From homeless to the hardwood, how DII basketball saved UTPB's Sammy Allen's life
Heading into the second weekend of January, Texas-Permian Basin's Sammy Allen is the third-best rebounder in Division II basketball. The 6-foot-2 senior guard is scoring 11.3 points per game, while ripping down 11.9 rebounds per game as one of the leaders of the No. 6-ranked Falcons.
But that's not even half the story. Allen's road to the hardwood is unlike any you have ever heard.
Allen grew up in Oakland, California. As a young child, he lived in a building that his grandfather owned. When his grandfather passed away, his mother couldn't afford the rent.
As Allen was about to enter kindergarten, he and his mother lost their home.
"We ended up staying in our van for a couple days," Allen told NCAA.com. "I tried to enroll in school so I didn’t have to spend all day in the van, but I couldn’t because I had no doctor’s note, shots records or address.
“My grandma was a foster parent. She already had a lot of people in her house and there wasn’t enough room for us. So my mother took my grandma's parking space in back of her building and we lived in the van. She let us take showers and warm up food, but that was about all we had. It was really crazy.”
Eventually Allen was able to enroll at Maxwell Park Elementary in Oakland, but he was already a year behind. To make matters worse, Allen had other struggles, leaving him the target of playground taunts.
“I had a speech impediment," Allen said. "People made fun of me. It was kind of hard. Nobody knows what you’re going through, and I was stubborn. I’m still stubborn, but coach [Andy] Newman has helped me a lot to get past that and make me a better man. But yeah, I never talked to anybody or was open about my situation."
.@UTPBBasketball grabbed the #6 spot in the NABC Rankings - that's 6th in the nation! Don’t miss our next home game vs Texas A&M - Commerce Jan 18 and follow the Falcons on Facebook https://t.co/Ks1EkZYiD5 pic.twitter.com/V9S7MJqvmt— UTPB (@utpb) January 9, 2018
As Allen got older, so did everyone that was living in his grandmother's house. The van became an extension of the home, for better or for worse.
“From kindergarten to fourth grade I was homeless in the van. Finally my grandmother made us room to sleep on the floor. And after fifth grade, my grandmother bought my mother a house. But then my mom went to jail. We used to have to steal water and food from neighbors. We had no warm water to shower in. My mother wasn’t there when I graduated high school.”
Through it all, Allen had sports. It's in large part to his grandmother who turned Allen's attention to the many pro teams in the bay area. Despite one day becoming a DII basketball star, Allen never had a basketball team growing up. He was a die-hard San Francisco 49ers fan in football, and a Giants fan in baseball.
“My grandmother is a big sports fan," Allen said. "I always would sit down and watch with her. That’s when I would watch basketball, just to get my mind off of things.”
Allen didn't grow up in a home the way many other kids around him did, he tried to grow up the same way they did. Whatever the season was, Allen was playing some sport, whether it was football, basketball or baseball. In fact, he loved football so much, that if someone had coached him up or pushed him harder in that direction when he was younger, the story of Sammy Allen may be very different.
Me and my teammates played sand volleyball lastnight to bond and we had a great time and i showed them how i thought i was gone be a Sam/Rush if basketball didn’t work out lol @utpbfalcons pic.twitter.com/fli2j9JHJh— Sammy Allen (@Sosa_5star2) January 9, 2018
But there was always basketball.
“Watching the game and how my grandmother was so into it," Allen said of his long-time love of basketball. "My big cousins played, and we always played in the backyard. There was twelve people in the house, so we always had a good time playing with each other. I have a cousin named Lou. He was the older cousin that coached us. He’d always take us to the park and play. He influenced me and made us compete with each other.
“My first basketball game was at Brookfield Park in Oakland, California. It was a recreational league and I was in first grade. Basketball kept me out of a lot of trouble. It basically saved my life.”
Even at a young age, Allen knew basketball was his ticket to a better life. But he didn't have dreams of becoming a future NBA star. His goal was clearer, much more important to his future plans.
“Ever since I was 12, I wanted a degree," Allen said. "I didn’t know in what, and I didn’t know why, but I wanted my degree. No one in my family or even who I was around had one.”
Allen played basketball in high school and upon graduation made another stop. He took a year off from basketball, but continued to take classes when he could. That was the first time UTPB head coach Andy Newman reached out to Allen. Allen made a verbal commitment to attend UTPB, but it didn’t work out the first time, and they went with another point guard. Instead of snapping or holding a grudge like he may have done in his past, Allen kept his cool. He wished Coach Newman good luck on a good season.
And sure enough, a year later five schools — including UTPB — came calling again.
“I told my mentors that I’m not messing with [Newman]," Allen said. "I questioned his loyalty. But they all told me to go. So, I came out here, and it reminded me of home. The rest is history.
"It went from Andy Newman was the bad guy to the most important man in my life. A man, too. He still changes my life today. I can’t thank him enough.”
And so it began. The Falcons went from 15-14 in 2015-16 in the Heartland Conference all the way to 26-6 and Lone Star Conference champions in their first year in the LSC. Though Daeshon Francis stole much of the spotlight, it was a team effort to turn around UTPB. And the gritty play of Allen was right in the middle of the action.
“When I first got here, nobody knew this was going to happen," Allen said. "I was 260 [pounds], and I had sat out two years. I’m watching all these guys and was like, ‘Dang, they’re quick, they’re athletic, they can shoot’ What was I going to do to stand out? The thing I had was basketball IQ and leadership. Then we all gelled. They trusted me to be the leader. I knew what Daeshon Francis could do, I knew what Josh Morris could do, I knew what James McPherson could do. I put all that together and was like, maybe I can do the little things that make it all come together.
“When January hit of last year, that was when we were like, ‘dang, this is a brotherhood. This is forever.’ The rest is history after that. We came back in the summer and we’ve been locked in after that.”
And Allen credits it all back to his youth. The way he grew up gave him and extra edge, and sitting with his grandmother watching basketball gave him the passion he still has today.
“When I was young I played on an AAU team that really focused on defense," Allen said. "I always took pride in that. And all my struggles, I was strong through that, so why not on the court? I do the little things that nobody else would do.
“I have a big heart. I try to give my all on the defensive side. I could have been somewhere else, I could have been buried, so I just go out there and be myself. I’m going to be Sammy Allen and I’m going to show people how to have fun, play with that emotion in the game and have that competitiveness to bring other people out.”
Allen and his three fellow seniors -- Francis, McPherson and Morris -- are rolling. They quickly put an early season loss to nationally-ranked Dallas Baptist behind them, and have reeled off 10 consecutive wins, including a huge 106-100 win over LSC foe, No. 8 West Texas A&M. The Falcons have done it as a united front, as all of UTPB's Big 4 are averaging double-digit points. Allen's latest accomplishment put him on the leaderboard in another category. He went for 11 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the Falcons latest victory, posting the first triple-double of the Falcons' season.
“Nobody is cocky on the floor, and everybody knows who can do what," Allen said. "That’s the good thing about it. Daeshon Francis could easily be cocky with all the awards he won last year, but you’ll never know it because of his humbleness and leadership. That brings out the best of everybody. It’s a domino effect.”
Big numbers. A Top 10 national ranking. But the biggest takeaway? Allen is on pace to graduate this spring as a criminology major with a sociology minor, achieving his ultimate goal set forth at the age of 12.
“I told coach, if I come, I need my degree," Allen said. "Coming where I come from, I don’t want to be homeless anymore. I know basketball is only temporary. I need my degree. I can change my life. Basketball is cool, but I want that degree.”
Basketball was much more than a game to Allen. As he said, it saved his life. Now at UTPB, DII basketball is giving him a new outlook. He has a bright future, and it's thanks to the lessons of his past.
And he has no problem teaching those lessons to any young one that will listen.
“I feel like that’s my purpose,” Allen said. “To give back to the kids, and be vocal towards them. To share my story with them, and tell them instead of being so one-dimensional and thinking there’s not a way, that there’s always a way if you put your mind to it.”