Bond of Brothers: How a childhood friendship helped Duke star Grayson Allen come of age
The first time the boy visited the brick house on Fallon Oaks Drive, the one at the end of the cul-de-sac, nobody told him there was a dog. Nobody knew he was afraid of dogs, of course. So he rode unaware in a Honda Odyssey, headed to the home of a third-grade classmate whom he had known for only a couple of months. They pulled into the garage and the engine stopped. Then, just before he walked inside, the boy heard a dog barking. He felt panicked.
Oh, that's just Rocky, they told him. Don't worry about it. He's very nice.
Only a few days earlier, the principal at Grace Lutheran School in Jacksonville, Fla., had sent an email to the community. We have an immediate need, he wrote. A young woman, just 18 years old, had received custody of her two brothers, ages 8 and 12, because their mother could not care for them. This young woman lived in housing that was for singles only. She had to move, and she needed new furniture for the apartment she'd be sharing with her siblings.
As she read it, something in Sherry Allen told her to find out about this family. She had to know more about who they were, about what she and her husband, William, could do, because she couldn't imagine the burden on this teenage girl. She did not know that the younger brother was the boy her son Grayson kept talking about, the new kid in class who smiled all the time. Once Sherry discovered this, she sat down Grayson. She told her only child there were things going on in this other boy's life, that his parents weren't there to take care of him, that he needed some love.
Soon, the three of them were in the minivan, headed to the Allens' house for the afternoon. After they arrived, Tonan Ferrell heard that dog barking and kept moving anyway, because everyone told him it would be all right. And when that door opened, out came Rocky, the 30-pound springer spaniel mix, like he was fired from a slingshot, jumping up and down and confirming his visitor's worst fears.
Just let him smell you, everyone said.
I am going to get bitten, Tonan thought.
He didn't get bitten. He made it past the dog and through the door, where he and Grayson ate a snack and then ran back outside to play. That evening, Tonan was dropped off with his sister, Rachelle. But he'd come back again, and then again. And then there were afternoons and nights when he never left, which turned into stays that lasted months and years. This is why everyone still remembers that day, Tonan Ferrell's first visit to the Allen house. Grayson Allen found the brother he never had, and never knew he needed.
Though Grayson Allen, Duke basketball star, has never spoken at length about one of the most important relationships in his life, it's not out of protectiveness or some yearning for privacy. Having a brother who isn't a brother by blood just doesn't come up, probably because it's normal now, more than 10 years after Tonan Ferrell first came over to play. And anyway, it can't be a secret if no one is trying to keep it that way. Tonan has been at Final Four games and championship receptions and events like Countdown to Craziness, on top of the regular trips to the movies with Grayson or frequent appearances at the new house the Allens moved into 11 years ago, where the guy they call "Tee" still has his own bed.
It's also too conspicuous to be covert: One of these brothers is 6' 5". One of them is 5' 4". One is white; one is black. Both are sophomores in college, but one is famous and one is not. Because one is among the best basketball players in the country, averaging 20.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists for the program that claimed the national title trophy last April.
A lot of the reasons why Grayson Allen became a five-star recruit, a surprise Final Four hero and now a potential All-America have to do only with Grayson Allen: the physical ability, the innate abandon. But for years, one person stoked his competitiveness in one-on-one games that wouldn't end even when his mother called everyone in for dinner. For years, one person served as a de facto spokesman for a shy kid, happy to order meals or make plans until his cohort grew confident in his own voice. For years, and to this day, there is one person who keeps Duke's top guard in balance. "Tonan is one of those few people that's a friend that he can just trust and tell anything to, and not be judged," Sherry says.
Or as Grayson puts it: "I've always just treated him like family. Literally, I consider him my brother. Because he is."
Yes, the reflex to wipe out everyone on the field or the court was always there. Otherwise Sherry and William wouldn't have sat on lawn chairs to monitor football games in their yard, poised to redirect the participants to their pool or to get ice cream if things became too aggressive. They weren't worried about the other kids as much as they were worried for them. "These little boys in the neighborhood," Sherry says, "they weren't at (Grayson's) level." Yet it always was a little harder for Allen to express himself in other venues. That part, Tonan helped drag out of him, by example and by insistence.
"We had a bond with each other," Tonan says. "We were just like each other's other half."
It came naturally. At a school like Grace Lutheran where the faces don't change much—Grayson started attending when he was 3, for example, and the current enrollment is only 235 students—any new kid is notable. But the way Grayson talked about how funny Tonan was convinced Sherry that something was different. It suggested a remarkable connection existed even before that principal's email arrived. "The way I am, I like to talk to shy people, to make them feel more comfortable," Tonan says. "That's one of the things that drew us together. I was like, man, I wonder what's going on with him. We just started talking and the next thing you know, we were this close."
He prefers to keep private the specific circumstances that limited his mother's involvement in his life as a child—"I don't talk about that, actually," Tonan says—but Florida records show a series of legal issues, mostly related to drugs and alcohol, dating to 1988. Tonan lived with his grandmother and subsequently his aunt after he was born, before both in turn became too ill to care for him. He spent time in foster care before his mother regained custody of him. He grasped, even as a grade school-aged child, why that wasn't working out and why he and his brother, Conan, became Rachelle's responsibility. (Based on public records, it appears no legal problem prompted that.)
He likewise knew Rachelle's work schedule at McDonald's meant he'd be on his own during the day, if he weren't under someone's supervision. So he understood why he spent a lot of time with his friend Grayson. Then he started asking to go over. Then he didn't even have to ask anymore. While his older brother continued to live with his sister, Tonan moved in with the Allens. Their house became his home, too. "It kind of just happened," Tonan says.
The Allens set up bunk beds for Grayson and Tonan, and the sibling revelry began. They hunted each other with Nerf guns. They made tents and forts. They devoted themselves to video games. They were different—Grayson was a morning person, Tonan prefers to start his day around noon—but they grew to be the same in many ways. They became Family Guy devotees. They liked superhero movies. In elementary school, they listened to a lot of Nickelback, and it should be noted they do not regret this.
Most significantly, each had what the other needed. Tonan laughed easily and infectiously. Grayson was less outgoing; he often asked Tonan to tell restaurant wait staff what he wanted to eat and once watched as Tonan approached a stranger at Chick-Fil-A to ask how tall he was. (6' 8", as it turned out.) "I could go a day without saying a word," Grayson says. "Whereas he never shuts up."
Above all other interests, basketball was king. Tonan, despite his stature, could dunk. ("I can't palm the ball myself," he says. "But with an alley (oop), I can.") They'd play one-on-one, Knockout, H-O-R-S-E. After Grayson grew too tall, Tonan and others established a rule that Grayson could block their shots only if he slammed them off the backboard. No one surpassed Grayson's competitiveness or raw talent; Tonan could take solace, though, in knowing how to push his buttons. "Beat him," he says, "and tell him about it."
Tonan did not stay with the Allens continuously from third grade on, returning to live with Rachelle for his first two years of high school. But when Tonan joined Grayson at the Providence School in Jacksonville for his junior year—his time at the private school subsidized by financial aid and the Allens—he moved back in with his second family.
This came as a substantial relief to Grayson.
"I got lonely when he wasn't there," Grayson says. "Over-texting, kind of like the creepy girlfriend: 'Hey, when are you coming back home? I kind of miss you a little bit.'"
To Tonan, the difference the Allens have made is so self-evident it defies explanation. They ensured Rachelle wouldn't be overburdened. They provided stability and treated Tonan as their own child, all the way down to instructions on how to act at the dinner table. He is now a sophomore at Florida Atlantic University, studying Business Management in Hospitality. Perhaps most significantly, he also now enjoys good relationships with both of his biological parents: Tonan sees his father when he is home in Jacksonville and he talks to his mother, who now lives in Pennsylvania, multiple times a week.
Still, he can't comprehend an existence without Grayson, William and the woman he calls Miss Sherry. "That's like saying, 'How would (life) be without your family?" Tonan says. "You don't really think about that. I can't think of not having them there. I got a brother from it. Growing up, you see a world, and we saw it together and we got to learn about it, and it's viewed through two different sets of eyes."
Over time, Tonan started declining Grayson's request for a proxy voice: You can talk, too, he'd say. By the end of high school, Grayson Allen was both more unwound and more in control. He didn't always need Tonan to make plans or order food. He began to control his temper better during basketball games as he discerned how to channel his emotions and his on-court voice. He grew up with a brother he didn't expect to have, and he grew out of his reticence. "He's been a huge, huge part of my life," Grayson says.
In the summer of 2014, college life elbowed its way between them. Tonan accompanied the Allens to Durham to help with the move-in, and then left Grayson to settle into a new existence as a Duke basketball player.
It turned out he had some work to do. And, like every kid dropped off at college, he had to do most of it alone.
We know the ending: Freshman guard Grayson Allen, after averaging 3.9 points during the 2014–15 regular season, came off the bench to score 25 points in Duke's two Final Four games, including a 16-point effort that helped erase a nine-point deficit in the championship against Wisconsin. He went supersonic at the perfect and most unexpected time and became a hero. Back at the team hotel, during a reception hours after the confetti fell at Indianapolis's Lucas Oil Stadium, Blue Devils freshman guard Tyus Jones found Sherry Allen to deliver a big hug and a message that was another of the night's surprises.
Jones, freshly anointed as the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, told her that her son won the title game for Duke.
Sherry demurred, insisting it was a team effort. Jones shook her off. No ma'am, he said. Grayson carried us. He put us on his back.
This still seems preposterous. Allen was one of four McDonald's All-Americans signed by Duke out of the Class of 2014—Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow were the others—and he was the only one not logging heavy minutes for the Blue Devils early on. In December, before Christmas break, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski saw the inconsistencies in Allen's performance and issued a soft rejoinder. It wasn't O.K. to float through, Krzyzewski told Allen. It wasn't O.K. to be satisfied with a decent showing, biding time until an expanded opportunity presented itself during his sophomore campaign. Allen had to be ready right there, right then.
"I wanted to contribute so bad," he says. "I kind of got down on myself, and started putting all this pressure on myself to go out there and play well. And that's when I was playing my worst."
So, to correct his trajectory, Allen imposed himself upon Duke workouts with a certain ... disregard. "He would piss everybody off," Blue Devils assistant Jon Scheyer says. "You could ask Justise. Justise would always get into a thing with Grayson and want to fight him." Allen guarded hard and attacked the rim and pursued loose balls and declined to back off. "You're scratching him, he's scratching you, he's right at you 100%," Blue Devils forward Amile Jefferson says.
That style of play was nothing new for Allen; he recalls going through five or six jersey numbers during the summer before his junior year of high school because opponents grabbed him so much that the gear tore regularly. It was this pugnaciousness, in fact, that first caught the attention of Duke's staff. During an AAU tournament in Richmond, Va., Blue Devils assistant Jeff Capel witnessed Allen cut across the lane and take a bracing shot from a defender. Maybe six trips later, on the other end, Capel noted Allen retaliating with a stiff forearm to the same player. "He didn't take any crap from anyone," Capel says. "I mean, look, man, if we're being honest, it's this white guard. And a lot of people are going to try him. Right or wrong or indifferent, the reality is that they're going to think he's soft. And they would try him. And once you play against him for two, three minutes, you realize there's nothing soft about him."
When Duke dismissed top backcourt backup Rasheed Sulaimon in January for failure to "live up to the standards required," it actually alleviated any remaining pressure on Allen. "It's like, well, there's kind of no other options here," he says. Allen raised some eyebrows with 27 points in the regular-season finale against Wake Forest. After a pre-NCAA tournament practice, Krzyzewski made a prediction to Capel: This kid is going to win us a game.
And there Allen was, two days after the national title game, sitting in Scheyer's office and discussing how his Instagram followers had jumped from about 40,000 before the Final Four to 100,000 after it. Suddenly, Allen was fielding questions about possibly leaving for the NBA draft—"It was kind of wild how that escalated pretty quickly," he says—and noticed people tagging him on social media after they'd seen him dining with teammates.
He had grounded himself in order to pull himself out of his freshman rut, and Allen would have to do something similar for his sophomore campaign: As Scheyer reminded him in another meeting, Allen couldn't live in the past.
So he added 10 pounds during off-season conditioning. He worked on intermediate finishes like floaters and pull-ups; aggressiveness was great, but an ability to change speeds would help keep the opposition guessing. Currently, Allen's points-per-possession production ranks in the 87th percentile or higher nationally—the "excellent" range—in spot up, transition and isolation scenarios, per Synergy Sports Data. That has helped him compile a worthy second act to his Final Four court storm: Allen's Win Shares total of 4.0—a measure of how much his production leads to Duke victories—is fifth nationally, slightly ahead of player of the year favorites like LSU's Ben Simmons and Oklahoma's Buddy Hield (both at 3.9).
"I think I'm so much of a better driver than I was when I first came to Duke; that's the biggest thing for me," Allen says. "I don't think I realized that I could actually drive as well as I could. I'm able to go left and right a lot better than I was last year, and then ball-handling is helping me out, controlling the ball as I'm driving. The intermediate finishes are coming—I think I can be a lot better at that."
As significantly, to help guide a callow Duke roster, Allen began to assert his voice. Coaches hounded him about it as a freshman, and he has developed better in-game dialogue while providing quiet counsel elsewhere. "When we were learning the new stuff we needed to know, we would get confused," Duke freshman guard Luke Kennard says. "Grayson would be the first guy over to me. I would be on the side of the court, listening, and I would turn around—he'd be tapping me on the shoulder: 'This is what you need to do.'"
There have been glitches, like a six-point, 2-for-11 shooting night against Kentucky on Nov. 17. Or a seven-point, 3-for-18 effort against Utah on Dec. 19, though Allen spent three days at home in bed with a 101-degree fever after that. Currently, and startlingly, Duke is on a three-game losing skid for the first time since 2007. This leaves its star guard with a familiar objective: Allen must adjust to challenges he did not anticipate, with the aim of carrying his team in the end.
Here, it would be nice to say that Allen, along the way, has heard some advice from his virtual sibling that sparked an epiphany or an innovation. It would be convenient, and it would be fiction. During those freshman struggles, he and Tonan spoke often, but hardly ever about basketball. Tonan knew not to be another voice telling Allen what he should do, and Allen had arrived in Durham better off for because of his brother's lessons anyway.
But the real work was Allen's to do. The real work was this year and a half of failings and breakthroughs that brought him to where he expected to be, with much more yet to come.
The times when Grayson Allen introduces Tonan Ferrell as his brother, or Tonan tells strangers the same thing about Grayson: These are the best times.
"Quite exciting, actually," Tonan says.
"People are like, 'I don't think so,'" Grayson says.
When it comes up at Florida Atlantic, Tonan scrolls through phone pictures as proof, the only way to erase the strange looks he gets. Even in Jacksonville, there is no guarantee against confusion. During the winter break of his freshman year in college, Tonan took the Allens' family pass for Providence sporting events to watch the basketball team. One of the women working the door didn't know him. When Tonan presented the pass, he was denied entry.
There's no way, the woman told him.
Moments later, another woman who knew Tonan and Grayson confirmed this was not identity theft. "When I'm not with him," Tonan says, "people don't even want to believe I know him, let alone for me to say I'm his brother."
These people wouldn't know. That is forgivable. Tonan Ferrell and Grayson Allen don't seem like they have to add up with someone else. One might still be a Division I basketball player without the other. One might still smile and laugh a contagious laugh even if he didn't show up that day at the house with the crazy dog. But they know they are better off for being introduced to their other halves. They recognize what others take some time to see.
In late December, they wound up back in Durham, with Tonan paying a visit during winter break. Duke played its final two nonconference games during that time, so there was serious business to attend to. But when Allen got away from basketball and got back to the dorm, the agenda included a whole lot of nothing, revolving around video games with his friend and brother, and little else. Allen was just there, out of the way of the especially noisy life he has lived since the first Monday of April.
"Kind of like old times," he says.
He still had a lot to take care of, by himself.
It was just nice to forget about that for a while.