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Friday, April 13, 2007

HOOP SCOOP

Life altering experience came early for Oita's Allen


They say the older you get, the wiser you become.

Ed Odeven

On the other hand, some people have experiences that give them a different perspective -- nuggets of wisdom -- much earlier in life.

Justin Allen can confirm this.

As a 19-year-old sophomore basketball player at Arizona State University in September 2000, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease.

His college career was officially on hold. He sat out the 2000-01 season. His life, naturally, was priority No. 1. And so he started the long, painful road to recovery.

The 203-cm Allen endured seven months of radiation and chemotherapy treatment and severe weight loss. But along the way he acquired a new outlook on life.

"It made me grow up a lot quicker and it made me realize there was more to life than what I was doing," Allen said in a May 2003 interview with Sundevils.com. "It really puts things in perspective. You think (cancer is something) that happens to other people, but when it happens to you, it's a wakeup call and it really changes things."

Allen returned to the basketball court in November 2001 and became a valuable reserve over the next three seasons for the ASU Sun Devils, supported and encouraged by then-head coach Rob Evans. He graduated from ASU with a degree in justice studies in four years and garnered national recognition for his mental toughness in the face of adversity.

The V. Foundation for Cancer Research, established by media giant ESPN and the late Jim Valvano in 1993, gave Allen the 2003 Jimmy V. Comeback Award.

News photo
Justin Allen, a forward for the Oita HeatDevils overcame Hodgkin's Disease as a collegian to carve out a career in pro basketball. OITA HEATDEVILS PHOTO

The Tempe (Ariz.) Sports Authority and the California (now Los Angeles) Angels presented him with the 2002 Gene Autry Courage Award.

Fast forward to 2007 and Allen, 25, is playing basketball professionally in Japan. He's gone from being a Sun Devil to a member of the Oita HeatDevils.

Allen now looks back on that traumatic time as a life-changing experience, but in a good way.

"It was the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to me," Allen said by phone after a recent HeatDevils practice.

(Oita takes on the defending bj-league champion Osaka Evessa in the playoff semifinals on April 21 at Tokyo's Ariake Colosseum.)

"It totally changed what I believe, what I stand for," Allen continued. "My priorities are totally reversed.

"I was a little crazy. I was more athletic (than cerebral)," he said, explaining that he relied on athletic ability to become a big star in a small Midwest town.

He attended Malta (Ill.) High School and was a four-year letterman in basketball (averaging 26.7 points, 15.0 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per game as a senior) and also starred on the school's baseball and soccer squads.

After being diagnosed with Hodgkin's, "I came out of there and worked extremely hard. I got better grades. I was 18 years old and thought nothing can happen to me. I look at life in a totally different way," he said.

"You've got to live your life every single day. . . . Definitely, mentally it made me appreciate my life a lot more. I use to get mad about everything. . . . I kind of had a short fuse.

"If you spill milk is it a really big deal?" he said. "(Another example): An ankle sprain, is it a really big deal?"

No.

Valvano guided North Carolina State University to the 1983 NCAA Tournament championship and led a visible public fight against cancer a decade later before he passed way.

In countless TV and newspaper interviews, he passionately reminded people what is a big deal: family, friends and the beauty of life.

Allen pursued a pro hoops career after finishing up his collegiate playing days.

He played for Australia's Tasmanian Thunder two seasons ago and called it a wonderful experience, averaging 21 points and 13 boards a game as the team's go-to guy.

But he returned to Arizona, taught history and coached basketball in a small town.

With a wife, Eddy, and young son, Elijah, Allen certainly has a right to have job security and chance to feel "settled down." But he's not ready for that just yet.

"I enjoyed it," he said coaching high school ball. "I loved it and I want to coach again some day when I'm done playing."

These days, he plays for a former Arizona State team manager, Dai Oketani, and is more than content to be a solid contributor to Oita's success (a 22-18 regular-season record).

"I just play hard," said Allen, who averaged 9.8 ppg and played in all 40 games. "I think I can do a lot of the little things. I'm not really too worried about scoring points, statistical numbers . . . that doesn't really bother me when I playing."

He's also not worried that one his biggest supporters, ex-ASU coach Rob Evans, won't remain a positive force in his life.

The two communicate regularly by e-mail.

"I talk to him when I'm making decisions," Allen said. "He was a big part of my life when I went through struggles. He was super excited when I started to play again."

Allen is living proof that Valvano's oft-repeated words of wisdom -- "Don't give up. Don't ever give up." -- will always be valuable.



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