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Grayson Allen’s Legacy

Winning games takes a lot of work but understanding and accepting yourself takes far more.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Kansas vs Duke
Mar 25, 2018; Omaha, NE, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen (3) reacts after losing to the Kansas Jayhawks in the championship game of the Midwest regional of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at CenturyLink Center.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Duke’s out of the NCAA tournament, that means that several players are done.

Marvin Bagley said that he “wasn’t even thinking” about the NBA which was the decent thing to say even if it wasn't entirely true. It would be a major shock if he did anything other than turn pro.

Same for Wendell Carter. Carter had a subpar final game at Duke (assuming that he does go) and seeing how upset he was by his poor performance was touching. In K parlance, that guy unpacked his bags. As impressed as we were by him all season, we were deeply touched by his passion Sunday afternoon.

We don’t know about the freshmen guards yet. Gary Trent is seen as just shy of the lottery and he’s pretty sound overall. And of course his father is a nine-year NBA veteran who can give him better advice than anyone on whether he’s ready or not. And sometimes there are surprises: Lonnie Walker IV’s dad, Lonnie III, is not sure his son is ready and thinks it might break a good idea to stay in school. That’s rare though.

Trevon Duval showed immense talent but he had an uneven year. Even so, he’s slated to go in the 20s which is a bit risky as he might slip further down, conceivably to the second round like Frank Jackson last year. Jackson by the way is going to miss the entire year with injury and he doesn’t have the security of a first-round three-year deal. You pay take your money and you take your chances.

And then there’s Grayson Allen. He’s in the same general range as Duval and could drift up or down. But he’s a senior so he can’t decide to stick around. Which is too bad because you get the idea that he might not mind.

Allen is a really interesting case. He came to Duke as a late bloomer. If we remember correctly, Nate James saw him and told Coach K that he was a significant talent and that Duke should get involved.

That turned out to be really easy: Allen had decided early on that Duke was his dream school and when he was offered it didn’t take him long to accept. How many people get to live their dream in such a straight forward fashion?

Not many of us and, as it turned out, not Allen either. Not exactly anyway.

Allen’s idol was JJ Redick, who made him a Duke fan. In Redick’s case, Christian Laettner’s shot against Kentucky convinced him to seriously pursue basketball and that Duke would be his dream school.

Both of those guys were broadly hated by college basketball fans, and both of those guys thrived on it. Laettner loved going into hostile arenas, bathing in the attention and then sticking the knife in. So did Redick. The more he was antagonized the better he played.

That was never the case with Allen, who became a villain to many but who never loved the role.

Allen came to public attention with a sensational turn in the 2015 title game. His dive on the floor for the ball was, Coach K has said, the most important play in Duke basketball history.

His path was clear: his sophomore year he would start, and if he didn’t go pro, then he would after his junior season.

Things didn't quite work out that way.

During a solid sophomore year, for whatever reason, Allen tripped Louisville’s Ray Spalding and Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes.

It was a dumb thing to do and he should’ve learned his lesson. Yet as a junior, against Elon, he did it again, tripping Steven Santa Ana and then having an emotional meltdown on the bench.

After that event, Coach K suspended him “indefinitely” (it turned out to be one game) and more consequentially, stripped him of his captaincy.

There was a lot we didn't know and will never know about that. We remember Coach K’s comments where he said “I’m responsible for that kid” which is not the same thing as saying you know, that kid acted up and was foolish. It was a striking comment that didn’t really delve on crime and punishment but rather the older man’s responsibility for the younger man.

It spoke more to compassion than anger.

Against Elon, he was emotionally out of control on the bench after that incident. Who knows what he was dealing with? Dan Hurley has been in the news a lot this week but only one article we saw mentioned that he nearly quit basketball in college because of the pressure of his family name. We tend to see these guys as performers more than as fully formed human beings.

But of course like anyone in the public eye, Allen is a human being even if our awareness of his life is mostly limited to one circumstance and even one set of clothes.

He spoke this year about being an introvert and the effort he had to make to become a leader for his team.

More significantly after the UNC win in Cameron, Allen the introvert took the mic and expressed himself honestly, if not fully. He didn’t tell us why, for a time, he lost his love for the game but he did admit to that. Then, he said, he got it back.

That speaks to a powerful emotional journey. The kid who dreamed of going to Duke actually achieved that dream and, like Hurley, lost his passion for a time and then regained it.

As a senior, Allen was much more relaxed, much less guarded and a solid leader for a team that needed one.

When Duval left the lineup briefly, Allen moved to point guard and led effectively from there.

He spoke at times about how much he appreciated Quinn Cook, who was a senior when Allen was a freshman and how Cook became a great leader partly because he followed up with teammates off the court too.

Allen emulated Cook in that and worked hard to keep a young team moving forward.

He went from being a guy who achieved sudden, unexpected stardom as a freshman to a guy who was mocked and ridiculed from coast to coast to a senior who managed to put his (self-imposed) humiliation behind him and to become an effective leader for an extraordinarily young team.

Unlike Laettner, Allen didn’t hit The Shot. Allen’s shot rolled around twice before rimming out which resulted in an overtime loss to Kansas.

His story didn’t have a clean and happy ending. Like his overall career at Duke, there was always a hint that there could have been something more.

And yet step back and look at the big picture.

Bob Knight used to say, correctly we believe, that your toughest opponent is always yourself.

Whatever emotional ying drove Allen to come off the bench and put Duke on his back in 2015, there was a yang that led him to trip. Allen the introvert had emotional struggles that few others who preceded him at Duke could understand.

Maybe Andre Dawkins, who had to fight hard to overcome depression after his sister’s death, had comparable troubles.

It would have been wonderful if Allen’s shot had gone in and Duke had moved to the Final Four. It would have been a neat ribbon to tie the various parts of his career together.

The real measure of Allen’s success at Duke is not wins and losses. It’s his maturation. It’s that he, for whatever reason, fell into an emotional hell that stripped the pleasure out of the propelling force of his life, that game that he loves more than almost anything else - and that he found a way back.

He found his love for the game again, sure, and that’s great.

But he also found personal growth. He came to Duke as a boy. Whatever his emotional issues were, whether they led to the tripping incidents or resulted from them, he dealt with them in a manly fashion.

He came back as a senior because, he said, Duke was where he wanted to be.

Allen was never perfect - who is? - but we’ll remember him for many things. The tripping will never go away but neither will his magnificence in 2015, nor will memories of his redemptive senior season.

In his Nobel prize address, William Faulkner said that he believed mankind would not merely endure but triumph. That’s true for Allen too.

Not many people could go through the humiliation he inflicted on himself, become a nationwide lightning rod, then rise above it all and leave as a full and vastly better man.

Another title would have been great but Allen’s victory is a good bit more subtle than that. His victory is not over another team but over his toughest opponent - himself. And that’s something that many of us could learn from.

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