Putting in the Work

For southern New Jersey native Malik Allen, Miami holds a big place in his heart.

The 2021-22 NBA season marked the 43-year-old’s third on Erik Spoelstra’s coaching staff with the Miami Heat and his eighth season overall as an NBA assistant coach. Of course, that came on the heels of an NBA playing career that spanned 10 seasons (2001-11), including his first four in South Florida. Not a bad resume for a guy who went undrafted after his senior season at Villanova and spent his first year as a pro toiling in the wilderness of minor league basketball.

“I feel like, professionally, I grew up here in Miami,” said Allen, now a married father of two. “I learned how to play in the NBA here and it has always held a place in my heart. The people here, there’s still a lot of people around from when I was a player and it’s nice knowing who you’re going to work with every day. That’s the biggest thing about being here.”

One of those familiar faces was Spoelstra’s. He was an assistant coach/video coordinator with the Heat during Allen’s playing days. In fact, since originally landing the video gig in 1995, Spoelstra has only worked for the Heat and became the team’s head coach following the 2007-08 season.

Allen has learned a lot about handling the modern NBA team working under Spoelstra. 

“I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned [from Spoelstra] is that flexibility is a great trait to have,” Allen says of the current Heat head coach, the sixth in franchise history, who completed his 14th season running the show in Miami. “He has a very good pulse on the type of team that he has and I think, especially in today’s NBA, the worst thing you can do is be very, very rigid in how you approach every day. You just have to have a lot of flexibility about you and I think that’s one of the best things about him. 

“He’s brilliant obviously as a coach but again the thing that makes these high-level coaches, and these well-respected coaches so unique is their ability to adapt. It’s one of the biggest strengths I’ve seen of his. And somebody as smart as he is, that’s what makes him who he is as a coach.”

But it was a head coach for whom Allen played that brought him into coaching and has been a mentor over the years.

“I had played for Stan Van Gundy twice,” said Allen, who was playing with the Heat during Van Gundy’s time as both an assistant (1995-2003) and head coach (2003-05), and also played his final NBA season (2010-11) for Van Gundy in Orlando. “After my playing career ended we moved back to Pennsylvania for a while to be closer to our families but I had always been in close contact with Stan. When he got the head-coaching job in Detroit (2014-18), we talked, I went through the interview process and got hired by the Pistons. And he threw me right into the fire as a coach.

“It was great and I had a lot of responsibilities right off the bat and I was fast-tracked. It was the best learning experience I’ve ever had, especially in terms of the learning curve of the league from that side of it. 

“I was so fortunate with Stan because I saw the level of preparation that he took, day-in and day-out, to try and be ready to win a game. And that’s not to disparage or say that other coaches don’t do that. But for me, seeing Stan and what he put in to try and win a game, or to try and win the day at practice, that was the best experience I could’ve had in my first go-around as a coach in this league. The amount of detail he would go through, that was a great experience and I was very fortunate to see that.

“Stan is definitely a huge influence and mentor for me,” Allen added. “I was very fortunate to be around great basketball minds, but he was a big part of getting me in the door and really helped in getting me off the ground on this side of the bench as a coach.”

Van Gundy speaks highly of his protégé and his preparation, too.

“Malik approaches the job of coaching the exact same way he approached it as a player – he works his butt off,” Van Gundy told the Bucks County (PA) Courier-Times in 2017. “He does everything he can possibly do to get better every day. I totally trust his preparation when it’s his game plan [of an opposing team]. He’s a guy that is always looking to get better. He’s got a good relationship with the players… but not one where they would probably call him their best friend. He pushes guys pretty hard. He’s a demanding guy.”

Coaching wasn’t necessarily on the radar for Allen during his playing days at Shawnee High School in Medford, NJ, where he helped lead the Renegades to back-to-back state championships in 1995 and 1996. Nor was it a thought while the 6-foot-10 forward helped Villanova to two NCAA Tournament appearances (1997 and ’99) during a four-year career (127 games, 1996-2000) that saw him compile 1,131 points and rank fourth in school history in blocked shots (191).

“I wasn’t that ambitious back then to know or think that I was going to coach,” says Allen who was a member of the 2021 class of the Villanova University Varsity Club Hall of Fame and was inducted at its 45th annual Hall of Fame Dinner on February 4, 2022. “My path in the NBA was just different as a role player and I had to prepare for every role in the league – I started, I was the first big off the bench, I was the utility guy at the end of the bench. To me, that just lent itself to having a different approach to the game. 

“And now from a coaching standpoint, you’re learning every day,” said Allen. “The great thing that I get from coaching is that everyone I’ve coached with and coached under, they’re very humble in their approach and they’re eager to learn. If they’re eager to learn and I’m learning every day from them, then the approach you have to have is not just a hard-working approach but it’s also being humble in order to improve. And I think that was a little bit of the approach I had when I was younger. I wasn’t going to be hard-headed – where a lot of guys are – and thinking they know everything all the time… Life just doesn’t work that way. To have that unique learning approach carries down to our team. We’re not perfect and it humanizes us a little bit to our players and they can identify with it.”

To pull off a 10-year NBA career without being chosen in the annual NBA Draft takes a lot of hard work but also a ton of resiliency. Allen just never gave up on himself nor his goals and, in fact, his career outlasted five of the top 10 picks of the 2000 NBA Draft, including No. 2 choice Stromile Swift, No. 3 pick Darius Miles and No. 4 pick Marcus Fizer. Only 14 of the 58 players chosen in the 2000 NBA Draft played more seasons than the undrafted Allen.

“I spent a year playing in the minor leagues, which was crazy. It was poorly run but I played well enough that Miami saw me and eventually invited me to a free-agent mini-camp in the summer of 2001. I went down there and they kept asking me to stay. You work out for a week, they ask you to stay, and the next week you work out against another group of free agents they bring in. But as each week went by, I was getting better, so why would I leave if they’re investing in me enough? That’s how I got my foot in the door in the league. I don’t have a magic story. I worked my ass off and I didn’t quit.

“The fact that I played in the league 10 years, I’ve seen it all. But to get to 10 – that was a big deal for me, especially after not being drafted, having to make a contract, make rosters. It was just a big stamp on what was a huge accomplishment for me. I’m very proud of that.”

Now Allen has a new goal in mind.

“Everybody has goals and aspirations,” said Allen, who served as the Heat’s head coach during the 2021 NBA Summer League circuit. “I want to be a head coach in this league. There’s no guarantee of that but I’ve been putting in the work to learn and grow to hopefully get that opportunity one day. You’d love to be put in front of guys and asked to lead a team in that way. That’s just me. There are guys that love the role that they’re in and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you just mesh well. I worked to be put in a position so that, hopefully, I can get that opportunity to be a head coach.” 

Malik Allen