Niche NBA players rarely get much acknowledgement on their way out of the door. However, there are a few exceptions. On Thursday, the Memphis Grizzlies announced that they’ll be retiring Tony Allen’s No. 9 jersey, whenever he retires.
The decision to honor Allen, who this summer left Memphis after seven seasons to join the New Orleans Pelicans, comes on the heels of the organization announcing plans to retire the No. 50 long worn by Zach Randolph, who teamed with Allen and still-standing Grizzlies Mike Conley and Marc Gasol to elevate the franchise to NBA relevance. Allen and Randolph, in particular, became standard-bearers for the “grit-and-grind” culture that became the Grizzlies’ calling card over the years, endearing them to their local fans and putting them on the NBA map.
After hearing the news, an emotional Allen, 35, responded like a man who attended his own funeral service while still alive.
“I laid my mark down, considered (Memphis) home. The organization was A-1,” Allen said. “I’ve got a lot of friends and family in the city. It’s the ‘Grit and Grind’, the whole era, just the groundwork. Obviously, it’s a dream come true to have your number retired in the NBA.
“I just want to thank everybody who was a part of the movement. I appreciate it.” […]
“I never really was doing that for noteriety,” Allen said. “I never was trying to be in your paper or your latest magazine. I was doing it just playing hard, playing the right way — trying to win. I never cared about the fanciness or All-Star games. All I wanted to just be known for was being one of the greatest defenders that ever played the game. I just thank Memphis for allowing me that opportunity to be able to play.”
— Tony Allen (@aa000G9) October 12, 2017
It wasn’t always this way for Allen. He won a ring as a young, athletic reserve off-guard with the Boston Celtics 10 years ago. It was the Grizzlies and their fans, however, who truly appreciated his defensive focus and hustle. Memphis’ announcement is an affirmation of the choice Allen made in free agency seven years ago. In a rare moment of honesty at his Grizzlies introductory press conference, Allen admitted he couldn’t return to Boston because he felt overshadowed by the likes of superstars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Allen should be a hero to the Marcus Smarts of the NBA. He was the Grizzlies’ defensive captain and, for years, the league’s preeminent lockdown perimeter defender, getting named to three All-Defensive First Teams and a trio of All-Defensive Second Teams during that period. Few perimeter defenders could inspire lengthy defensive highlight reels like Allen did.
Allen has never eclipsed 30 minutes a game in his career, and only averaged double-digit points during the year before Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett arrived in Boston. Throughout his seven seasons in Memphis, he averaged a relatively modest 8.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 25.1 minutes per game … but he became the avatar for the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies all the same. Allen’s undeniable intensity spread, almost by osmosis.
In six out of his seven seasons in Memphis, the Grizzlies finished among the NBA’s top 10 in defensive efficiency. Offensively, he’s been one of the NBA’s best offensive rebounding guards, leading all guards in the category during his final season with Memphis, and did most of his scoring at the rim. He even coined the phrase “grit-and-grind,” which would come to define their era after one of the best games of his career.
“To make a long story short, we win,” Allen said. “Y’all can YouTube this too, in case you think it’s fabricated. I was so upset with [former Grizzlies teammate] Rudy [Gay] for not playing … I end up having 27 points, eight rebounds and like five steals. Mind you, I hadn’t played in 22-some-odd games, and this is to let you know how in shape I was. [Kevin] Durant had like 35, but they lost. When they gave me my interview, the first thing I said was, ‘It’s just all heart. Grit and grind.’ That’s how that phrase blossomed in Memphis. I was still upset. That was really a jab at Rudy Gay. But he’s my man today, I’ve forgiven him for that. But yeah, that’s where it started at in Memphis.”
It won’t end there for Allen; he’ll continue his NBA career with the Pelicans, with whom he’ll return to Memphis for their preseason finale on Friday night, and for New Orleans’ regular-season opener next Wednesday. But no matter where Allen goes from here, he’ll receive a raucous ovation whenever he sets foot in The Grindhouse, the building he helped name and in which his jersey will hang for future generations to salute.