Nova Notebook: Allen's NBA Journey Takes Him Back to Miami
by Mike Sheridan
As part of the 100th season of Villanova Basketball (#NovaMBB100), the Nova Notebook this season will occasionally check in with Wildcats legends.
It's lunch time in South Florida and Malik Allen finds himself in a summer place all too familiar to those who earn their livelihood in professional basketball.
All around him are boxes waiting to be unpacked.
No worries, though.
This is a homecoming of sorts for the Shawnee (N.J.) High School product who came to Villanova as a Top 100 recruit in 1996 and later went on to a nine-year NBA career. Last month, he was brought on board by the franchise that gave him his first real chance in the league as a player in 2001, when Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra named him an assistant coach. Previously, Allen served as an assistant coach with Detroit (2014-18) and Minnesota (2018-19).
"It happened so fast but it's exciting," Allen notes. "There are still so many familiar faces in this organization from when I played here. It feels like I've walked back into family."
Spoelstra said of Allen in making the announcement: ""We have always loved and respected his work ethic and passion for the game, he has Miami Heat DNA. Malik has been committed to learning and improving at this craft of coaching the last five years and we look forward to him being an impactful addition to our staff."
Allen came to Villanova from New Jersey as part of a decorated 1996 recruiting crop headlined by Tim Thomas. The Wildcats were rolling under head coach Steve Lappas, fresh from a 26-7 season led by senior All-American Kerry Kittles. Though Kittles and Eric Eberz had graduated, the presence of a senior class that included Jason Lawson, Alvin Williams and Chuck Kornegay and an intriguing crop of young players kept the Wildcats planted firmly in the national rankings.
"I thought I was a good worker when I got to Villanova," recalls Allen. "When I saw how hard Jay, Alvin, Chuck and those guys worked, how they let Coach (Steve) Lappas coach them, I knew I had to work even harder."
As a freshman, Allen contributed occasionally as a reserve in a 24-10 season. With the departure of four cornerstone athletes, including the school's all-time leader in blocked shots (Lawson), a first team All-BIG EAST performer (Williams) and the national freshman of the year (Thomas), '97-98 loomed as a huge opportunity for Allen and fellow underclassmen Howard Brown and John Celestand.
It didn't go as planned.
The Wildcats posted a 12-17 record.
"As a young player, you see that those guys have left and you feel like it's your turn," Allen states. "But I wasn't as ready as I should have been. We struggled and I struggled. I wasn't happy with it and I don't think any of us were."
That summer, Allen knew what must be done.
"The way you bounce back is to put your head down and work," he says. "That's what I tried to do."
As a rookie Allen saw spot minutes on a veteran unit. When he became a starter, though, he was on the court battling the largest players in the BIG EAST and it took a toll. Improving his endurance became job one.
"For me it wasn't just the mental part of it, but also the physical part of it too," Allen recalls.
Right from the outset, the Wildcats set about writing a different script in 1998-99. They captured the Great Alaska Shootout by downing nationally ranked Arkansas. The insertion of freshman Brook Sales into the lineup in January alongside Allen gave the 'Cats a boost. Seniors Celestand and Brown provided leadership and offensive fuel. A convincing 75-60 win over Syracuse at the Carrier Dome left Villanova well positioned for a return to the NCAA Tournament.
However, a three-game losing skid dropped the 'Cats to the bubble later in the month. A 74-63 victory Big Five win over Penn got the Wildcats back on track but an NCAA bid still hung in the balance as No. 8 St. John's came to campus for a nationally televised Saturday matinee at the Pavilion.
"It was a game we needed to win to get where we wanted to go," Allen recalls. "The atmosphere in the Pavilion was amazing. I had played against most of the St. John's guys in high school. It was just fun."
The game was deadlocked at 60 with just over two minutes to play. Allen then drained two clutch jumpers while Celestand sank a pair of key free throws. Villanova prevailed 66-60, effectively locking in a return to the NCAA Tournament.
"For all the ups and downs we had, it felt good to have a good season," Allen stated.
The grit that Allen developed as an undergraduate served him well when he entered the professional ranks in 2000. After going undrafted, Allen spent the 2000-01 campaign playing in a domestic professional league that was struggling financially. But a year later, Allen's work ethic and steady improvement earned him a free agent shot with the Heat. He would go on to play 151 games for the organization in a career that took him to seven other franchises before wrapping up a decade after it began, in 2010-11 in Orlando.
Allen, 41, entered the coaching ranks three years later, hired by his former head coach in Miami and Orlando, Stan Van Gundy. Now, he's back to the place where he cut his professional teeth, hired by a head coach who was in charge of video the last time Allen was on the Miami payroll.
"This is the organization that taught me how to be a pro," he says.
He also is quick to acknowledge the role his college years played in his development.
"My time at Villanova was rewarding," he says from among the boxes in the home he and wife Kara are settling into with their family after a long drive from Minneapolis. "I love the school and have so many great memories. I made a lot of great friends and we've stayed connected.
"Villanova gave me an opportunity. I had my share of trials and tribulations on the court, but we put our heads down and kept working. I think that mindset helped me throughout my career."