April 27, 2023
Airports exist primarily as a liminal space to me, so I usually discard my experiences within them as mere figments of my imagination.
But last year, in Boston Logan International Airport, something real happened to me—something that wasn’t a dream. As I was sitting at my gate, getting ready to fly home for spring break, I looked up and saw someone I recognized.
The person I saw wasn’t a friend or a classmate. It was former Memphis Grizzlies legend and 2014-15 NBA All-Defensive First Team guard Tony Allen, casually walking through the airport on his way to catch his flight.
I first considered the possibility that maybe this man was just taller than the average person and happened to also be wearing expensive clothing, but the longer I looked, the more I knew it was him. He had a face I had watched hundreds upon hundreds of times throughout my life on television within NBA games, in YouTube highlight videos and even a few times in person in a crowded arena.
Confident the man was in fact Tony Allen, I leapt out of my seat and started to walk in his direction.
I wasn’t sure what I would say to him once I got close enough to start a conversation. Social norms dictate that you should refrain from oversharing in a conversation with someone you have never met before, so I tried to keep those conventions in mind.
However, keeping my comments brief would be difficult. The history of my love for the game of basketball, while not linear, overlaps with Tony Allen more than a few times when traced back to its origin. I was in the presence of a legend, someone I revered as a kid.
Tony wasn’t the greatest offensive player, but he played his heart out every night. He was tenacious on defense and played unrelentingly, earning him respect from the entire league, including the late Kobe Bryant, who famously called Allen the most difficult defender he had ever faced.
Despite not having any of his talent, I modeled my game after Tony. In my youth league years, I wore sports goggles and was really horrible at basketball, but I could somewhat understand how defense worked. Now, though I don’t have sports goggles, I remain horrible, but I more fully get how defense works.
When I close my eyes, I can still see Tony laying on the floor after diving for a loose ball in that one Grizzlies vs. Warriors series, yelling “First team all defense!” while laying on the floor of Oracle Arena.
He coined the Grizzlies’ motto of the 2010s, announcing, “All heart. Grit. Grind.” in a postgame interview that placed that famous phrase into Memphis history. He backed up his talk, playing an undeniably passionate style of basketball that made thousands, including a young Marc Rosenthal, into lifetime fans.
It seemed impossible that I would have the chance to communicate his impact in such a brief encounter, but nevertheless, I tried to make my way over to him not knowing what words would come out of my mouth.
As I neared him, I mulled it over, thinking of the possible reactions that he could have to my fawning admiration. I was 18 years old, possibly young enough to get the benefit of the doubt as an eager fan, except I also had a full beard, which might have dulled my youth. Would he laugh in my face? Respond dismissively? Would it be weird to ask him for a picture?
I decided it didn’t matter—that this was something I needed to do, that if I didn’t act now, I would never have the chance to meet one of my idols again.
But ultimately, it didn’t matter, because as I made my way over to Tony Allen, he walked onto his plane, out of my sight and back into my memories.
Marc Rosenthal is a member of the Class of 2025.
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