Tempe, Ariz. • The white van would hit Interstate 10 in Phoenix nearly weekend of the spring and summer, bound for California. That’s where Timmy Allen’s career blossomed in one of the country’s top AAU programs, enabling him to thrive as a University of Utah freshman forward.

Along the way, he learned about more than basketball. “I promise you,” Allen said, “I grew up in that van.”

Ray Arvizu Jr. drove the van and steered Allen through those trying years when the teenager’s mother was dying of cancer. Arvizu became what labels a “brother, mentor, father figure,” influencing him during those six-hour drives for practices and games with the Compton Magic.

Having graduated from Red Mountain High School in Mesa, Ariz., Allen will observe a homecoming Thursday when Utah opens Pac-12 play at Arizona State in nearby Tempe. Amid some rough moments in his adjustment to college basketball, the 6-foot-6 forward is fulfilling Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak’s preseason description of him as “the ultimate team player, [who] does a bunch of things really well” and is “not great at anything.”

That’s more of a compliment than it may appear. Allen ranks No. 2 on the team in assists (2.0), No. 3 in points (9.1) and No. 4 in rebounds (3.6). He’s among three freshman starters providing some hope for the Utes' future, during a season marked by the team’s inconsistency.

Allen shares an unspoken bond with Krystkowiak, whose own mother died of cancer during his childhood. “We know the deal,” Allen said. “There's always that soft spot when you know someone has a fallen [family] member like that.”

Elise Allen died at age 49 in December 2016, during her youngest son’s junior year at Red Mountain. During his first game after her passing, Allen said, “I kept looking up in the stands to see my mom, and she wasn’t there.”

She was the single mother who raised him, working a variety of jobs in banking, finance and law enforcement until her illness took hold just as Allen's basketball career was developing. “Timmy did an awesome job of what I'll call trying to stay focused in that time frame,” Arvizu said. “How do you even talk about basketball when he's dealing with his mother fighting for her life?”

Allen's left arm, encircled with tattoos, is mostly a tribute to his mother. She supported her son to the end, while Arvizu played an increasingly bigger role in Allen's life. They would discuss everything during those 370-mile drives along I-10, talking about what Allen someday would do when “the ball stops dribbling,” he said. “He just teaches me the ways of life, really. He's just looking out … mentally, physically, how to avoid certain things, what to stay away from, what to [gravitate] to, to get where I want to be.”

Allen lived with Tim Ballantyne, his mother's longtime fiance and, in essence, his stepfather. He's part of a family that includes his two brothers (Nick and Teddy, who is redshirting in Wichita State's basketball program after transferring from West Virginia) and Ballantyne's three sons.

(Photo courtesy of Ray Arvizu Jr.) Ray Arvizu Jr., left, is a mentor to Utah basketball player Timmy Allen, who graduated last spring from Red Mountain High School in Mesa, Ariz.

He will turn 19 next week, but Allen looks and sounds like someone much older. “Some of my best memories were not even basketball-related,” Red Mountain coach Chris Lemon said, remembering his long talks with Allen and labeling him “wise beyond his years.”

Allen attributes his accelerated youth to recognizing how his brothers “weren't as disciplined, [so] I just had to do what I was supposed to do and grow up,” he said, in an effort to reduce his mother's worries.

“He’s always kind of had the maturity to make his own decisions,” said Arvizu, who said his role was simply to outline Allen’s choices along the way.

Arvizu, 37, is the CEO of Mi Casa Su Casa, helping abused and neglected children through residential group care. Allen is close to Arvizu’s children, and Arvizu treats him like a son, visiting him in October to make sure Utah was a good fit, as Allen’s choice over UCLA, San Diego State, Iowa State and Texas Tech.

“It was awesome to see him genuinely happy,” Arvizu said later.

After his homecoming game at ASU, Allen and the Utes will go to Tucson for Saturday’s game vs. Arizona. They’ll travel down I-10 East, the opposite direction from those trips to California that helped him get where he’s going.

UTAH AT ARIZONA STATE  
At Wells Fargo Arena, Tempe, Ariz. 


Tipoff: Thursday, 6 p.m.  
TV: Pac-12 Networks.  
Radio: ESPN 700.  
Records: Utah 6-6 (0-0 Pac-12); ASU 9-3 (0-0).
Series history: Utah leads, 32-21.  
Last meeting: Utah 80, ASU 77 OT (2018).
About the Utes: Sedrick Barefield’s tying 3-pointer forced overtime and the Utes upset a Top 25 ASU team in Tempe last January. … Barefield scored 33 points in Utah’s final nonconference game, an 86-71 loss to No. 6 Nevada. … The Utes are No. 49 offensively and No. 268 defensively in the kenpom.com efficiency rankings. … Utah will play at Arizona at noon Saturday.  
About the Sun Devils: ASU dropped out of the AP Top 25 after a one-point loss to Princeton last weekend, as they failed to follow up their upset of then-No. 1 Kansas. … Freshman guard Luguentz Dort has been a major discovery, averaging 18.1 points to lead four double-figures scorers. … Zylan Cheatham averages 10.1 rebounds.