Two years ago, when Malik Allen was playing for the San Diego Wildfire of the ABA 2000, most of his meals came from the Mobil Mart. Or was it the Food Mart at Texaco? He can't remember which—just that dinner often meant a stroll to the gas station, where he chose a frankfurter that was riding a steel rod under the heat lamp. "I usually went there for breakfast too," says Allen. "That was eating out for me then."
Allen smiles at the memory. It's easy for him to do so, because now he's the Miami Heat's starting power forward. Undrafted out of Villanova in 2000, Allen was the last cut at the Sacramento Kings' training camp that year. He spent a season playing for the Wildfire and for the Trenton Shooting Stars of the now defunct International Basketball League, and in the summer of 2001 he got a two-day tryout with the Heat. He made the team but played in only 12 games. This season, with center Alonzo Mourning sidelined because of his kidney ailment, the 6'10" Allen earned a starting role in training camp and responded by scoring 22 points and grabbing seven rebounds on opening night against the Orlando Magic. Since then he's kept producing; through 11 games he was averaging 10.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. With his soft jumper and good defensive instincts, Allen, 24, has been one of the few bright spots in a dismal season for the Heat, who was 2-9.
Allen's story is one of perseverance, but it also indicates a trend in the NBA. On opening night there were 12 undrafted free-agent rookies on NBA rosters (not counting those who, like Allen, played limited minutes last season), seven more than last year. Two of them, Pat Burke of the Orlando Magic and Reggie Evans of the Seattle SuperSonics, were starting, while others, such as the Los Angeles Lakers' Jannero Pargo, were playing meaningful minutes.
The reason? Money. Taking on a young free agent like Allen, who is earning $330,000 this season, costs much less than signing a veteran—especially one with at least 10 years of service. Tim Hardaway, Jimmy Jackson and Grant Long all were unsigned at week's end because of the higher minimum salary ($1 million) mandated for 10-year vets by the collective bargaining agreement. As many teams try to keep a lid on their payrolls because of the luxury tax, inexperience and youth have won out. "That's the way the league is now," says Heat center Brian Grant.
Allen says it's not something he thinks about. "I can understand the economics of it," he says, "but I have to focus on basketball." His motivation is the time he spent in San Diego, where he practiced at a run-down Air Force base and shared a dumpy apartment with two other NBA wannabes. Never having lived far from his native New Jersey and the home cooking of his mother, Tracey, he suddenly had to worry about not only what to eat for dinner but also how to stay afloat financially. Every month he'd have to scrape together rent money, because his Wildfire paycheck invariably arrived late. What's worse, it bounced four times. Says Allen, "I learned about the value of keeping a positive attitude."
It has carried over to his new life. Allen has, as Grant says, no ego, and he works as hard as anyone on the team. "I want to be on somebody's scouting report every night," says Allen. "That's when you know you've made it."
Last week against the Los Angeles Clippers, he got his wish. L.A. coach Alvin Gentry warned his team about Allen's jumper and worried about whether Elton Brand could guard him. Brand knew Allen, even if his teammates didn't; he had grown up in the New York area and played against Allen often. "Everybody was asking me, 'Who's Malik Allen?' " says Brand. "I said, 'Don't sleep on this dude. I've known him for six years, and he's good.' "
Told of Brand's comments, Allen smiled. It's a long way from the minor league mini-marts to the bright lights of Miami, and he doesn't intend to go back.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]