By Peter F. Stringer
June 6, 2007
Allen's ahead of schedule in his rehab, running on almost all of his body weight. He was originally projected to begin running in July.Peter Stringer/Boston Celtics
WALTHAM - On the dark, damp and miserable morning of May 31, Tony Allen almost didn't make it in to the office.
Throbbing in his surgically repaired left knee woke him at 8:30 a.m., something Allen blamed on the morning rain, but by the time he made it to the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint, the pain had subsided and Allen was ready to go to work.
It's just after 11 a.m. on one of those days where nobody wanted to go to work. Interstate 95 is soaked and moving a shade faster than a standstill. Most of the Celtics' basketball operations office is at the NBA's pre-draft camp in Orlando, Florida, so, Allen is one of only three people in the facility, joined by Physical Therapist Todd Campbell and an intrepid Celtics.com reporter.
"I did not want to come in today," Allen said. "But I knew I had to run on the treadmill today with more weight."
It's the tail end of his workout. A Paul Pierce mix CD is thumping some near-deafening rap music, and Campbell is strapping "T.A." (his handle in Waltham) into a body harness, a contraption that looks like something into which a mountain climber might hook himself. And given the long rehabilitation process he's embarked on, mountain climbing is probably a decent analogy. Allen's five months deep into his rehab as he attempts to reconstruct his left knee from a vicious injury he sustained on January 10 against the Indiana Pacers at the Garden after a post-whistle dunk attempt gone bad, but there's still plenty of mountain between him and the summit.
At this moment, he's facing 15 minutes on the treadmill. His harness is connected to a suspension system that regulates how much body weight he's actually running on. Allen currently weighs in at 225 pounds, and Campbell's set the system to shave off roughly 15% of his weight for the start of the run. He'll gradually adjust the settings throughout so that by the end of the run, Allen's carrying about 90% of his body weight and has a healthy lather going; sweat is soaking through his gray practice shirt.
Within the next week or so, Allen should be running without mechanical assistance.
* * * *
Allen vividly remembers January 10.
That's not surprising. Allen has told several people in the organization that he watches video of the game and the injury every day. He confirmed that again today.
"Yeah...I watch it every day. Every day. Like when I go back home, I'll watch it all the way up until that point. I had 19 points," Allen said. "I watch the game up to that point, and I look at how aggressive I was the whole game, I think about what I was thinking before that game."
He watches the video up until that point every day.
"I look at the game everyday, I watch it, and then I look at the injury - BOOM! - and I'm like...[Allen pauses, and his voice drops]...alright, turn it off. Let's do some leg squats! I've got 40-pound dumbbells I took from the weight room, and I do some lunges."
Masochistic? Perhaps. Motivational? Apparently.
Allen's grandmother, joined by his mother and cousin, had come to Boston that night for the first time to see him play in an actual game, and he was planning to put on a show, just a day before his 25th birthday. Two hours before the game, T.A. was pinballing around the Celtics locker room asking anyone who would listen, reporters included, if they had an iPod charger. He says he told his cousin in a pre-game trash-talking phone call that he was going to "get the win and drop 40 points." He was playing the best basketball of his career and while his iPod may have lacked energy, Allen was clearly juiced.
With Pierce already on the shelf with his stress reaction and Wally Szczerbiak sitting out thanks to recurring ankle injuries, Allen was not only in the starting lineup, but he was about to discover that he was the Celtics' first option. After reeling off six straight 20-point performances, averaging 21.3 points and three steals per game and shooting 55% from the field along the way, Allen had proven he could carry the scoring load over the last two weeks, and frankly, Coach Doc Rivers had nowhere else to turn.
"Seeing how easy it was when I was getting those points, and as I look at the game, Doc was actually coming to me," Allen said of the Indiana game. "I realized that during the game, they were coming to me through the first half."
Allen had really just found his groove since returning from an offseason surgery and rehab on his right knee (a much less severe injury than the one he would suffer on this night) and was no longer fumbling away fast breaks by dribbling the ball of his foot or mishandling balls passed a hair too low. His timing was back, syncing up with the strength and explosiveness upon which his game is predicated. His first step was lethal again. He was finishing loud. Screaming after big plays. And he was no longer pounding his head with his fist - an unseemly, habitual display after a boneheaded play or careless turnover earlier in the season.
Allen was shooting 51% from the field for the year, ranking him fourth among all NBA guards at the time, and he was compensating for poor three-point shooting by making a concerted effort to head for the basket, draw contact, absorb the hit and release a quality attempt at the basket. Rivers had asked Allen to make four drives to the hoop for every one outside shot he took, and the message obviously got through. After practice on January 9, Allen was echoing Rivers' sentiments and told Celtics.com that he felt "good as an all-around player right now."
On January 10, he was in the midst of his best game. Until that point.
That point, of course, is 3:01 remaining in the third quarter. Up until that point, Allen had played all but one second of the game. He'd racked up 19 points, two rebounds, three assists, five steals, several deflections and a well-deserved Tommy Point, and he was flying around the court like a moth at a porch light in August. Allen was darting into passing lanes, coming up with loose balls and creating havoc on the defensive end -- the same thing he'd been doing for the last few weeks, imploring TV analyst and Hall-of-Famer Tommy Heinsohn to call him a "first-class pest on defense" who was "playing like an All-Star" during the broadcast.
Easily the most active player on the court, Allen looked like he might just deliver on his bombastic "40 and the win" boast, and it was shaping up to be a special night for T.A.
Until that point.
* * * *
Celtics Trainer Ed Lacerte and Coach Doc Rivers check on Tony Allen after he injures his knee in the third quarter against the Pacers.Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty
Setting up a drive about 26 feet from the basket at the top of the key, Allen gives Stephen Jackson a ball fake, shakes off a hand-check (whistle!) and then whips by him so fast that all Jackson can do is turn his head. A second defender, Sarunas Jasikevicius, swipes at the ball in the paint as Allen flies by, disrupting Allen's timing as he takes off for the rim. The contact also appears to slightly dislodge the ball from his hands as he takes off, and his dunk attempt hits the back iron, sending him off-kilter. The miss jars him, and his shoulders and torso are fall backward to the left while his lower left leg goes right as it bears his weight.
Allen's left knee twists, and before he even hits the parquet, he's already grabbing for what is now a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), torn medial meniscus and a torn lateral meniscus.
Turned over on his left side, bent at the waist and clutching his knee, Allen rolls to his stomach. "I tried to jump straight up, and realized I couldn't get up," Allen remembered. With his palms and forearms flat on the parquet, Allen starts dragging himself across the floor about a foot, then rolls back over to grab his knee again. As Trainer Ed Lacerte leaned over him to check on him, Allen starts slapping the floor in agony.
"Al [Jefferson], he was like, 'he's good, he's got that killer instinct in him, he's good.' And then, I said, 'no, no' and I was pounding the floor. And that's when I knew I was hurt," Allen said. "At that time, I was like, I just need some help off the court. It was embarrassing."
But neither the accident's severity, nor its reality, had set in. Allen says that as Lacerte, Michael Olowokandi and Leon Powe carried him off the court, he told former teammate Orien Greene, now a Pacer, that he was "just about to get 40 and the win." And when he was heading for the hospital with his mother in Brian Scalabrine's car (Scal had also suffered a minor knee injury that night and escorted Allen to New England Baptist Hospital), when Allen's mother asked why they weren't taking an ambulance, Allen told her, "this is better than an ambulance. This is Scal!"
Allen said he recalls feeling like he could walk once he was at the hospital.
"I felt good in the wheelchair. And I tried to walk, and they grabbed me like, 'no big fella, you can't walk. You're hurt.' That's when it clicked in that I was really, really hurt," Allen said. "I couldn't walk. I thought my leg was so strong. When all of the adrenaline was over, I still felt strong in my leg, but I couldn't walk."
Allen says that shortly his injury, Celtics Executive Director of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge e-mailed him to tell him that his injury was a shame because he'd "just gotten his swagger back."
Reality hit hard and fast. Hobbled, Allen relied on crutches for almost seven weeks as he began the rehab journey, and while by all accounts he's considered ahead of schedule, after some prodding he confessed he only feels like he's about 50% of the way back.
* * * *
Allen has started some very light jumping as he learns deceleration techniques and works on his balance.Peter Stringer/Boston Celtics
It's just after 9 a.m. on Monday, June 4, and Allen is sitting out by the practice court, pouring over the 2006-07 schedule, asking, "When did we win five in a row?" He wants a DVD of every game from then on, which is basically the last month of NBA basketball he played. The Celtics beat the New Jersey Nets on December 9 and ripped off four more wins before Paul Pierce succumbed to his stress reaction injury. But Allen's game was really starting to come together in December, and he wants to take another look at the best basketball of his three-year NBA career.
But Allen won't be watching his highlight reels tonight; he had a corrective LASIK procedure on his right eye Friday evening after his workout, and is scheduled to have his left eye done in a few days. So he's wearing oversized, protective wraparound sunglasses and he's under the opthamologist's orders not to sweat into his eye. Allen jokes with everyone, so it comes as no surprise that Massage Therapist Vladimir Shulman, who often sits next to Allen on the team plane and told Allen that the flights weren't the same without him, is already ridiculing him for wearing sunglasses indoors.
A headband will have to keep the perspiration at bay, because he'll be sweating in a matter of minutes as Strength and Conditioning coach Walter Norton Jr. puts him through the paces for about two hours. But Allen needs to get loose first, so Campbell sets him up on the trainer's table to loosen up his joints, flexing both legs and kneading his knee before he heads out to the court to take about 40 jumpers. He's barely getting off the ground, and several shots are falling short. Then again, given the eye surgery, we'll let his lack of marksmanship slide for now. "My handle's a little rusty, too," Allen said after dribbling a ball off his foot before winding up for another short-armed three.
Still, considering that a month ago he wasn't even allowed to attempt a jumpshot, it's progress. Allen hits the floor for some more stretching before strapping a blue resistance band around his ankles and shuffling sideways. A few more drills focus on core strength, ankle mobility, various squatting maneuvers and a few deceleration (landing small jumps) techniques.
Allen's not ready for any explosive jumping at this point, but he does need to build confidence in his knee's stability, as well as learn to absorb impact of even the smallest jumps. Some of the drills look simplistic (and many of them are, by design), but Norton spends most of his time instructing Allen on proper technique. "Elbows up...get that butt out... don't lean forward on the knee, and hold the landing."
Allen is upbeat throughout the workout. He regularly steps into dance moves between sets of chin-ups, and has a few laughs with Jefferson when the center arrives for some agility drills of his own. "Do it just like Nort, Big Al...just like Nort," he taunts as Jefferson goes through his own workout. The mood is light, and the music is loud. Allen is constantly adjusting the tunes in the gym either by changing the track, replaying the same track much to the annoyance of Jefferson, cranking up the volume, or singing over the lyrics. Make no mistake, he's having fun while he busts his behind.
"It varies, there's ups and downs," Allen said. "What do I have to overcome today? What are they gonna throw at me today? Ain't no fight. I know they're here to help me."
Allen repeatedly cites Norton, Bryan Doo, Shulman and Cambpell for their help in the process with both rehabs. He's constantly quoting their advice and obviously appreciates the time and energy they've put into rebuilding his knee and his career. And while he doesn't want to listen to doubters who might suggest he can't return to form -- "I don't care who has doubts. I know what I can do. As far as doubters, everybody gets doubted about something..." -- he certainly knows that in a contract year, he has a lot at stake.
Physical Therapist Todd Campbell ices down Allen's knee after a day of rehab.Peter Stringer/Boston Celtics
"Guys like Willie Green, I called him and asked him what was the key to getting back. I saw him go down the lane a couple of times with tomahawk dunks, tip-dunks on people. He's very athletic and quick, like he never lost it. That kind of guy motivates me," Allen said. "Nene, I don't know if he had an ACL, but I think he had a severe injury...[Amare] Stoudemire, look at Stoudamire. Those guys motivate me every day."
Aside from watching his contemporaries recover from similar injuries, Allen has a few things of his own going for him in this rehabilitation process. First off, he's a pretty amazing specimen to begin with, easily the best pure athlete on the team. He's extremely muscular and built up plenty of strength in both legs while rehabbing his right knee. And while his overall physique is impressive to begin with, Norton says that Allen's body is also incredibly adaptive, allowing for rapid physical transformations. "He could drop 15 pounds in a week, and he could probably put on 15 pounds in about a month," Norton said.
ACL injuries typically require about 12-18 months of recovery time, but everyone's body is different, and different knees can be pushed harder and respond differently during a rehabilitation process. With swelling that completely hid his knee cap, Allen started his rehab right after his January 13 surgery with light, non-weight-bearing exercises. The workouts slowly picked up in intensity as he regained range of motion in the joint and strength in the surrounding muscles.
Finally off crutches on February 26, Allen was back on his feet and by the end of April he began his strength and conditioning program. Norton and Doo have been busy building up the muscles around his knee, as well as his core, throughout May. Allen's knee has responded well, and by all accounts, including his own, his rehab is ahead of schedule.
"We're able to get him to lift harder, go harder, and have more range of motion," Doo said.
While he wasn't projected to be running until July, he started running on the treadmill (with mechanical assistance) a few weeks into May and should be running it on his own in the coming weeks. And while his body's response has been a huge factor in his success to this point, Allen's positive attitude and commitment to the program is not lost on the Celtics' staff.
"Tony's got a great attitude, he comes in ready to work, and he knows it's a big year for him," Doo said. "He's got to prove to everybody that he can come back, and he's got to prove it to himself that he can come back. Watching these guys playing while he's not playing, that's a big motivation for him."
All Allen has to do is look out the window onto the practice court, where Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins are working on post-up drills with Assistant Coach Dave Wohl.
"I get jealous, because if I wasn't hurt I'd be attacking [basketball] the way they are," Allen said. "Unfortunately, I'm attacking an injury and trying to over come that. I know as soon as I get back it's going to be twice as hard in the gym as I normally go to prepare for the season."
Allen is expected to be ready to go in time for training camp in October. For the rest of the summer, the climb continues.