Two years ago, when Grayson Allen led a comeback win against North Carolina in Chapel Hill as a sophomore, he threw the ball in the air as the buzzer sounded and sprinted straight to Mike Krzyzewski, pure joy covering his face.
The joy was back when Allen earned his final curtain call with 19.2 seconds left at Cameron Indoor Stadium after yet another improbable rally in the rivalry. The senior captain pumped his fists as he made another beeline for Krzyzewski, wrapping his head coach in another bearhug. Both were a little more misty-eyed this time.
That joyful expression was not always there in the two years between those moments. Certainly not for most of last year, when Allen battled one injury after another and also fought a tidal wave of national vitriol after tripping Elon’s Steven Santa Ana. But amid the negativity that followed that incident and the ensuing one-game suspension—deemed too light by numerous commentators and columnists—Krzyzewski stood by his veteran guard.
“Sometimes you get knocked right on your butt... That’s why you’re in college, and there should be an umbrella over these kids that give them the protection and the aid that they need so that when they do leave here, they learn from mistakes,” Krzyzewski said. “He got his butt beat in a lot of different ways, but he had the umbrella. Not just me, he had a lot of people that were supportive of him.”
Allen recognized that umbrella when he took the microphone and addressed the crowd for more than 10 minutes after Saturday’s 74-64 win against the Tar Heels on Senior Night. He had a lot of people to thank, starting with his parents, Krzyzewski and his teammates but extending to Section 17, packed to the brim with students.
For a player who gets booed the minute he steps on the floor whenever he steps in an opposing team’s gym, Allen has always had a safe haven at Cameron.
“Everyone here gave me way more than I could ever give Duke,” Allen said during his speech. “It’s tough when you get a lot of negativity. Y’all helped me find that love again, and y’all are a huge reason why I can stand out here with my head held high with a smile on my face.”
Allen didn’t have his smoothest game on the floor Saturday. He turned the ball over six times and missed two free throws and nine shots from the field.
But he yielded ball-handling duties to Trevon Duval for most of the second half and kept shooting, finally drilling two critical 3-pointers in the final 15 minutes. The first trimmed the North Carolina lead to five for the first time of the second half, and the second resulted in the last lead change of the night with 6:51 left.
For the rest of the comeback, Allen was the first to feed off the crowd and energize his teammates after big plays. He was calmly finding Marvin Bagley III and Gary Trent Jr. for open triples and maniacally chest bumping Bagley after a strong 3-point play midway through the half, showing himself to be the senior leader some doubted he could become.
In many ways, Allen’s up-and-down game and adoption of multiple roles in his 39 minutes and 40 seconds on the floor was emblematic of his college career.
“I’m a guy that’s into meditation, so was trying to sit quiet and meditate before the game. A lot of emotions flood into your head,” Allen said in the locker room after the game. “It was a little bit of an emotional rollercoaster today. But my mom kept telling me all week that it was going to be a celebration—a celebration of four great years, a celebration of everything Duke has given me.”
Allen will not be winning a National Player of the Year award like several of Krzyzewski’s former players. That means jersey probably won’t rise to the rafters to join the 13 names immortalized in program history. But Allen’s bond with Duke’s coaching staff and fan base as the team’s lone senior is as close as any past or present Blue Devil has enjoyed.
“I’m always jealous of the guys who play here, because as a player, I would like to have run out on that court. I would have liked to have had a Senior Night like that,” Krzyzewski said. “I loved being at Army, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not this. So you get in those moments with your players, and I’m glad we shared that moment tonight.”
During Allen’s speech to the crowd, he singled out a Crazie’s sign with a picture of him and the words, “Glad he came back? He never left,” and carried it back to midcourt with him. After saying no to the NBA for three straight years, he won’t have a choice this year, but before he leaves for good, he’ll have one more chance to speak to the fans at Cameron, if he can lead Duke to a national championship and come back home for a rally like the one he helped earn in as a freshman in 2015.
Regardless of what happens for the rest of March, though, Allen’s legacy as part of a dying breed of four-year stars is secure.
“For the rest of the time I coach here, for however long that is, I’m not going to have a senior like that because they’re going to be too good and they’re going to leave,” Krzyzewski said. “Four-time Academic All-ACC, an All-American, a national champion, come on—an ACC champion. In the military, they would say, ‘Well done, my son. Well done.’”
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