The Follow-Through

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“Houston … running jumper off the front rim….

“AND INNNNN!!!!”

Gus Johnson’s call of my last-second shot against the Heat in the ’99 playoffs will forever be imprinted in my mind. 

At least once a week I’m reminded of that shot — whether by someone I meet at the airport or someone on line at the grocery store, or what have you. I’m constantly reminded of what it meant to me, and definitely … what it meant to New York.

But I gotta say, in the more than 20 years since that shot dropped, a funny thing has happened. These days, when I’m reminiscing or speaking to young people about it, I don’t mention the circumstances, or the tension. I don’t even really highlight the fact that the shot went in.

Instead, I focus on the preparation and the execution.

And I talk about … the follow-through!

Which really is a metaphor for life.

When that shot bounced in, everything in that moment was about the present, and what we’d just accomplished in beating our biggest rivals, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, on such a grand stage. But a few seconds later, I found myself flashing back home to Louisville, to when I was seven years old putting up shots out back on the hoop my father had built for me on a utility garage door, and just straight up imagining — dreaming about — making a shot like that.

About all the hard work that took me from that skinny little seven-year-old who could barely get the ball up to the rim, to a starter as a freshman in high school, to state champion and a top five recruit in the country, to playing for my father at Tennessee, to earning my degree, becoming an All-American and being selected as an NBA lottery pick.

That shot, I understand now, really was the culmination of preparation, execution and follow-through on every level.  

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Even just me being in a position to make a shot like that — having the good fortune to be in New York, and to play for the Knicks during the days of that fierce rivalry with the Heat — was all about those three particular things coming together at once.

The full story of how I came to be a Knick is one that not a lot of people know about.

It actually started with a phone call from….

Pat Huey.

My 24 years in New York — the ups and downs, the battles and big shots, everything, all of it — actually started with a call from a guy by the name of….

Well, according to my then fiancée: “Pat Huey.”

Let me set the scene for you. Before I even knew the Knicks were interested in signing me away from the Pistons as a free agent in ’96, I’m at home in Michigan and the telephone rings.

A few seconds later, my fiancée, now my wife — who I love more than anything but who, at the time, only knew Pistons players and didn’t know players across the league — comes into the living room holding the phone: “Hey, some guy named Pat is on the phone for you. Or Patrick. Pat Huey or something….”

I kind of squint my eyes and cock my head to the side and give her one of those Who? looks before taking the phone.

Then I get on the line, and … it’s the big fella.

Not Pat Huey.

PATRICK EWING!

Now, you gotta understand … I was in the building at that Final Four in ’82 at the Superdome when Big John and Pat beat the Louisville Cardinals team my dad coached for in the semis. I saw his domination firsthand. I’d admired this man since I was like 11 years old. And now here he was calling me to ask me to come play with him in New York?

Unreal.

So Patrick and I, we talk for about 10 minutes, and then, a few days later ... he’s on a private jet that lands in Detroit to swoop up me and my father for a trip to NYC.

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When we landed, the Knicks put us up in the St. Regis in Manhattan. I’d never seen a suite that size before.

First thing I did was sit down on the couch, spread out, and pop a video into the TV that the team had left at the hotel for me.

I press play, and, all of a sudden … I’ll never forget it….

Columbo pops up on the screen.

Columbo?

Yeah, man … Columbo.

He’s looking right into the camera, and he’s like, “Hey, Allan! You’re the missing piece! We need you in New York. Come play for the Knicks in the Garden!!!”

Then I think Spike popped up on the TV next, and it’s like….

“Yo, Al … you’re the final piece, man! We need you in New York. You can put us over the top. We’re so close. And you’re the guy who can get us there. This is the Garden, man. The mecca. Let’s do this, Al!!!!!”

There were a whole bunch of other famous people after that. All of them like….

“This team needs you, Allan. Join the family!”

It was CRAAAZYYY!

And, for whatever reason, that video has always stuck with me. That’s one of the things I remember most about being recruited to come play for the Knicks, to be honest. I’m just always like….

They actually pulled out Columbo! These dudes played … the Columbo card? Are you kidding me?

And my wife … she may not have known Pat, but she definitely knew about Columbo.

I ended up coming over to the Knicks because they made me feel like I was a critical piece of the team’s future and championship run. That trip made me feel connected to New York. They made me feel that my presence on the Knicks would matter to their future, and to the efforts at winning a title in New York.

I knew I would be challenged, but I felt like family.

And that meant everything to me. Because family, and that sense of community, is something that’s always been central to who I am for as long as I can remember.

As a kid, Grand Avenue in the West End of Louisville was my first home. That was my neighborhood. My world. My identity.

My mom always brings up a fun fact about our street when she wants to embarrass me. “Grand Avenue has produced two Olympic gold medalists,” she’ll say. “And they both grew up on the same street, two doors down from one another. Allan Houston and Muhammad Ali.”

I mean … Muhammad Ali was my neighbor!

Inspiration was everywhere I looked when I was a kid coming up in Louisville.

But, truth be told, I didn’t need any more motivation on my journey than my mother and father. My father has always been the ultimate example of class and dignity and leadership. And everyone who knows our family up close knows my mom is the heartbeat. Not only was she the strong wife by my father’s side and loving mother of three, but she was also the mother for all my teammates while launching one of the largest minority companies in the nation. She has always been the glue that held us together.

Looking back on it now, I feel like it was almost impossible for me not to succeed with those individuals, and that community, raising me up.

Even so, though, there were still so many lessons I needed to learn along the way.

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By the time I graduated from college with my African-American Studies degree from Tennessee and landed in Detroit as the 11th pick in the draft, I was ready for my next chapter.

But I had no idea what I was in for.

Detroit was a pivotal time in my life. Looking back on it, I needed to be around people who would push me and challenge me, on and off the court. I experienced the remnants of the Bad Boys. I saw brawls between teammates, players and management.

But I was also fortunate to be mentored by arguably the best NBA backcourt of all time. And wherever Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars went, I followed.

I watched their habits, listened to their conversations, studied their preparation.

These were legends — guys who … they’re in the Old Heads O.G. Hall of Fame. Serious individuals. Grown men.

Those guys, they taught me how to be a pro. How to work.

They gave me a vision for the type of career and long-term impact I wanted to have as a professional, and as a man.

You couldn’t help but learn from those dudes. And I swear, there were days when I felt like our coach back then, Doug Collins, probably told Joe Dumars straight up, “Make Allan miserable today.”

Then Joe would just proceed to knock me around for three hours straight.

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You know what, though? I loved it!

I’d seen how Joe played against MJ. I saw how he competed. And I had the utmost respect for that guy. He was an O.G., yes, but he was also so strong and physical. And he could still play. He was still one of the best all-around players in the league.

So I took my lumps. I knew I was getting better from it. It was preparing me to reach another level.

By the time we drafted Grant Hill that next year, I had learned a ton. And G came in and gave us a boost beyond belief. Coach Collins had coached MJ and Scottie, and he’d always tell Grant and me how hard he pushed those guys. So we just bought in 100%.

Everything was about hard work, and the players on those teams … they also taught me a valuable lesson about how grimy it could get in the league back then. Because, for as skilled as the guys on my first few Pistons teams were as players, they brought their lunch pails to work every day. No one wasted anything. And, of course, they were also just world-class brawlers.

So, yeah, you know what? By the time that I got to New York, and those Heat playoff series started getting crazy.…

I had been fully prepped.

Now, at the same time, I gotta admit: I’d never seen a coach jump on the floor in a scrum to stop a fight before.

That was one for the books.

And, yeah, I guess seeing my guys flipping each other into the seats was another one. That was new to me.

But in some ways, the grimy nature of those Knicks-Heat battles was predictable. Those two teams, we were basically mirror images of each other.

Jeff Van Gundy had spent years with Pat Riley as an assistant. He put his own spin on things when he became a head coach, obviously, but to a large extent, those Heat teams ran the same stuff that we ran. Knicks current head coach Tom Thibodeau was a hungry assistant spending hours in the gym developing our skills. There were so many individual dynamics at play, and so much history — two Georgetown centers, in Patrick and Zo, LJ and Zo’s history in Charlotte, and Riles having coached the Knicks in the past and knowing everyone in the organization — and it created a perfect storm.

It was like two brothers fighting, where you know every move and trick and punch that the other guy’s trying to throw. Whether you can stop those punches or not is a separate matter, but you definitely know when they’re coming. And you never compete harder than you do when you’re fighting against your brother.

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So when P.J. Brown flipped Charlie Ward in that Game 5 in ’97, with us up 3–1, honestly my main reaction was….

I can’t believe it took so long for something like this to happen.

I’m actually surprised that brawls like that didn’t take place even more when our two teams got together.

That fight’s been talked about to death at this point, but what still bugs me all these years later has absolutely nothing to do with the fight itself. What I still think about is that league’s decision to suspend five — FIVE! — of our best players for one game apiece over the last two games of a series that we were about to win.

We felt like — and still feel like — the league took that one away from us.

It was Patrick, Charlie and me out for Game 6, and then, when the three of us were able to come back for Game 7, John Starks and LJ had to sit out.

They took five of our guys … and one of theirs.

Come onnnn now.

I had to watch Game 6 of that series at home on the couch.

Are you kidding me?

All I can do at this point is just shake my head.

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Then, of course, that next year you have Coach Van Gundy being dragged across the floor as if he was trying to keep Zo from getting a first down, and it’s just like, Here we go again!

People always remember that incident because of how absurd it was — how it was something you don’t see every day.

But to us, Jeff’s players, it wasn’t surprising at all.

It was just Coach being Coach.

He was always willing to get in players’ faces, or do whatever it took to get his point across. But it always came from a place of love, and a desire to help every guy become the best player he could be. He just has an incredible heart.

When I played for Jeff, he was known for these little handwritten notes that he’d jot down and put under your hotel room door, like….

“Your defensive stance is much better. Keep getting to the free throw line. Your hard work is paying off.”

He’d throw in an, “I need a bit more on the boards,” or a “Next game, stay attached to your man — you’re getting screened too much.” But just the whole idea of those notes….

Written out. Not an email or a printout some assistant coach distributed … pen and paper. Old school….  

That was the Jeff we all knew.

Sure, he’d battle it out and have screaming matches with his players at practice sometimes, but it always came from a place of love. I’ve found that in this era fewer coaches and players know how to handle conflicts in a mature way, and then move on, because everything has become so public and visible with social media. Conflict is part of life and relationships, and it’s important to know how to handle adversity and problem-solve in those moments.

So I have the utmost respect for how that man handled himself.

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On a personal note, one Coach Van Gundy story that I haven’t told many people happened a few years into my tenure with the Knicks. I was working out down in the weight room at our facility when all of sudden I see Coach stroll in.

He seeks me out straight away and comes right up to me.

“Hey man, I just wanted to let you know that we may be making a trade for Mitch Richmond soon.”

Wow! Mitch? Really!!!

“And I wanted you to hear it from me first. I didn’t want you to be surprised when you hear something.”

So, I’m thinking like, Incredible. That’s dope. Mitch is one of the best guards in the game. Let’s go!!! And, man, that’s love that you gave me the heads up.


Then Jeff, he’s like … “Uhh. You’d be the one traded, the one going out.”

That’s when it hit me.

And, man, yeah, it hurt for a second. But I knew it was business.

Jeff was always so honest with me, and in that moment, he just wanted to be above-board with me.

And, of course, I never ended up hearing from anyone else in the front office about it, and obviously that deal didn’t happen. But I never held it against anyone.

I just respected Jeff more, and have ever since.

And I’m pretty sure everyone else felt that same sort of respect for him, and for his passion and fire. That’s who he is.  

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Case in point: A few years later, in ’99, shortly after I hit that game-winning shot — after what was the greatest moment I’ve ever experienced on a basketball court — Coach was actually … furious.

I still laugh about that to this day.

That shot everyone knows me for? The one I took with three seconds on the clock in Game 5 against that No. 1–seeded Heat team? Well, not a lot of people remember this, but there were still eight-tenths of a second left after that shot bounced in. Then, when the Heat got the ball back, Terry Porter got up a shot that the refs didn’t wave off. And Coach was heeeeeated. (If you watch the clip, right after the game ends you can see us all celebrating while Jeff’s over with the referees giving them hell for not waving off the shot … which missed. It was the principle of the thing! My guy!)

To the rest of the world, though — or at least to all of New York — that moment was one of pure celebration.

We’d won six out our last eight at the end of the season just to squeak into the playoffs as an 8 seed facing a 1. Add that to all the intensity and everything else that had gone into our previous playoff battles, and it all just blended together at that moment. Then, when the buzzer went off….

New York went nuts all at once.

And, for me, it was euphoria — one of the happiest moments of my life.

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I would’ve loved for that experience to have been part of a championship run, of course, but I’ve come around to not letting it diminish how special that shot was. And New York sports fans, for better or worse … they do not forget.

Let me tell you when it really hits me the hardest. I’ve had people come up to me on the street like, “Yooooooo, check this out: I had to get stitches after that shot bounced in because I jumped out of the chair and hit my head on our ceiling fan,” or, “I busted my ankle and had to go to the emergency room because I ran outside yelling and I missed a step.”

That’s really when it’s like….

Only in New York.

Listen, I’ll be 50 next year. I’m getting up there. I’m going to be gone at some point, and maybe people in the city will still be talking about that shot.

Knicks fans … man. They really are the best.

They are as real as you can get. All they expect from players is … HEART.

And I’ve always done my best to be real and authentic and show love in return — in as many ways as I can.

All these years after my basketball career ended, I’ve never forgotten the importance of giving back that has been so crucial to my development over the years. It’s all about the follow-through!

I’ve played different roles within the Knicks since I retired in 2005, but I am ultimately called to help our players manage everything that goes into being a New York Knick. Sharing some advice on not only the game, but also on how to build a strong identity in New York, how to form a clear vision and maximize their experience in a Knicks uniform. I’ve been there. I know about the ups and downs. I don’t hold anything back and try to pass along all that I know.

This calling was ignited long before I became a Knick. More than 20 years ago, my father, my family and I began devoting our energy to mentoring and helping families create a lasting legacy. We hosted retreats to foster stronger bonds between fathers and their sons and families called Father Knows Best. As someone who benefited immensely from the guidance, life lessons, and love that he received from his father, I now see it as one of the great missions of my life to help foster support, mentoring and healthier relationships between youth and adults in communities all across the globe.

Courtesy of Alan Houston

This gave me the vision to launch FISLL, a social impact brand to provide a community platform for mentoring, leadership development and life coaching through digital learning content (including Coachable, a 30-minute short film that I produced), merchandise and other consumer products. FISLL promotes the values of Faith, Integrity, Sacrifice, Leadership & Legacy to engage and equip youth and adults for success and impact.

We recently partnered with the NBA to launch a social justice apparel collection featuring messages of empowerment and hope consistent with the FISLL values. As a 100% Black-owned company with products manufactured in Africa, proceeds will not only be used to support our next generation of leaders and mentors but also to fund economic empowerment in the Black community by directly supporting Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs.

We’re calling it our “Time To Follow Through” initiative because times are challenging. People need support and we’re joining so many other great people and athletes to use our platform to take action. We’d love for you to join our efforts and become a member of Team FISLL.

Oh yeah … and one more thing before I get out of here: Don’t sleep on my guy Coach Thibs and these young Knicks!

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