The late and great Kobe Bryant once said that the best defender he ever faced was former Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen. The 6’6 guard from the University of Connecticut made a career out of guarding the best scorers in the league, none better than Bryant, whom he harassed in the NBA Finals series of 2008 and 2010. The Laker legend respected Allen so much that he gifted him a signed pair of sneakers after their final match-up in 2016 when Allen was playing for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Allen played fourteen seasons in the NBA, his first six with the Boston Celtics, the team he won a championship within just his fourth season as they defeated Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. Allen was never one for stats, so his numbers are not exactly worth revisiting. However, the praise he received from Kobe is a testament to Allen’s impact on the floor. Tony played in 75 games for the Celtics in the 07-08 season and served as a valuable role player to compliment the big three of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and the Defensive Player of the Year that season, Kevin Garnett. Tony again played Kobe with great patience and tenacity in the 2010 Finals, which the Celtics ended up losing in seven games. Tony’s performance in this series primed him for his impending free agency, which ultimately resulted in Allen joining the Memphis Grizzlies.
Allen spent seven seasons with the Grizzlies, helping the franchise achieve the most success in its history through multiple playoff runs in the 2010s. More importantly, he helped shape the famous Grit and Grind culture in Memphis, for which the franchise is still known today despite the many changes to its roster and play style. Along with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley, Allen helped the Grizzlies bring back the smash-mouth type of basketball that was lost with the breaking up of the Detroit Pistons teams of the previous decade.
Gasol and Z-bo were physical in the paint but could also stay out on the perimeter for short stretches, giving the Grizzlies defense options that most teams didn’t have in terms of that balance of physicality and mobility. In the backcourt, Conley and Allen would play honest defense. Both were exceptionally fundamentally sound on the defensive side of the ball and caused opposing backcourts many problems; it’s only fitting that Allen’s jersey will be retired when the Grizzlies play the Utah Jazz, Conley’s current team.
During his time in Memphis, Allen earned the nickname “The Grindfather”, this speaks volumes of how valuable Tony was in building and maintaining the culture of the franchise, one that we see in their current roster with guys like Dillon Brooks and newly acquired Steven Adams.
The retiring of Allen’s number 9 may seem like a lowly small-market team trying to reach for chances to honor the players in their brief history as a franchise, but that’s certainly not the case. In an era when players are often measured by the stats attached to their name, the recognition of Tony Allen’s contributions to the game is a welcome reminder that the game is played and won on both sides of the ball, with toughness and cohesion, not just talent. Of course, there will be many more Grizzlies that will have their numbers retired in the years to come, but the ceremonies honoring the pioneers of Grit and Grind are the ones that excite me the most.
The Memphis Grizzlies also plan to honor Zach Randolph with his own jersey retirement ceremony, so Grizzlies fan or not, it’s time to buckle up for a year full of Grit and Grind memories. There will likely be more compelling stories on that day, but I already have my calendar marked for January 28 to honor The Grindfather. Hopefully, you and the rest of the NBA do too, and we can see this era’s Memphis Grizzlies, along with some other franchises, breathe more of that energy back into the NBA.