Bouncing from one friend's apartment to another and just scraping to get by was not at all what Antoine Allen envisioned for himself when he gave up a promising basketball career for a shot at hip-hop stardom.
Over a two-year span, Allen went from playing at college basketball's highest level to near-homelessness.
“I didn’t want my family to know anything,” said Allen, a 2008 Baltimore Sun first-team All-Metro selection from Lake Clifton. “I told them one thing, but I knew what it really was. Things [were] going rough, but I didn’t want my family to worry. It was very hard. I went through so much.”
While Allen’s family – including his two-year-old son Chaise – was kept in the dark about his living situation, the former Lakers star eventually started to have second thoughts about giving up on his education. What finally brought Allen back from the brink of destitution was his self-professed first love: basketball.
“I know how much it meant to my family, just for me to continue to play basketball and even get my degree,” Allen said. “I have talent, man, and I just felt I was wasting it. I didn’t want to waste it. I was going through a lot. But you live and you learn. I’m the first guy in my family to ever go to college. I can’t let that go. That’s big on me. I just feel I have something else to accomplish for myself and my family.”
On Monday, Allen took a major step in securing a better future for his family by committing to South Alabama – a Sun Belt Conference program that last made the NCAA tournament in 2008.
“I just think it’s a great choice,” said Butch Estes, Allen’s coach at Palm Beach (Fla.) State College. “He saw there were some connections that he can make there and I think he’ll return to the music industry when he’s done [with basketball]. I wouldn’t be surprised if he made it in the hip hop scene. He’s got the possibility of really being big-time some day.”
Getting back to Division I basketball has been a long time coming for Allen. But his long-awaited return to the game shouldn’t be a surprise to those who knew him best back home.
Allen grew up in East Baltimore’s Chapel Hill projects, spending the majority of his free time playing ball, while also dabbling in music. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound combo guard was a prolific scorer for Lake Clifton and on the circuit with Cecil Kirk. As a senior, Allen averaged 16 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals, leading the well-balanced Lakers (25-2) to Baltimore City and Class 3A North regional championships.
“What was so attractive was his approach to the game,” said longtime Cecil Kirk coach Anthony Lewis. “His toughness and take-no-prisoners attitude, he utilized that and mobilized that on the offensive end, becoming an extremely effective scorer and really tenacious on defense.”
After graduation Allen headed to Mississippi Elite Christian Academy, an upstart prep-school program that allowed him to showcase his scoring ability and earn several high-major scholarship offers. Allen eventually signed with Miami over Central Florida, Florida State, Providence and Virginia.
In Coral Gables, Allen excelled in the classroom. The broadcast journalism major was selected to the 2010 All-ACC Academic team. But on the court, Allen struggled to make an impact. He appeared in just 17 games for the Hurricanes as a freshman, averaging 2.9 points and 8.1 minutes.
“Probably toward the end of the season [I decided to transfer],” Allen said. “I kind of had my mind made up. It just wasn’t a good situation. I wish the best for all [those] guys. It just wasn’t the best situation for me. I just wanted to move on somewhere else.”
From there, Allen headed to UNC-Wilmington, where former Lake Clifton star and Miami point guard Kevin Norris was an assistant coach. His time in North Carolina lasted through summer school before Allen decided to move back to Miami to focus on his budding rap career.
A musical interlude
Allen caught the music bug at a young age, but really started taking hip-hop seriously and thinking about it as a potential career when he played for the Hurricanes.
“In Miami, it’s definitely one of the best music places,” Allen said. “I felt like I was getting a great opportunity, performing and meeting all the people I needed to meet. I was definitely making strides. It was going good for me.”
Allen split his time last year between Miami and Los Angeles, writing and performing his unique brand of “feel-good music in the club that’ll get you ready to go out there and get it.” Allen -- who goes by Tweez -- recorded songs and even shot a video.
“I was doing music and helping provide for my family and just grinding extremely hard,” Allen said.
But while Allen was pleased with his progress in making connections and developing himself as an artist, he soon discovered just how tough it was to make it in the music business.
“The music industry is so up and down,” Allen said. “I learned at the end of the day that it’s very inconsistent. To tell you the truth, I went through a hard time. They say you never know how good it is until it’s gone. I reached a point in Miami where I didn’t have no one to rely on. I didn’t want to tell my family I was homeless. I didn’t have nowhere to stay. I came out there myself, [and] I still had to work hard and get back on the grind. I had to work hard because nobody was going to give me anything. I put my mind together, getting back on track and staying focused.”
Getting back on track came with a realization: Allen desperately missed playing basketball.
Back in the game
Allen had kept in a touch over the years with Chris Cantino, a 6-foot-7 forward from Philadelphia that he had met at a Five-Star camp years ago. Cantino had moved on to Palm Beach State -- a junior college powerhouse about an hour north of Miami -- and invited Allen to take part in some open gyms over the summer.
After “not touching a ball” for a year, Allen was working out every day, going to the YMCA on a regular basis, and feeling at ease back in his natural element playing in open gyms with a consensus Top 10 JUCO program.
“It came back, but you can tell I was still rusty and it was going to take a little time,” Allen said. “Now I feel good. My body feels good. My athleticism is back, my shooting is back, my handles are back.”
At Palm Beach State, Allen was back playing with the caliber of player he became accustomed to competing against in Miami. Among the Panthers’ more notable players are South Florida center commitment Waverly Austin, the preseason junior college player of the year, former Texas forward signee Kevin Thomas, and former Marshall recruit and Baltimore native Mike Cheatham (City).
It didn’t take much convincing for Estes, the Palm Beach State coach, to add Allen to his roster.
“First of all, he’s an outstanding student – an All-Academic ACC kid, so he’s a unique junior college kid,” Estes said. “He’s got the grades, he’s a very solid player, and his maturity really is welcomed here as we deal with a lot of young kids trying to find their way. His leadership and maturity is going to be an amazing piece of what could be a good story for us. Besides that, he can really score and he can really guard. And he’s a good kid. It’s almost a wow factor.”
Said Allen: “Everyday I’m thankful he gave me another opportunity to play basketball.”
College coaches have made a habit of recruiting Estes’ Panthers program, so Allen had ample opportunities to impress. It wasn’t too long before scholarships started to flow in, with High Point, Marshall, South Alabama and Towson among the most interested programs.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that had he played in the spring, he would have been recruited at the highest level,” Estes said.
Once Allen visited South Alabama’s campus last weekend, any temptation he might have had to try for another high-major offer was forgotten. Ronnie Arrow -- who has guided the Jaguars to three NCAA tournament appearances and three Sun Belt championships -- made it clear from the start that Allen was his top combo guard target.
“The way they presented it to us was that they had all the pieces but a wing guard who can really score,” Estes said. “[Allen] was kind of like, in their words, the missing link or the missing piece. We did our research and all that, and it turned out to be true. He was definitely their first choice. They gave him their first offer, gave him so many days to consider it. I think that made him feel very special.”
Allen had remembered watching South Alabama in the NCAA tournament in 2008. After talking it over with Arrow, he became convinced that the Jaguars were not far off from making it back – especially with Allen on the roster.
“I didn’t even have to go on another visit to know what I found in South Alabama,” Allen said. “I have two years left, so I have to have a successful career for the next two years. I have to do work, so Coach [Arrow] was telling me I’ll come there next year and we’re going to be good. We’ve got [the reigning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year] down there ... and with the guards we’ve got going there next year, we’ve got a lot of potential.”
Allen said he’s looking forward to playing this season with Palm Beach State. After that, he’s hoping to make the most out of his time at South Alabama by earning his degree and leading the Jaguars back to the postseason. His post-grad goals include playing professional basketball and continuing to work on his music. He’s more focused now on songwriting than performing.
Going from the ACC to the Sun Belt – with several stops in between – certainly doesn’t seem like the ideal basketball journey. But Allen is just content to have another shot at getting his college diploma and living out his basketball dreams.
“The way I see it, when I finish my career, I want to be able to have a movie about my life,” Allen said. “I’ve been through so much. But at the end of the day, God had me go through it to make me a stronger person today. Everything happens for a reason. I truly believe in that. Everything will work its way out. I’m thankful, man.”
Photo credits: 1.) Baltimore Sun photo of Antoine Allen by Patrick Smith / April 3, 2009; 2.) U.S. Presswire photo of Antoine Allen by Steve Mitchell / Dec. 19, 2009. 3.) Handout photo of Antoine Allen courtesy of wix.com.