Duke's Grayson Allen: He's much more than what you see on the court
As fast as it took Grayson Allen to put a hip check on Garrison Brooks, it all began.
Twitter lit up. Duke and Grayson Allen were trending, again.
The “bad boy of college basketball” was at it again and everybody, it seemed, was talking about it.
In the first half of Duke’s ACC tournament semifinal Friday against North Carolina, Allen appeared to be fouled on a shot in the lane. There was no call, and as the Tar Heels looked to run in transition, Allen stuck his hip into UNC’s Brooks as Brooks ran past him, sending him tumbling to the floor.
After a video review by the referees, it was called a flagrant-1 foul. It already was being called worse on social media.
Allen did have some defenders. Said one tweet: “Grayson Allen could sneeze on the court and it’d be a flagrant foul. People need to chill out. He’s a kid, and he’s competing.”
But the majority were scornful. Some were profane.
One of the milder tweets: “There are three types of flagrant fouls: Flagrant-1, Flagrant-2 and Grayson Allen.”
Former Duke star Jay Williams, an ESPN commentator, tried to defend Allen on Twitter, but to a point. Tweeted Williams: “If it was any other player in america that last play by Grayson Allen would of been called just a foul. But bc it’s Grayson, it was a flagrant 1. It is what it is people. Like or not.”
But Allen, Duke’s senior guard captain, had to know better. He had tripped three players over his sophomore and senior seasons. He had been reprimanded by the ACC, suspended for one game and stripped of his captaincy because of it. Earlier this season, he swatted the hand of an opponent trying to help him up.
So the hip-check play went viral. The comments on social media were mostly vile.
Allen wishes it wasn’t that way, he said in February.
“In a lot of ways I would love to be another student and love to be looked at as a Duke student and a senior and psych major and someone on the basketball team instead of Duke’s polarizing, lightning rod, Grayson Allen villain, all those types of things. Because that’s such a small thing. That’s what I am for 40 minutes on a basketball court at away games. I’m a lot more than that.”
And Allen is a lot more than that.
Those who know Allen best say the same, that he’s a giving person — the kind who befriended a dying Duke student, the kind who shows up for his friends' kid's birthday party, the kind who volunteers to make visits to Duke Children's Hospital. He's also the kind of person who has a "huge heart when it comes to giving back."
He’s a model student and a caring brother. And he also happens to be Duke basketball’s senior captain and leader, there when his teammates need him.
But there's so much more to know about the 6-5, 205-pound, 22-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., than what people see in those 40 minutes on the basketball court.
'A huge heart'
Maybe it is “insane competitiveness.” That’s the phrase Allen uses in describing himself, his style of play. Something on the court happens, some flash point, and he temporarily loses it. Against Louisville, on Feb. 8, 2016, he tripped Ray Spalding. He was assessed for a flagrant foul during the game.
Allen first met Savannah Goodman in 2016 when she was a patient at Duke Children’s Hospital, where he was volunteering to visit patients.
Former Duke soccer player Abby Pyne, her playing days ended by 10 knee surgeries, had set up visits by athletes to the hospital. One of them was Allen.
“To be a Duke basketball player is an overwhelming lifestyle and everyone knows who ‘G’ is,” Pyne said. “But he’s always had a huge heart when it comes to giving back.”
Allen knew of Savannah, who was born with a compromised immune system, through his mother. And during one of his hospital visits, he asked if he could go to her room.
“It really inspired Savannah. It put a little fire in her to keep going,” said Michell Herkel, Savannah’s mother.
Savannah, like Allen, had dreamed of going to college at Duke.
Growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., Savannah knew little of Allen unless she happened to spot a headline about the Providence School kid across town scoring a bunch of points in a game.
Savannah was the valedictorian of her high school. “It was an arts school and she was into her academics, not sports,” said Savannah’s mother, Michelle Herkel.
Once at Duke, that quickly changed. Savannah became a basketball fan as a freshman, a certifiable Cameron Crazy, going to games, going to bonfires after big victories. She hoped to one day bump into Allen, the Jacksonville kid and now her favorite player, on campus, maybe strike up a conversation.
“But their paths never crossed,” Herkel said.
Until Savannah fell seriously ill. Born with a severely compromised immune system, she was told she needed a bone marrow transplant in 2016 and was hospitalized for months at Duke.
“I was hell-bent on getting Grayson to come to the hospital to see her,” Herkel said.
Turns out, Grayson’s mother, Sherry Allen, had seen a story in the Jacksonville newspaper about Savannah. She sent a copy to Grayson and contacted Herkel.
“They were struck by the commonality between the two,” Herkel said. “Grayson was struggling, too, but in a different way. He was having so much negativity thrown at him.”
By then Allen, who had been involved in two highly publicized tripping incidents, was struggling with the backlash.
After his first visit with Savannah, Allen later returned with a “little bag of goodies” of NCAA tournament T-shirts, cups and mementos. Again, it lifted her spirits, Herkel said.
“The thing that struck me is when he came, they just talked about school like normal college kids,” Herkel said. “They talked about what classes they were taking and their favorite places to eat on campus.
“He was wonderful. It meant the world to Savannah and to us.”
But meeting Savannah “put a lot of things in perspective” for Allen, too, he said.
“Awesome to see her, awesome to meet her family, and really just be able to share time with someone who’s going through something like that and give joy to someone like that in just whatever way possible,” Allen said.
In December 2016, Allen was scheduled to visit but Herkel said he had a staph infection in a foot and couldn’t come. Not long after, on Dec. 19, Savannah Goodman died. She was 20.
“It’s extremely tough to think about, tough to grasp,” Allen said. “To think of someone like that, with her spirit, her youthful personality ... It makes everything basketball-wise feel so small, so insignificant.”
Savannah died just two days before Duke’s 2016 game against Elon.
The quiet, humble type
When Allen tripped Louisville's Ray Spalding in early February of his sophomore season, it seemed to be an isolated incident. But later that month came the Florida State game, when Allen tripped Xavier Rathan-Mayes, and was reprimanded by the ACC . Suddenly the kid who helped the Blue Devils win a national championship as a freshman in 2015, the deadeye shooter with the crazy hops, had become the “bad boy.”
“He wanted to keep playing physical, so I tried to walk away from it as he was grabbing me,” Allen said of Spalding after that game. “We ended up tangling up and falling. It was really nothing.”
Christian Terrell, a 6-5 shooting guard and a senior this season at Florida Gulf Coast, has seen replays of the Allen trips, watched from afar as his former high school teammate has been scorned.
“I had never seen him do anything like that, not in high school,” Terrell said. “I don’t know how it happened in college. I know it definitely took me by surprise.”
Terrell said Allen was a quiet, humble type in high school. The star who didn’t act like a star. “He did not like being the center of attention, really,” Terrell said.
Allen is a pugnacious type on the court, no doubt, and not one to back down. And there were those willing to test him, to see if they could get under his skin, make him lose focus, make him lose his temper.
“It’s being overly competitive and letting your emotions control you,” Allen said. “I think emotion is a very, very important thing in basketball and something I think more guys need to play with. But for me, it’s important I don’t let it get to that point.”
Jake Stoshak, a safety on the Florida Atlantic football team, was a three-sport standout at University Christian High in Jacksonville. A strong kid, he looked to body up on Allen when they were matched up in basketball.
“He was the man,” Stoshak said. “He was the guy everybody talked about, the guy who was always in the papers. Me and him, yeah, we had some personal battles. I was a physical player. I’d bump him, trying to throw him off his game. He’d bump me back.”
But no tripping incidents, he said. Nothing childish or stupid.
“Never anything flagrant or dirty,” Stoshak said.
While not condoning Allen’s tripping incidents or shows of temper, Stoshak said as a college athlete he can see how it can happen.
“There are times when you get really frustrated by the style of play,” he said.
At times, Allen’s frustration has led to his flash points. While instantly regrettable, they can’t be erased, overlooked, forgotten or forgiven.
It’s all fueled by that competitiveness Allen has had, in truth, from an early age.
'He's my son's biggest hero'
Allen swore to himself it would not happen again. Then, it happened again. In the first half of the Elon game on Dec. 21, 2016 in the Greensboro Coliseum, Allen spun around while defending Steven Santa Ana, then stuck his leg out and tripped him. As the referees reviewed the play, Allen began to get visibly upset. Once on the bench, he had an emotional fit, lurching about, screaming and crying as assistant coach Jon Scheyer tried to calm him. After the game, he cried as he talked to reporters, apologizing for what he had done.
“At that time I wasn’t handling a lot of things the right way,” Allen said in February. “That was something that was a little bit of a while coming. I think a lot of it was anger and misunderstanding and stuff I hadn’t gotten over from the previous year, mistakes I had made and what I had gone through with the media before that and fans before that. I don’t think that was out of my head yet. I hadn’t gotten over that yet. I tried to push it away and kind of hide it instead of really getting through it. That’s what happens when you try to do that.”
It’s possible that Elizabeth Kozieracki, Allen’s second-grade teacher at Grace Lutheran, was the first to sense the deep degree of Allen’s competitiveness — in recess.
“He was so intense about it, so into whatever game he was playing,” she said. “I’d have to talk him down, calm him down after recess. He had to regroup to be able to get back into the classroom atmosphere.”
Kozieracki has remained a good friend of the Allen's through the years, watching as Grayson became the model student while growing up and developing his basketball skills.
“He always had goals and had his sights set on Duke,” she said. “He always had higher aspirations and has done whatever it takes to get there.”
Sherry Allen said her son is a “competitor who competes with himself” to achieve perfection in what he does. Grayson doesn’t disagree.
“It’s a tireless pursuit because it’s impossible,” he said, smiling. “If I was doing something that I really, really enjoyed I want to be perfect at it and not make mistakes and do everything right. And when inevitably I made mistakes, because that’s what humans do, I would get very angry, very disappointed, very discouraged.
“In high school I would use that total defeat that I felt in any type of mistake to go to the gym. That’s what made me such a hard worker. ... I’ve tried to carry that to college, tried not to beat myself up through all the little and big mistakes I’ve made, but that perfectionist mentality is still in the back of my mind, still eats at me a lot.”
Kozieracki’s son, Caden, is 11 years old and a basketball fiend. He plays for his school team and insisted on wearing No. 3, Allen’s jersey number.
After Duke won the 2015 national championship, Allen said he’d like to stop by the Kozieracki house for Caden’s birthday party, spending an hour playing hoops with the kids. Caden called it a huge surprise, saying, “That really meant a lot to me, that he would come by like that.”
Caden and his father have attended a Duke game at Cameron and Allen gave the family a less-than-hurried tour of campus.
“My son is a Type 1 diabetic,” Elizabeth Kozieracki said. “Grayson has been great, cheering him on. He’s my son’s biggest hero but he says he looks up to Caden.”
The Kozieracki family attended Duke’s game at Florida State last season, when she was taken aback by some derogatory signs aimed at Allen.
“Duke is a national team but it’s hard to be in that kind of fish bowl,” she said. “I called Sherry (Allen) after that game and said, ‘How do you do this?’”
'Your family is here'
Grayson Allen was suspended by Mike Krzyzewski and stripped of his captaincy after the trip in the Elon game. He soon was back in Jacksonville for the Christmas break, questioning himself but surrounded by family ...
Tonan Ferrell has done his best to help, to be there, to be Grayson’s confidante, his best friend.
Grayson is the only child of William and Sherry Allen. Allen and Ferrell were third-grade classmates at Grace Luthern School when the Allens volunteered to help out a young woman who was trying to raise two younger brothers in the Jacksonville area. Tonan, then 8 and a year older than Grayson, began spending a lot of time at the Allens’ home. He soon made it his own home, bunk bed and all.
“He’s as close to being a brother to Grayson as you can be other than biologically,” Sherry Allen said. “He took our family of three and made it a family of four.”
Grayson and Tonan were anything but alike. Grayson was introverted and Tonan the talker. They played together, stayed together. “G” and “Tee,’ as they were called, were inseparable.
Until college. Ferrell, 23, is a senior at Florida Atlantic. “G” and “Tee” text or call a lot and Ferrell has gone to Duke games when he can.
"Whenever we talk he keeps me extremely upbeat," Allen said. "He keeps my mind off of anything that can be stressful or distracting."
When Allen came home for Christmas after his suspension by Krzyzewski, anguished, questioning himself, Ferrell was there to help.
“All I can do is just be me,” Ferrell said. “When things do get rough, I tell him, ‘Your family is here and we’re not changing. We’ll always be up.’ I did what I could for him, just being there, trying to keep the negativity out. And he relies on his faith a lot.”
Allen said his faith did help carry him through the personal trials.
“I think it was my biggest moment of ‘OK, I really feel like I need to rely on God to get me through this,’” he said. “Because I definitely couldn’t have done it on my own.”
More at peace with himself, Allen returned to school to finish out his junior season. The Blue Devils won the ACC Championship in Brooklyn but were ousted from the NCAA tournament by South Carolina.
Then came a decision: declare for the NBA or come back to Duke for a final season?
Sherry Allen’s advice to her son was simple. Follow your heart, she said.
“He tried to tell himself he was leaving,” she said. “We always told him when you make a decision, hold on to it for 24 hours and if it feels good it’s the right decision.”
In the end, leaving Duke didn’t feel good to Grayson. The decision was made to stay. That felt right.
“Last year, as painful as it was, was not something I wanted to repeat,” Sherry Allen said. “But I’m proud he did follow his heart and did what he wanted to do and not what the noise was telling him to do. And that can be very hard to do.”
'He helps us out'
Virginia's Kyle Guy was only trying to offer Allen a hand after that innocent elbow. “I leaned into it,” Allen said about the incident after the game against Virginia on Jan. 27. “It wasn’t intentional or anything like that. I talked to Kyle after the game, so that’s no problem. It’s fine."
The games are running short for Grayson Allen. There could be six more to play, all in the NCAA tournament. One loss and his college career ends.
Allen enjoyed his Senior Night at Duke, tears and all. The Blue Devils beat the Tar Heels in Allen’s last home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and he got the big hug from Krzyzewski at the bench.
"I think the way he's taught me to be a leader will be what stays with me the rest of my life," Allen said of Krzyzewski.
Allen has tried to be the ideal senior captain this season, keeping his focus on guiding his team and tuning out all the noise.
There were moments when he quickly regained his composure just when he seemed to be on the verge of another incident — taking a hard foul in a game at Indiana, being tripped as he tried to dunk against Pittsburgh at Cameron.
In the loss to Virginia at Cameron on Jan. 27, Allen was double-teaming Guy in the final seconds when he took an inadvertent elbow to the chin from Guy. Allen fell to the floor. After the whistle, Guy leaned over and offered Allen a hand but Allen knocked it away.
Twitter again was atwitter.
One tweet: "I don't know if I've hated a college athlete the way I do Grayson Allen." Another tweet: "Really all you need to know about Grayson Allen."
Then, the ACC tournament and the hip check.
Allen’s teammates say he has been the consummate senior leader. On the court he has been a facilitator, a communicator. Off it, an advisor and mentor.
As Krzyzewski has said, few college players have had the “myriad of experiences” that Allen has had at Duke.
“He knows what Coach wants on the court and he helps us out,” freshman guard Trevon Duval said.
Allen was one of 30 NCAA finalists for the 2017-18 Senior CLASS Award, presented annually to the senior who excels on and off the court. Allen, a psychology major, has been named to the All-ACC Academic Team each of his four seasons.
How many college basketball players have read “Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by the late Robert Persig? Allen has, saying the book gave him a certain peace of mind.
One family friend said Allen initially wanted to study engineering in college — “He’s a genius at math,” Tonan Ferrell said — but settled on psychology because of the time demands of playing basketball at Duke.
'You learn to accept how things are'
Allen didn’t help himself in the postgame press conference. Asked about the March 9 hip check on UNC's Garrison Brooks, he said, “Yeah, they got a fast break and I bumped him and fouled him." Brooks said later: "That's what he does."
In the end, has it all been worth it: the championship ring and a Duke education, countered by the scorn and ridicule from those outside the program? Social media can be so cruel.
"I've come to understand that's the way it is," Allen said. "There's absolutely nothing I can do about it. So you just let it be. You learn to accept how things are."
Allen is booed everywhere he plays outside of Cameron. At Indiana, the chants directed at him were "vulgar," Sherry Allen said.
Social media, and what people were saying about him, used to eat at Allen. While Allen has a Twitter account and 240,000 followers, he said he no longer looks at tweets, much less responds to them. Or let someone else’s opinion define him.
“When you’re going to college and playing on a huge stage, and growing and maturing, along with it are growing pains and mistakes that are made,” Sherry Allen said. “Grayson’s had to be made on big stages and his maturity had to come in a hard way, although it has made him a better person.
“You look back and you think would you want to do it again? No. But, but, if you can get this kind of outcome, maybe. Maybe. It’s painful to see your child go through that. Then there’s the hurt of knowing you can’t fix it. They have to go through it and experience it.”
Grayson Allen has experienced it, all of it.