strategy for avoiding that large man?” And he would respond, again and again: “You just do it. You don’t get screened.”

The Grizzlies, and Tony Allen, helped shape and define those Thunder teams more than anybody else. That grit-grind eventually rubbed off on OKC. Well, mostly.

And so it was with great poignancy that, in the aftermath of Allen leaving his beloved Grizzlies to what in all likelihood will be the final stop of his NBA career in New Orleans, Memphis announced that they were actually retiring TA’s jersey to the rafters. Here was Allen’s response.

I’ve watched a lot of NBA games over the years, and I’ve seen a lot of players, teams, and NBA championships. Most of them blend together. I’ve forgotten more than I remember. Tony Allen (and his teammate Zach Randolph) are the only ones that meant enough to a team and city that the Grizzlies announced that they will retire their jerseys while still active as players, and while playing for another team.

I’ll remember Tony Allen.