I know y’all miss me at the airport.
I’m Tony Allen, I fly Mem, and so do all of my friends!
It was a good feeling, man. I’d never been an actual spokesperson before. So when the airport reached out to the Grizzlies and asked for me — I’m talking, they asked for me, specifically? Like, picture the head of the airport, you know, and he’s telling his assistant, “Yo, assistant — we need to do this thing right. We need this thing to be Memphis. Get me Tony Allen for this one.” You know, when it’s like that?
Man, I pretty much jumped at that opportunity.
And it wasn’t just an ad, and that’s it, you know what I’m saying? It was more like — man, it’s a real honor to be the face of a city like that. It was these giant posters of me, just hanging all over the place. You had Tony Allen — smiling at you, vibing with you, pointing at you, like, “Hey, man, you picked a good airport.” And it’s everywhere in that airport you walked, you were gonna have that — that Tony Allen experience. Everywhere you walked. Probably 99% of people, I’m telling you, it’s the first thing they were seeing when they arrived in Memphis. It’s, I’m getting off this plane … walking through that tunnel situation … opening the door … and then, boom — you’re seeing it. It’s right there for you. It’s Tony Allen himself.
— Memphis Airport (@flymemphis) May 25, 2016
As soon as any opposing team stepped off the plane, they had probably saw me standing there, looking ’em up and down. Welcome to this town called Mem. Tony Allen controls the skies around these parts. So just like that, man, with those ads, I’m in their head. I’m getting over on ’em from the jump — playing that world-class defense before the game had even started.
And I think what that showed, also, is like — man, that Grit and Grind basketball, that style of hoop that people know they’re in for when they’d come play the Grizz? It ain’t just a style of play. It’s a way of life. That’s what people don’t realize about the Grit and Grind movement. It was a way of life for our entire city. It’s a city that’s been handed nothing, and had to work for everything. You feel me? It’s like when Showtime was happening with the Lakers — it’s that flashy, starry style of play, right? And then you see Los Angeles, as a place, you know, and it’s all movies and things. Grit and Grind, it’s that same type of vibe between team and city. It’s a fit.
And no one fit better than me.
And that’s what it came down to, for me, with that Memphis International Airport campaign: That was about fit — in this real special way. If you’re in this league for long enough, man, you see that there’s a system. You see that while a lot of different guys might be fan favorites or whatever … it’s really only the most franchise players who receive those big endorsements, or become the face of the team. But Memphis? That city is just different. They’re not like everyone else. They’re not about letting a blue-collar guy like me do all the dirty work, then not get any of the credit. Memphis is real. And when they embraced me, you know, it wasn’t just, like, “Oh, yeah, Tony, we like him, he’s a good player.” Yo … they embraced me. They bought my jersey. They bought those t-shirts with the little drawing of me on it. And — man, I never get tired of saying this out loud — they even let me be the face of the international airport.
And I’ll never forget it. I’ll always appreciate the city of Memphis for that: How they didn’t just let me play for them — nah.
They were willing to let me represent them.
“… Tony Allen?”
That’s what people around the league were saying to each other, when I signed with Memphis in the summer of 2010. And man let me tell you something: They didn’t mean it as a compliment.
That was the summer, you gotta remember, with The Decision and all of that. Where you got all these big-money free agents flying in every which direction: LeBron to Miami, Bosh to Miami, Amar’e to New York, Boozer to Chicago — all these cities and they’re loading up with all these supposed super-teams and whatnot. And then there was Memphis, and the big move was….
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images
Nobody was happy about that. I’m talking nobody. If they were covering sports on the TV, sports on the radio, that summer — you were hearing ’em saying the same thing every time: “All these other teams are out here making big-time free-agent moves, and meanwhile the Grizzlies, they only signed Tony Allen?!”
It’s funny though, man, because I had all these doubters on me when I came in. But as far as I was concerned? I was coming to Memphis as the missing piece. That’s that Boston Celtics Championship Confidence — that’s what we call that. I learned a lot from Paul and Kevin and those guys, but right at the very top of the list, it’s gotta be how to act like a winner. Man, not even how to be a winner. That comes later. But it’s how to act like one, how to carry yourself like that’s just what you do. How to walk into some city, onto some court, and just let that place know. Let ’em know. Without even having to say anything. Let ’em know that you came here for one thing only.
And that’s to win.
I remember coming in, and one of my first conversations with a teammate — I said, “We about to make some noise this year.” And he’s smiling, and shaking his head, and just looking at me, like, “Man, you crazy.” Not even like he didn’t agree. It was more like him just saying, T.A., you bringing this vibe with you, this big talk, that we’re not really used to around here. And it wasn’t even this big talk like swagger. It was more like belief. I knew that I believed in what I had signed up here for — and I knew that I believed in myself.
Then we started slow that first year, started real slow. And suddenly all of these same doubters was like, Nah, bro, see, we told you — this team ain’t nothing. I remember we even lost five in a row early on in the season, and I think we were about 4–9. And for a little while there, even I was like, Man … are they right?? Is this it?? Seemed like nobody was happy. City wasn’t happy. Fans weren’t happy. Coaches weren’t happy. And you better know I wasn’t happy. Wasn’t playing all that much, wasn’t getting those impact minutes like I’d been hoping for … and now I’m starting to have these doubts.
One of the things that people used to say about Memphis, it’s that, This is where guys go when it’s the end of the road. Talking guys like Antoine Walker, Allen Iverson, Darius Miles — and no disrespect to those guys, they’re great players, but it was like: Memphis was where they’d go for that last contract. For that contract before it’s over. And so anyway I remember it’s 4–9 or what have you, and we’ve lost five in a row, and I’m thinking, Man … am I another one of these guys now? Am I about to be one of these guys who did some things in the league, came to Memphis, and then he’s never heard from again?
I’ll tell you what, though — there wasn’t even a turning point. Wasn’t even one. I guess in these articles, it’s better when there’s a big moment like that — this big turning point where the whole team comes together. But there isn’t even one, in this story. It’s like: We were losing, yeah. And we were doubting, yeah. But some people … they were only paying attention to that. And those people, they were thinking, It’s these same old Grizzlies, same old Mem. But if you really looked around? Looked around that year on that deeper level, even at first when it was going bad? You could tell this was a group that was on the verge of big things.
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images
You had Marc, you know, this foreign kid — who ain’t even a foreign kid!! When I first looked at the roster, I remember thinking, We got this young Spanish big, cool. But then I got to town … and it’s like, well, alright: Turns out he’s more Memphis than the rest of the team put together. Dude grew up in Memphis … played high school ball in Memphis … man, Marc, he’ll be listening to Future. He’s a real one. And it’s not just off the court, either. The thing that most connected me with Marc, right off the bat — it’s that he hated losing. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who hated losing more than I hated losing, until I met Marc Gasol. And it’s just funny, man. Because on one hand maybe me and Marc couldn’t be more different. But then you squint a little, and it’s like — oh, OK. We’re just a pair of all-world defensive stoppers who can’t stand to lose. It’s like we’re cut from this same cloth.
And then there’s Mike, who’s been my boy since day one. Since the day we met, we just clicked. He was always willing to listen to me about defense — and man I’m so proud of where he’s gotten to: not just as one of the top five point guards on the planet, but making an all-defensive squad as well. One thing that made me and Mike tick so well as a backcourt was that we’d each be the leader in different ways. Mike, he had all this god-given raw talent, and he was learning to be a floor general. And I think I was always real good about, you know, being one of these vets who let the kid do his thing, and direct me around the court — let him grow into the point guard that we needed him to be. Like, say there’s a young kid somewhere, and he’s telling this vet, “Yo, I need you to stop shooting all these shots, and start looking for the pass when you come off the cut” — and maybe the vet doesn’t take it too well? Well then maybe the kid doesn’t grow. But with me and Mike, it was never like that. There was always immense respect. Oh yeah and I was never a fan of Mike’s pregame music selection. Dude had Tevin Campbell on repeat, man. I’d say to him, “Nah Mike, that R&B, you can’t listen to that right now.” But hey, it got the job done.
And then there’s Zach, and — man, you talk about Z-Bo, you’re talking about one of the nicest guys in the world, one of the nicest guys you’re ever going to meet, straight-up. I’m talking, just, nice. Zach, man … he’s one of these, “If it’s 30 degrees out and he’s got a jacket and a beanie on, and you forgot your winter gear, he’s asking, Hey man, it’s cold out, you want my jacket or my beanie?” type guys. And maybe not a lot of people expect that, because he’s such a tough load on the court. But Zach’s got the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever played with, and that’s the truth. Like, honestly, I don’t even consider him as one of my NBA colleagues or anything. Z-Bo, nah — we’re just homeboys.
And then you had me, man. I wasn’t the best player or anything, I wasn’t the All-Star caliber guy. But when I look back on it, I think our teams — they were kind of made in my image: Weren’t the most prolific scoring team. Weren’t shooting anyone’s lights out, or always pushing real fast. But we were louder than you. We were tougher than you. And you better believe that everyone was playing their hearts out on defense. It was like, before you even knew it — we had a real identity.
Then I went ahead and put a name on it.
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images
And man we just started … winning.
It was crazy. 4–9 turned to .500, then .500 turned to 10 games over, then 10 games over turned to 46 wins, then 46 wins turn to the playoffs, then the playoffs turned to the Spurs matchup, then the Spurs matchup turned to us shocking the world. And through it all — we just kept saying it: All heart. Grit grind. All heart. Grit grind.
All heart. Grit grind.
I swear, it was like in one season — for real, maybe even in one night — that whole city just up and changed. “Grit and Grind,” it wasn’t some catchphrase. That’s who we were. It was like this movement. Like a state of mind. Grit and Grind meant that you were going to work harder, no matter what. It meant that you were going to take pride in where you came from, and rep that place to the fullest. And it meant that you were going to put the whole world on notice: Come into our place, you’d better not be looking for easy buckets.
You’d better be ready to go 48 minutes.
And you’d better have gotten some rest.
This is not my goodbye letter.
In some ways, I know, it’s goodbye for a minute. I know I’m not on the Grizzlies anymore, and I know — for the first time since back in my Boston days — that I’m going to be coming to Memphis to play ball as an opponent. And I ain’t never lied to y’all, and I won’t start now: It’s going to be tough being on the other side of all that. It’s going to be tough walking onto that court tonight, in my new uniform, knowing I may never put on my old one again.
But man — that still don’t make it goodbye.
I’ll be back in Memphis, on a permanent basis, at some point in time. I can guarantee you that. Whether it’s working for this organization, or working somewhere else in the city, or just being one of those old dudes who hangs around Mem, eating barbecue or whatever, and one day you’ll tap some old dude on the shoulder and it’ll be like, Yo, that’s Tony Allen — man, whether it’s any of those things, or whether it’s something else. I’ll be back in Memphis. No doubt.
So like I said, I wanted to write this — but it ain’t no goodbye.
Maybe let’s call it a thank you.
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune
Thank you to Chris Wallace, for wanting me on your team. Twice.
Thank you to my teammates — Marc, Mike, Z-Bo, and right on down the line. It was an honor to play on the court with you guys, and to become your friend off of it. There’s not another group of guys I’d have rather hooped with — and now it’s not even about hoops. We’re brothers forever. Now it’s just family.
Thank you to everyone in the Grizzlies organization for putting our team together — and then keeping it together. And I’m talking everyone: from ownership, to the medical staff, to the security team, to the strength and conditioning team, to all of our coaches … to everyone. To the whole Grizzlies franchise. Thank you. When I first came here, back in 2010, I’ll be honest: I wasn’t really sure if Memphis was an NBA city. But I’ll tell you what, it is now — that’s for sure. And it’s because of y’all.
Thank you to all the Memphis media, for taking the time to get to know me, and telling my story fairly. And thank you to Chris Vernon especially — for believing in me, and then hyping me all the way up until everyone started to listen. I know a lot of people think that athletes always tune out the media. But it wasn’t ever like that for us in Memphis. It felt like everyone had a voice in this movement of ours — and the people who covered it, theirs was as important as anyone’s.
And thank you to everyone who supported me for the past seven years. Anybody who wore one of those number 9 jerseys, or those G&G t-shirts, or just made some noise when they announced my name — I never took any of that for granted. Sometimes I’d look up at the Forum during shootaround, and I could just feel that vibe in the air. It’d be like, Man — we got a few new Grit & Grind fans in the house tonight. I’ll always remember that, always remember those nights. Because I knew we had something … but the idea that we were building something? That’s what was the most special. It was that feeling, that made me want to work so hard for y’all.
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune
So, you know — thank you for everything, Memphis. I know I wasn’t perfect … but the time I spent here was. I came over as a young player, and left as the Grindfather.
I came looking for a team, and found a home.
And I hope you’ll still remember me a little for that. I hope you’ll remember how I left it all on the court, every night. I hope you’ll remember the Spurs series, and the Clippers series, and the OKC series, and all of the others. I hope you’ll remember how we created an identity to be proud of in this city, an identity that became bigger than basketball. And you know what, if that’s too much — then I hope you’ll just remember me as the guy from the airport. Last person you saw going out. First person you saw coming in. That was me, man. I was Memphis. And it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Grit and Grind forever, you feel me?
All heart. Fly Mem.
I’ll see y’all soon.