Former NBA player and defensive stud Tony Allen sat down with NBA.com to share stories from his playing days, his top defenders in today's game and more.
(Editor's Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited).
* * *
NBA.com: Where are you these days? I know you’re from Chicago, but I also know you love you some Memphis.
Tony Allen: I’m in Memphis. I stayed down here simply because, man, I don’t get love like this anywhere else. I’ve been in a lot of states. But for real, for real, from just going to get gas, seeing school teachers, people who are just doing stuff for the community, just having those relationships with those people and those people just seeing me outside of events or whatever, they respect the work that I put in to those areas. Not only that, but also what I embodied on the court in Memphis. I’ve been everywhere. I won a championship in Boston. I get love out there, but the love that I get here, and even from my hometown (Chicago), it’s just a whole different type of love.
Tony Allen was given a standing ovation in his first game back in Memphis.— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) October 19, 2017
Grit and Grind forever. pic.twitter.com/cNgfU8xl7t
What are you doing these days? TV, radio, what kind of stuff?
I’m trying to get into that field. I sat back and gave myself a year and a half, two basketball seasons, and I reflected. I was like, ‘Yo, let me just go ahead and see what these, what we call experts are saying.’ I think my opinion matters. I played on the hardwood, battled with some of the best. I know that routine and preparing for competition. It’s like, I did it at a high level and I prepared at a high level. If we needed extra assistance on the defensive end, I’ve mastered that. I think I did. I prepared myself to be the best. And I study talents. I study all types of talents, man, from 6-10 guys, even guys as short as Lou Williams that score the ball. My job was definitely embraced with toughness, pride, and hanging my hat on that end.
Explain how you earned your defensive prowess.
I think that all started when I was young. [My college coach Eddie] Sutton, he told me that I was going to have to start changing my game to be more defensive-minded, and was teaching me the tools. When I got to Boston, I still thought I was like a player of the year kind of guy. Before all that, I thought I was this prolific type of scorer. These guys needed me to be a puzzle. Doc [Rivers] told me if I wanted to be on the court, I needed to be making the 50-50 plays, diving for loose balls, taking charges and trying to make plays. That’s how I would stay on the court. A lot of people look at that as a role player. But a lot of players in the league have too much pride to even take that type of conversation from a coach because guys are so talented coming in.
Aren’t you trying to start an academy that focuses primarily on teaching defense sort of like what Kobe Bryant is doing with the Mamba Academy?
We want to pretty much take that same format out there with what they’re doing with the offensive camps. The mindset of it is they’re taking the defense out of the game now. And you’ve got a lot of guys who could improve on the defensive end. I’m just going to throw a name out there right now, and I’m not saying he needs improvement. But let’s say [Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Andrew] Wiggins to throw a name out there speaking hypothetically to give you an example of the mindset of our camp. He’s skilled, he’s talented, but if he could get a few techniques in how to defend the pick-and-roll, going over, picking his poison, and how to limit guys with numerous attributes to their games, that could help. Hell, let’s throw in Devin Booker. Monty Williams is a defensive-minded coach, who probably wants Devin to be more defensive-minded moving forward. There are guys who probably could improve at trying to stop guys with numerous amounts of attributes in one-on-one situations. I’ve mastered that. I know I’ve studied a lot of film on that. I know a lot of coverages that the league is playing right now.
The bigs are pretty much not even in the play. It’s like a three-man pick-and-roll because the bigs are so far back in the pick-and-roll. I guess they want you to give up the mid-range shot. However, when you’ve got guys like Damian Lillard, who sees a wide-open goal when he comes off the pick-and-roll, it’s like a layup and a basket. I want to teach bigs as well. Who’s the big from Washington, [Thomas] Bryant? They’re probably implementing that style of defense for him, but hey, wouldn’t it be great to have that knowledge to be great in a show pick-and-roll where the big is up a little more, where a big can pretty much blitz the pick-and-roll, pretty much trap the pick-and-roll or have the agility and the mindset of how we’re going to defend it. In this academy, you’ll have those tools. Defense in the league is pretty much a lost art. What greater guy to teach that than me?
So how do you decide who to invite?
That’s the conversation now. Like, how elite do we want to go? We’ll do maybe college kids, high school kids, and have pros be invited to the camp not only to just participate and get the knowledge, but just to keep it elite and getting the best of the best in there to keep up that defense-first mindset.
For you, who are the dogs on defense in the NBA right now?
I’ve got a handful of guys I love. Obviously, don’t nothing move without us talking about Kawhi Leonard. Those battles with him were always the ones you made sure you got your nice rest for. However, me looking at the game now, I just think Kawhi pretty much dominates both ends. Him alongside his other two teammates Paul George and Patrick Beverley, those guys are pretty much standouts. But you can’t talk defense without saying what’s up to my First-Team All-Defense alumni Marcus Smart. I like the way that he’s implemented the 3-ball to his game to add playmaking and ball skills. Also, he calls himself a stretch 6. He’s a sixth-man that can stick 1 through 5. The league is going small. You catch the guy sticking Kevin Love in some games. Then, you catch him sticking Damian Lillard. So, he’s 1 through 5, you know what I mean?
He said that he’s on “another level.”
Right, he’s definitely on another level. I like the way he implements a little bit of acting in there. He does it to get some charges, and he does a little bit of antics. He looks like he’s always agitated. I love his swagger. But those guys I just mentioned are some of the names that stand out the most in today’s game to me.
I remember me trying to get my first little couple of swings at him, and all I can remember is Glen Davis knocking me out. Boom."
You mentioned Paul Pierce earlier. Seems like you’ve got a ton of respect for him. Can you tell me about the relationship with him?
Funny story, but our relationship really kicked off in Summer League. He came and visited one of the games right after I got drafted. He looked at all of us, and said, “What’s up rooks?” Everybody turned around. Then he came and stood behind me and was like, “Oh, this is young fella huh? OK. I’ve got $500 for five dunks.” And I was like, five dunks? Yo, that’s easy. I got two dunks right off the rip. He sat there and watched me get five dunks. He gave me my $500, and ever since then we’ve just been cool. I was like the little brother that he never had and he was like the big brother that I never had or something like that. We’re just real cool, man.
That championship squad that you played on in Boston had so many dominant personalities -- Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and more. How did you guys navigate relationships with all those personalities?
I think Doc Rivers gave everybody the freedom to speak their minds when they saw something. There could be times in film sessions where certain guys would get into arguments. We respected everybody’s opinion. There would be times we would be at the gym watching film, and I’d see Rondo say, “Rewind the tape. Ticket (Kevin Garnett), you need to be here.” We’re men. Not only that, we actually liked each other. We actually loved hanging around each other. If we go into a town, Ticket would be like, “We’re all going out to eat, yo.” We were around each other more than we were around our own families. When adversity hits or tempers flare or whatever, we could understand where somebody is coming from. With that being said, I just think that respect was probably the common denominator through all that. Everybody respected each other. We all rode for each other.
I heard a story about y’all putting on the boxing gloves at practice one day to settle differences. Did this really happen?
(Laughing) Yeah, man. The boxing gloves were definitely an idea from Paul Pierce. All I can remember is him bothering Patrick O’Bryant. Patrick O’Bryant was in there eating breakfast, and Paul Pierce didn’t like that he was eating breakfast before he got his workout in. He thought he should’ve been out there in the gym working with him, instead of chilling in there lounging. He said, “You know what, from now on I ain’t gonna raise my voice at nobody.” He said, “If I’ve got a problem, we’re putting on the gloves.” I found it real funny man. I’m like, “Yo, P, this dude is 7-feet tall and you’re trying to put some gloves on this athletic frame here?” He was like, “I’ve got gloves for everybody because I’m tired of everybody bickering.” Just in case, he had all sizes. So then it just became a funny thing. I was like, “Yo, OK. I know somebody I want to box.” Man, we came in there, and all I can remember is me picking out Glen Baby Davis. I remember me trying to get my first little couple of swings at him, and all I can remember is Glen Davis knocking me out. Boom. I fell. They said, “Awww, he’s knocked out.” They all started laughing and running. That was probably one of the most weird ways to bring in camaraderie and bring in love and togetherness. But it was funny, man.
Who was the toughest cover in all your years in the league?
Kobe Bryant, obviously. No other player that I’ve ever played against fouled me out in like eight minutes. I’d have our video guy give me every move he would make over the last 12 games [and] put everything in segments. I’d find myself waking up in the morning watching the laptop while I’m brushing my teeth, rewinding, rewinding, rewinding, rewinding, just hitting rewind. Kobe is almost like Jordan. A lot of Jordan moves, fadeaway, fadeaway, head fake, head fake. Jab step, stop, pull up. Boom. Or I’m gonna take you to the hole and dunk. The only time I’m gonna shoot this 3 is when it’s low clock, catch-and-shoot or swing-swing. I was starting to notice how he was trying to simplify his game just to get 20 points. I knew when he was going to try to be aggressive. I would look at the points on the scoreboard. I’d be like, “Alright, this man’s got 10 points coming into the half. He’s for sure about to shoot the skin off this [expletive] (laughing).” For him to acknowledge that I was one of the best defenders to guard him, man, he probably was the only guy that I would fall asleep watching film on.
How did it make you feel to know that the Memphis Grizzlies planned on retiring your jersey?
I ain’t gonna lie, I got kind of emotional at the time they brought me the news. I can’t front. As it soaked in, I got to thinking more and more about everything I did just to prepare, from rehab to strength and conditioning, long nights in the gym, battling in practice, keying in on my opponents and all the homework in that, just the blood, sweat and tears in that grind, in that jersey and all that. They showed a lot of love. It had me teary, man. It was one of those really emotional moments because I was in the locker room with some good dudes, had some good coaches, some real big personalities. We changed the whole narrative to “grit and grind” and “we don’t bluff.” Before you knew it, teams were scared to see us and match up with us in the playoffs. It just shows what we embodied.
Speaking of that, you were the embodiment of an entire era of Memphis Grizzlies basketball. You’re the Grindfather. “All heart. Grit. Grind.” When you said those words in 2011 after a win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, did you think they would start an entire movement and galvanize the city the way they did?
I was out there playing because the starter wasn’t playing, and I felt that this was my time to show out because I didn’t have nothing to lose. I played upset and that interview wouldn’t have come out like that if I’m not upset. I was just upset. I ain’t gonna lie, when I was playing for the Celtics, you felt like it was a sure win when you had the Grizzlies on the schedule. But later on, it became like, “Damn, we’ve got Memphis.” But let me just tell you this: All heart, grit, grind is a movement. First things first: Ain’t nobody giving Memphis nothing. You’ve got to go get what you’re gonna get, period. And that’s how we had to break through. Like, alright, we’re going to maul everybody on the defensive end, and we’re gonna pound them on the block. That’s how we’re rocking. That’s how we’re gonna win our games. But now, we’ve got the uptempo style of play. But even now, you can’t go away from what held your fort down for that whole time, for that like seven-year period. Why would you go away from your DNA? You can’t, it’s still going to have to be within you. A lot of young players, even now, ask for pointers on certain guys, and I talk to them and give them my insight. That’s Tony Allen man. That’s just me.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.