With a 74-64 victory over rival North Carolina already secure and just 19.2 seconds remaining in the game, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called timeout to give the fans at Cameron Indoor Stadium one final chance to honor the Blue Devils’ lone senior.
What happened next was something all but the most ardent Grayson Allen critics should be able to appreciate.
Allen pumped both fists in celebration of a meaningful victory. An appreciative crowd stood and roared. And Mike Krzyzewski wrapped Allen in the sort of emotional bear hug you’d expect a father to give his son.
“He just said we did it, and that he loves me,” Allen told ESPN reporter Maria Taylor. “Coach has had my back, he’s been the No. 1 guy there for me. That’s such a special moment I’m so happy I was able to share with him.”
The embrace from Krzyzewski was the culmination of a tumultuous Duke career during which Allen experienced an unfathomably wide range of emotions. He evolved from seldom-used benchwarmer to improbable national title game hero, from breakout star to serial tripper, from polarizing villain to understated veteran.
When Allen tripped an opposing player for the third time in less than 12 months last season against Elon, he appeared to instantly realize the consequences of that lapse in judgment. Allen seemed to realize that he would be permanently branded a dirty player and that he had nobody to blame for that but himself.
Everyone from reporters, to TV analysts, to opposing fans called for Krzyzewski to either kick Allen off the team or issue a long suspension, but the Duke coach chose a show of lenience instead. He suspended Allen for only one game and stripped him of his captaincy, a light punishment that opened Krzyzewski up for criticism should Allen have fallen back into his old habits.
Allen curtailed his tripping habit when he returned from his suspension, but it seldom looked like he was having any fun. Nagging injuries robbed him of his former explosiveness. Duke’s lack of a true point guard forced him to at times play out of position. And every collision he had with an opposing player was scrutinized on social media like the Zapruder film.
The easy thing for Allen to do after that frustrating junior season would have been to flee Duke and turn pro. He probably wouldn’t have been a first-round pick, but he would certainly have gotten a chance to latch on with an NBA team in training camp at the very least.
To his credit, Allen didn’t run. He returned to Duke for his senior season to try to work on his game, improve his reputation and leave on a better note.
Allen’s senior season started with a splash, a 37-point barrage against Michigan State on a night when heralded teammate Marvin Bagley barely played and the rest of Duke’s freshmen also were struggling. It was a reminder that Allen was a really good player before the injuries and tripping drama dragged him down.
The rest of Allen’s senior season has been oddly uneventful for the most part.
He still annoys opposing fans with the way he snaps his head back to try to draw a whistle when driving to the basket, but he hasn’t been involved in any headline-grabbing incidents. He’s still Duke’s second-leading scorer on the season, yet he hasn’t broken 30 points once since the Michigan State game less than a week into the season.
What Allen has really been is a solid, dependable veteran on a team full of talented freshmen and sophomores. The player whose teammates once had to beg him to talk more on the court has now become the vocal leader of a Duke team that is 25-6 and will be one of the favorites to win the national title when the NCAA tournament tips off in 12 days.
Allen didn’t shoot particularly well against North Carolina, but he found other ways to help Duke avenge a previous loss to the Tar Heels. In addition to scoring 14 points, Allen tallied five assists, five rebounds and five steals.
The tripping incidents will always be part of Allen’s legacy, the same way Mani Te’o will always be known for inventing a fake girlfriend and Adam Morrison will always be synonymous with crying on the court.
But credit Allen for persevering to ensure he’s not known only for tripping. Saturday’s emotional senior night victory was another step toward finishing his rollercoaster Duke career on a positive note.