By Sam Smith
The Bulls late Wednesday were trying to fight back against the Memphis Grizzlies when Tony Allen made a clever back door cut, losing Bulls defenders and scored on a dunk for a crucial four-point Memphis lead with two minutes remaining in the game. The Grizzlies went on to win 98-91, and Allen knew he never could have done it without Will Bynum.
“My brother, my brother for life,” Allen said about the Windy City Bulls point guard, Bynum. “He saved me. I’m here because of him; I’m here for him.”
NBA players often talk of their exclusive club as a brotherhood, but it truly is when it involves the fellow Chicagoans, Bynum, who played eight seasons in the NBA and now is with Windy City. Wednesday night he was continuing his basketball career with Windy City, scoring 20 points in Windy City’s 111-104 win over Greensboro.
Allen had 10 points and six rebounds and a team plus-15 against the Bulls. He is in his 13th NBA season instead of what looked like a life lost to the streets.
Their story is one of the most remarkable in the NBA and shows the extent of the brotherhood so often discussed. Bynum is regarded as future NBA coaching material with his point guard ability to run a team and see the court, but also his mentoring nature with young players. His interaction with Allen is a classic case.
Allen recalled before Wednesday’s game his tortuous journey to the NBA, which was unlike so many and unlikely until Bynum became his guide. They’d known one another as kids, playing “bitty basketball,” as Allen called it.
But Allen admits he got caught up in that classic wrong crowd, not so difficult on the West and South Sides of Chicago. His euphemism was “the in crowd.” It was gang life.
“It was when I got cut by coach Loren Jackson at Julian,” Allen related. “I just was trying to hang with the in crowd and coach Jackson caught wind of it and cut me from the team (as a freshman).
“Basically I was embarrassed, discouraged,” said Allen. “The only love I could get was my neighborhood and hanging with the in crowd and that wasn’t going too well. Runins with the law, being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It was everything that goes on in the streets.”
It rarely ends well, especially since Allen stopped going to school.
So he’s hanging out at Illinois Tech one summer day and gets into a basketball game, where Bynum sees him. Asks him what he’s been doing, where has he been. Allen didn’t have much to say, the street life not much to brag about. But Bynum could brag, even if he didn’t, and Allen said he saw it. He saw Bynum’s game, the slick ball handling, everyone coming to watch him. It seemed so appealing, but that was gone now for Tony Allen. Or so he thought. Allen could play, a rugged 6-4 and physical; won’t back down against anyone. The streets, you know. But Will had something he never could have, Allen thought.
“Will saw me playing and said, ‘Where the hell you been?’” Allen related. He said, ‘You you need to get back in school.’ He told me about Crane Tech, said they needed a guard like me. He told the principal and coach that we needed this guy, spoke up for me.”
But it was junior year and Allen didn’t even have a single high school credit. OK, Will would vouch for him, but Tony had to work.
“I’d get to school two hours early and stayed late two hours,” Allen said. “I had to make up for those years I missed. But I wanted that notoriety he was getting. Not what I was getting. He showed me college letters he was getting, going to Nike and Adidas camps.
“’How do you get that?’” Allen recalled asking. “I didn’t know anything about recruiting. He got me to understand the basketball world, what it took, what it was about. I didn’t know anything.”
But to his credit, Allen was serious.
He went to Butler County Community College in Kansas and then Illinois’ Wabash Valley College before transferring to Oklahoma State. He was a late first round draft pick of the Celtics in 2004, but your life catches up with you sometimes. Allen was accused in a South Side fight in 2005 in which there was a shooting. He was found not guilty in 2007. He’s gone on to become one of the NBA’s elite defenders and a mainstay of tough Memphis teams.
He says he doesn’t even like to think about where he’d be if not for Will Bynum.
“He’s first on my speed dial,” says Allen with a smile. “I wanted to get where he was going. I never thought I’d have a chance. There was nothing good before I met Will.”