If you've ever seen Tony Allen drift out of the huddle to wander the court during a timeout, you already have a strong sense of his migration patterns. The man cannot be pinned down. He flutters along from one place to the next, guided almost entirely by instinct. Allen's teammates have long since abandoned trying to predict where he'll be—or what he'll do—next.
"You know," Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said, "Tony does whatever he wants to do."
During the breaks in the game, Allen might roam from his teammates to amp himself up—and accidentally veer through a group of kids in the middle of a dance routine. "Yeah," Allen once told Lang Whitaker of NBA.com, "I’m really not a 'huddle' kind of guy."
Qualities like this are the reason that Allen, one of the league's most distinctive and infectious personalities, has become a local icon. They're also the reason why when I went looking for Allen at a recent Grizzlies community service event, I was led in circles. Habitat for Humanity hosted the entire Grizzlies organization for some light construction work spread over multiple lots. The path to Allen, who floated freely from station to station, was marked largely by the laughter and mayhem he left in his wake.
Wherever I went around the build site, Allen had been moments before. You just missed him. Allen is generally not the sort that you miss; when he's on, Allen is a one-man show, a consummate ham. I eventually found him because, after plopping down his first square of grass in a developing lawn, he stayed to proclaim to all within earshot that all of the grass laid in this particular yard had been his handiwork. Before jumping back in, Allen entrusted his phone—and Snapchat responsibilities—to a Grizzlies staffer.
"There's a certain way you've gotta do Snap, you know what I'm sayin'?" Allen chirped. "Can't give 'em too many. Gotta be just enough. Too much a anything'll kill you."
Allen worked the lawn briefly before he took it upon himself to coach up all the other Grizzlies volunteers on their landscaping technique. "Gotta be gentle with that grass, coach!" Allen instructed to a Grizzlies assistant. "Be gentle!" He was equal parts foreman and hype man. Across the yard, then-Grizzlies guard Tony Wroten was hard at work, raking and laying the lawn. "Follow Tony Wroten," Allen said to no one in particular. "He actin' like he wanna do this for real."
After about an hour's worth of helping, roaming, and motivational speaking, Allen is about ready to call it a day. The work gloves stay on but the work largely turns off; Allen is set to leave soon to receive treatment on his balky knee, which kept him sidelined during Memphis's preseason slate. He reviews his work for the day by playing the hits. "First team," Allen said, "All-Construction."
A cameraman from a Memphis news station flags down Allen before he can start toward the team bus. No player in the league could better carry a random special interest segment about the local team. Allen knows this and is more than willing to provide.
"I wouldn't expect nothing less!" Allen yelled. "They want some originality! They want some GRINDFATHER!" This was, by my unofficial count, the third of four times on the day that Allen would call himself The Grindfather. I don't even blame him; it is a perfect nickname in every way. "Come over here, man," Allen continued. "I'mma give you everything you need."
That's not exactly true. The cameraman wants to shoot footage of Allen at work with the rest of the Grizzlies. "Naaaaaaaaw," Allen said. "I clocked out."
"You missed it! Let me tell you. I laid down grass. I made sure the pavement was smooth so we could lay the grass down. I hit them nails, nailed up—what's that—boards? Siding? All that. Then I went and painted everything. I put in work." With every retelling, the legend of Allen's contribution grows.
Then, it hit him.
"Wait," Allen said. "Where my rookie at?" Allen was told that Wade Baldwin, the rookie in question, was working on an adjacent lot. The treatment would have to wait.
The total distance from Allen to Baldwin, at the moment of his asking, was no more than 50 feet. Allen milked every inch of it. He chopped it up with every Grizzlies player around. After running into a fellow volunteer swigging from a Gatorade, he made a beeline for the cooler—and insisted he would only drink "Oklahoma State orange.” He spotted injured forward Jarell Martin doing his part while still wearing a protective boot and ran over to fire off a snap. He stopped to shake his head at new Grizzly Chandler Parsons, who had shown up for a day of work on a dusty build site in Yeezy Boost 350s—shoes priced to run well into four digits.
"Ain't no way in the world I'd mess those up," Allen said. "I'd take my shoes off. $1,200 for a pair of [shoes] and you're puttin' all kind of dirt on 'em? But guess what: It's for the community!"
Allen finally found Baldwin nailing in siding on a neighboring house. His primary motivation, as one might expect, was to heckle. "Better not jam your finger down there, boy!" Allen squawked. "You're gonna jam that finger, rook! Better not!" Allen then noticed that Baldwin was lightly hammering in the nail—as was instructed by the Habitat coordinators. "'Ey, rook—at some point it gotta go in, though," Allen said. The crowd around Baldwin chuckled as the nail finally pushed through. Light applause follows. "There you go," Allen approved.
The future owner of that home was on-site to help with the build and Allen very much wanted to meet him. "So when it's all done," Allen instructed him, "you gonna say, 'Tony Allen helped do this.' You know what I'm saying?" Another handshake, another snap, and The Grindfather (TM) was on his way.
Allen had buzzed about from the moment he stepped off the bus, all pep and play with teammates, coaches, and assorted volunteers alike. Yet the moment he really lit up—in pure exhiliration —was when Allen heard mention of a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the finished houses. "I definitely gotta be there," Allen said, rubbing his hands together. "Cameras, man—10, 20 cameras, man. All the news. Man, with the big scissors, too. I need them big—you gotta get them REAL BIG scissors. I need to cut. 'Ey, I want the real big scissors. Y'all gotta find me. I want them BIG scissors." Assurances were made. Allen is psyched.
Finally, after getting his fill of diversions, Allen made the move to leave. We talked on the way to the bus about his injured knee ("It swolled up on me," he said, in reference to training camp) and the coaching stylings of David Fizdale ("It's kinda new because I always had guys showin' that tough love, if you know what I mean,"), among other things. Then he was off—clocked out at long last, with one parting thought.
"Hey," Allen said, "make all that sound real good!"
As if he needed any help.