Coming to grips with Duke’s Grayson Allen

Mention Grayson Allen’s episodes of tripping opponents, and most observers offer instant judgments ranging from disapproval to disgust to concern for his mental health. Bobby Cremins immediately conjures undesirable consequences, flashing back to the 1970 ACC tournament and the devastating effect an opponent’s unintentional act had on a South Carolina squad with national championship aspirations.

Frank McGuire’s ’70 Gamecocks were the first ACC squad ever ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll. Led by repeat conference player of the year John Roche, they went undefeated during the league regular season. “They were a big, bad team,” recalls Al Heartley, a guard on the N.C. State squad that beat USC in double overtime in the ACC tournament final.

Gifted, physical and arrogant, South Carolina and Roche, its playmaker and leader, were about as popular as, oh, players who trip opponents.

“Everybody hated us,” says Cremins, Roche’s backcourt mate. “Sometimes we taunted people, which was wrong. People hated John. He kicked (Duke guard Dick) DeVenzio one time. He yelled at Dean Smith. But John was just a fantastic player. There was so much pressure on him, it was just incredible. On the road, people were just brutal to him.”

Duke players such as Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick consistently attracted verbal abuse, although none approaching the vitriol aimed at Roche. Allen, a skilled performer who plays with the relentless ferocity of a shark, is far less demonstrative than his Blue Devils predecessors. As a result he elicited little notice from opposing fans until he was suspended for a third spontaneous tripping offense, a late-December takedown of Elon’s Steven Santa Ana.

Now Allen’s every move is scrutinized, his name synonymous with tripping. When a Minnesota player inadvertently sent Michigan State’s Miles Bridges sprawling the other day due to an ill-placed leg, Spartans fans chanted “Grayson Allen! Grayson Allen!”

A similar encounter cost Roche a severely sprained ankle in the 1970 tournament. With it went South Carolina’s chance at an NCAA title run a year before exiting the ACC.

The damaging incident was without malice, Cremins recalls, and far more commonplace than unremarked maneuvers like Julius Hodge’s purposeful attempt to hook Mike Dunleavy’s leg as the Duke player left the jump circle at the outset of a 2002 game against N.C. State. Rather, Roche was felled by an ordinary enough occurrence – harried defender John Lewkowicz got in the way. “We got a two-on-one break in the semis against Wake,” Cremins remembers. “We were up by 25, and the kid stuck his leg out and tripped Roche.”

Dan Klores, in his 1980 book, “Roundball Culture: South Carolina Basketball,” reported irate Gamecock fans “were sure that Roche was tripped on purpose.” The next day, South Carolina played for its first ACC championship and the league’s sole bid to advance to the NCAAs and a regional hosted in Columbia, S.C. Second-guessers contended the Gamecocks had enough talent to survive one game without their hobbled floor leader. McGuire thought otherwise. So Roche’s ankle was anesthetized and he played 47 minutes, going a measly 4-of-17 from the floor. As regulation play and then the first overtime drew to a close, he missed shots to win the game.

The Wolfpack triumphed after the ball was stolen from Cremins for the winning points in the second extra period; afterward the senior fled to the North Carolina mountains to salve his psychic wounds. (South Carolina won its only ACC championship in 1971.)

Cremins went on to a career as head coach at Appalachian State, Georgia Tech and College of Charleston. He calls Allen’s acts “absolutely wrong for the game” but dealt with players who similarly lost control of their emotions, if not in so public or dangerous a manner.

“I’ve had several guys like that,” agrees Oliver Purnell, formerly head coach at Clemson and four other schools. “It can manifest itself in different ways. It can kind of just blurt out: ‘This is pissing me off. This is bothering me. I don’t like this.’ Or he’ll act out in different ways, whether it will be just trying to screw up practice by not working hard or getting somebody to go along with him and form a clique right there in practice. ‘We’re not going to work hard today no matter how much Coach yells and screams.’ 

Skipping class or a mandatory meal may also be a way of unraveling. “And then obviously there’s always the drinking/substance abuse,” Purnell says. “You just deal with it. I’d say a large percentage of the time, that’s simply a coping mechanism when a kid has emotional problems, or has stress. I think most coaches have had several players that do that.”

Those situations are usually invisible to the public, with violation of team rules or some other stock phrase cited to palliate the truth. In Allen’s case, Mike Krzyzewski suspended him indefinitely, a period that lasted for 13 days and one game. The junior was reinstated in time to play once before Krzyzewski was sidelined to recuperate from back surgery.

Understandably, returning Allen to the lineup so quickly engendered even more discord than the coach’s initial comments, made after orchestrating a face-to-face apology to Elon’s Santa Ana but before watching video or having time to reflect.

“I think I’ve handled this correctly and moving forward I will continue to handle it correctly, and I don’t need to satisfy what other people think that I should do,” Krzyzewski declared a bit imperiously at his postgame news conference. “I’m a teacher and a coach, and I’m responsible for that kid. I know him better than anybody. … Obviously we will do more. It doesn’t mean you have to see it or anybody else has to see it.”

Outsiders may never know how Allen was disciplined and, based on the reasonable assumption there’s something awry, how he’s helped to deal with the underlying causes of what were literally instances of non-verbal lashing out. You wouldn’t expect the program to advertise, for instance, if the 21-year-old is undergoing counseling, or what Krzyzewski might be telling him.

All part of a coach’s job. “Obviously in most cases you don’t want to lose that young man, you want to bring him along,” says Purnell, who tried to cultivate trusting, “loving” relationships with players. “At the same time you can’t have him negatively affecting the team.”

Looking from afar, Dr. Alan Goldberg, an Amherst, Massachusetts, sports performance consultant, says Allen clearly has lost control of his emotions when he trips opponents. “Any time our emotions steer our ship, we always end up on the rocks,” says Goldberg, who has a doctorate in counseling psychology and 32 years of experience working with athletes on such issues. “Our emotions make us stupid. You can be very, very intelligent, but when we get emotional they highjack us.”

That Allen is “acting out” is unacceptable, he says, but “not unusual behavior” when dealing with high-profile, high-intensity athletes. “You don’t think of consequences when that stuff happens, you just react,” Goldberg observes. “One needs to take responsibility for that kind of behavior: Realize that it’s a serious problem, and he needs to work on it and that no one can do it for him.”

If missing a single game helped Allen face those truths, and deal with them before he hurts someone, that and not the punishment is what’s most important.

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