Money Player Teams looking for payroll relief are banking on low-cost but productive men like Miami's Malik Allen

December 02, 2002

Two years ago, when Malik Allen was playing for the San Diego
Wildfire of the ABA 2000, most of his meals came from the Mobil
Mart. Or was it the Food Mart at Texaco? He can't remember
which--just that dinner often meant a stroll to the gas station,
where he chose a frankfurter that was riding a steel rod under
the heat lamp. "I usually went there for breakfast too," says
Allen. "That was eating out for me then."

Allen smiles at the memory. It's easy for him to do so, because
now he's the Miami Heat's starting power forward. Undrafted out
of Villanova in 2000, Allen was the last cut at the Sacramento
Kings' training camp that year. He spent a season playing for the
Wildfire and for the Trenton Shooting Stars of the now defunct
International Basketball League, and in the summer of 2001 he got
a two-day tryout with the Heat. He made the team but played in
only 12 games. This season, with center Alonzo Mourning sidelined
because of his kidney ailment, the 6'10" Allen earned a starting
role in training camp and responded by scoring 22 points and
grabbing seven rebounds on opening night against the Orlando
Magic. Since then he's kept producing; through 11 games he was
averaging 10.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. With his soft
jumper and good defensive instincts, Allen, 24, has been one of
the few bright spots in a dismal season for the Heat, who was
2-9.

Allen's story is one of perseverance, but it also indicates a
trend in the NBA. On opening night there were 12 undrafted
free-agent rookies on NBA rosters (not counting those who, like
Allen, played limited minutes last season), seven more than last
year. Two of them, Pat Burke of the Orlando Magic and Reggie
Evans of the Seattle SuperSonics, were starting, while others,
such as the Los Angeles Lakers' Jannero Pargo, were playing
meaningful minutes.

The reason? Money. Taking on a young free agent like Allen, who
is earning $330,000 this season, costs much less than signing a
veteran--especially one with at least 10 years of service. Tim
Hardaway, Jimmy Jackson and Grant Long all were unsigned at
week's end because of the higher minimum salary ($1 million)
mandated for 10-year vets by the collective bargaining agreement.
As many teams try to keep a lid on their payrolls because of the
luxury tax, inexperience and youth have won out. "That's the way
the league is now," says Heat center Brian Grant.

Allen says it's not something he thinks about. "I can understand
the economics of it," he says, "but I have to focus on
basketball." His motivation is the time he spent in San Diego,
where he practiced at a run-down Air Force base and shared a
dumpy apartment with two other NBA wannabes. Never having lived
far from his native New Jersey and the home cooking of his
mother, Tracey, he suddenly had to worry about not only what to
eat for dinner but also how to stay afloat financially. Every
month he'd have to scrape together rent money, because his
Wildfire paycheck invariably arrived late. What's worse, it
bounced four times. Says Allen, "I learned about the value of
keeping a positive attitude."

It has carried over to his new life. Allen has, as Grant says, no
ego, and he works as hard as anyone on the team. "I want to be on
somebody's scouting report every night," says Allen. "That's when
you know you've made it."

Last week against the Los Angeles Clippers, he got his wish. L.A.
coach Alvin Gentry warned his team about Allen's jumper and
worried about whether Elton Brand could guard him. Brand knew
Allen, even if his teammates didn't; he had grown up in the New
York area and played against Allen often. "Everybody was asking
me, 'Who's Malik Allen?'" says Brand. "I said, 'Don't sleep on
this dude. I've known him for six years, and he's good.'"

Told of Brand's comments, Allen smiled. It's a long way from the
minor league minimarts to the bright lights of Miami, and he
doesn't intend to go back.

COLOR PHOTO: VICTOR BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES DRIVEN Allen, who played in basketball backwaters two years ago, has persevered and become a Heat starter.

Undrafted but Not Unwanted

MALIK ALLEN is one of the growing number of players who have
earned NBA spots without being drafted. Here are the 12 rookies
who fit that category this season.

Pos. Player Team

G J.R. Bremer Boston
F Mike Batiste Memphis
F Pat Burke Orlando
F Reggie Evans Seattle
G Adam Harrington Dallas
G Lorinza Harrington Denver
F Juaquin Hawkins Houston
C Nate Huffman Toronto
G Jannero Pargo L.A. Lakers
G Smush Parker Cleveland
G Predrag Savovic Denver
C Cezary Trybanski Memphis

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)