Monson: Persistent Utahn signs on with Cavaliers
Lance Allred broke down and cried, right there in the team shower of the Idaho Stampede. He hid over in a corner where his teammates couldn't see him and, there, naked and nearly shattered, in a profound moment of pain, turned on the Rainbirds in his eyes.
A life spent hurting suddenly spilled over and hurt even more.
Not just because, an hour earlier, wads of calluses had torn off the bottom of his feet during a practice due, in part, to ill-suited basketball shoes left over from the previous season spent in some off-track hoop purgatory in Spain. But also because he questioned the path down which his ripped, bloody feet had taken him.
"I was discouraged and I was broke," Allred says. "I thought, 'What am I doing here? Where is my life going?' "
He didn't know it at that pitiable juncture, but, after vagabonding through gyms scattered around Europe, after having been chased down an Istanbul street with $10,000 in his pocket, after getting gypped out of more than $100,000 by shady pro clubs and shown the door without proper medical treatment after a knee injury, that life of his was headed to the NBA.
He did know from where it had come.
Allred is the former East High School player who went on to the University of Utah, where his basketball experience was ruptured by rough treatment put upon him by former Ute coach Rick Majerus. The 6-foot-11 center, who had overcome physical ailments, severe hearing impairment, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a family environment that, for a time, was polygamous, had been verbally abused, called, he says, by his former coach a "deaf, dumb
f---" and a "disgrace to cripples" in front of his teammates.
After transferring to Weber State, Allred, who suffered the loss of 75 percent of his hearing and required the help of amplification devices, had the courage to speak out about Majerus, who denied Allred's claims, but who then abruptly quit as coach. Later, the player said he was "amazed" at the effect his revelations, confirmed by two other players and a staff member, had on the basketball landscape in Utah.
As for his own landscape, following his college days, in the summer of 2005, Allred tried to impress NBA scouts at the annual Portsmouth pre-draft camp, but apparently made a positive impression on no one associated with the league. He got only one workout, with the Jazz, and went undrafted before signing a $120,000 contract to play for a team in Turkey, the same club for which former Ute Britton Johnsen and former Jazzman Dee Brown play.
His experience there was comically sad.
He received his initial pay from the team in the form of a bundle of cash - delivered to Allred by the club manager in an open shopping mall - in plain view of the people around him.
"Everyone saw it," he says. "So, I took off running. I was afraid. I ran back to my hotel and sent the money home to my family as soon as I could. After that, I didn't get paid for a month and a half. I finally said, 'You either pay me, or I'm not playing.' "
That same day, a team official showed up at Allred's door to take him to the airport. "They just let me go," he says.
Problem was, he didn't know where to go.
Allred hired a new agent, who immediately got him a gig in France. He went straight to the pro team in Rouen, an hour north of Paris, where he, as a European history buff, appreciated all the sights and scenery around him, but could not make much headway in the form of playing good basketball inside the walls around the court.
After two months, his deal expired and he signed on with another French team, but did not play much. Thereafter, he went to Spain, where he appreciated a "more relaxed" atmosphere, which was significant to Allred because of his rather intense personality.
He is an eccentric, a bit of a fastidious intellectual - a former academic All-American at Weber - who gets heavy into subjects that draw his focus, such as the minutiae of medieval history and the workings of criminal justice. He's already written one book - a novel about a Teutonic knight - and is working on two others - his personal memoirs and a Victorian satire.
"There's a lot of stuff to write," he says.
The siestas, the comfortable environs in Spain soothed his spirits, but the basketball didn't get much better. In fact, it got worse after damage in his knee slowed him down. Doctors for the Spanish team attributed the pain to a pre-existing arthritic condition, which Allred suspected was an excuse for the club to get out of paying for the joint's repair.
He came back to Utah, where he paid for his own MRI, wiped out what little money he had saved, and discovered the real cause of the pain - untidy cartilage that required surgery.
At that point, Allred was prepared to bag basketball and, as he says it, "become a high school history teacher like my dad."
Next thing, his agent hooked him up with the Stampede, a Development League outfit in Boise. Some D-League players, the ones with NBA contracts, make big money. Others, like Allred, hauled down about $20,000. But, he figured, it was his last chance in a last resort - in a place filled with guys taking their last chance in their last resort.
"Everybody's there to get a better job," he says. "It's real competitive, like a bunch of interns trying to get a job on Wall Street."
When Allred subsequently blew out the balls of his feet in practice, he thought the game's sharks had finally eaten him alive, that basketball had betrayed him. He developed ulcers because of too much anxiety.
But Idaho's coach, Bryan Gates, got him a new pair of shoes, and he persisted. As the weeks rolled by, Allred, at least in practice, progressed and gained confidence. He worked on his post moves, but he also reshaped his face-up game. When a couple of teammates were injured and called up to the NBA, he got a genuine opportunity to play.
In his second game as a starter, Allred scored 30 points. Over the last 10 games of last season, he averaged 22 points and 13 rebounds. During the offseason, he went for a month to play in Puerto Rico, where he was promised $14,000, and got $7,000.
After that, he went to the Boston Celtics' summer camp, played for the D-League's All-Star team in a tour through China, and - get this - spent two months clearing land and doing landscaping at his aunt's house in Salt Lake.
"I needed the money," he says. "She paid me well. I spent the time hauling trees and using a Weed-whacker."
Allred followed that by playing for two weeks with the EA Sports team that played a preseason exhibition against Utah State, among other college teams.
When the Development League schedule commenced, he went back to Boise and continued putting up big numbers, regularly posting double-doubles. At a D-League showcase, an event meant to attract the attention of NBA executives to worthy prospects, Allred scored 24 points and grabbed 12 boards in one game and had 18 and nine in another.
"I finally was on the NBA radar," he says.
He also was included in a feature on the Development League done by Sports Illustrated, which also created some buzz.
"You talk about perseverance," says Gates. "The one thing about Lance is he's always had to adjust to everything. When he got here, he sat back and figured it out. If he wanted to be a painter, he could figure that out. He's smart, he's 6-11, has great hands, he sets screens, rebounds, plays defense, and he runs the floor. He's just kept getting better and better."
Utah Flash coach Brad Jones, whose team faced Allred three times this season, says the center/forward has a game not unlike Mehmet Okur's, with some fire: "He can shoot it and pass it for a big guy, and he's a competitor around the basket. I like his tenacity. He has an understanding of the way the game should be played."
Still, Allred was almost frightened to dream about making it in the big league.
"It's hard to think about the NBA," he says, "when you're waking up in a hotel in some small town somewhere like . . ."
When the NBA All-Star game happened in New Orleans, Allred won the D-League's attendant H-O-R-S-E competition, beating the Jazz's Morris Almond and others. He also got 16 points and eight boards in the minor league's All-Star game.
Allred busied himself thereafter, working on his game, driving his beat-down '98 Nissan Altima to the gym - "Hey," he says, "it gets 20 miles to the gallon" - in Boise and back, playing in games, trying not to fantasize about what might come his way.
His call-up finally arrived from the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 12, when he was in Utah for a game against the Flash. After everything he had been through, after all the back roads he had traveled, Allred simply shook his head: "I was blown away."
In typical Lance fashion, when the Cavs flew him back to meet up with the team in Washington D.C., in first class, Allred instead slipped into coach, where he laid across a couple seats and tried to sleep.
"For some reason, he felt more comfortable there," Gates says, laughing.
Allred's played little for Cleveland over his 10-day contract, but has done his job in practice. The first time he walked on an NBA court, over an 18-second span, he fired up a wayward shot that might have been an airball had it not changed direction slightly, glancing off the rim.
"It was nice just to be there," he says. "I'm grateful."
The 27-year-old Allred is astounded at the luxuries of the NBA: the Cavs' multiple gourmet chefs and team masseuses, the practice facility, the paychecks that actually arrive in full and on time, and all the other goodies. He was informed Saturday that he'll be retained by Cleveland for a second 10-day contract.
Gates and Jones guess that Allred will stick somewhere in the NBA, either now or later, because he's physically good enough and more intelligent and pliable than most players his size.
Allred himself has no clue about his ultimate fate. But he's taking notes on all things and hoping to someday publish a detailed personal account of every undulation from beginning to end.
"If I can give other people who face challenges some kind of hope, then that's good," says the man who cried in the shower that awful, painful day, cursing his own feet. "You only get one life, so you've got to make the most of it."
* GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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