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Authors: Lance Allred

Longshot

BOOK: Longshot
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Lance Allred
Longshot

The Adventures of a Deaf Fundamentalist Mormon Kid and His Journey to the NBA

Dedicated to my parents,
Vance and Tana Allred,
who took the Allred name
and made it their own.

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again. Because there is no effort without error and shortcomings, he who knows the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the high achievement of triumph and who at worst, if he fails while daring greatly, knows his place shall never be with those timid and cold souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

—Theodore Roosevelt

The game that best illustrates my own basketball career occurred when I was nine years old. I would argue it's vaguely illustrative of some of what Lance Allred has fought through—and that's good because who wants to read about an episode from my third grade year when it's Lance Allred's book you have purchased?

Brian Foltz called the house and told me his team needed two players and two players right now. I ran as fast as I could to Jeff Whidden's place. We ran together up to Star Lake Elementary. We were ready to create, or shy of that, stay out of foul trouble. If this team was two players short, it certainly didn't need foul trouble. But right away we became a liability to this Boy's Club group of cagers. One or both of us had dragged in dog poop onto the gym floor. Some of it was left on the court just inside the foul line. The coach didn't want his stars blowing out a knee by slipping on some dog poop dragged in by one or both of these marginal free agents. We weren't even eligible. My parents never signed the permission slip. Neither of us was a member in good standing of Boy's Club. There was so much hypocrisy, we both should have just walked out and let that team forfeit. But we cared about the game too much to do that. We cared so much we helped the game tip off by running down the hallway and getting paper towels so we could clean up the dog poop near the foul line. I don't recall much about the action. It was a blur. Basketball moves so fast when you're in third grade and all the others except Jeff Whidden are in fourth grade. I do remember being
very proud that I'd committed no fouls. I ran up and told the coach this after the game. And I'll never forget what he said: “If you didn't commit any fouls, you weren't trying hard enough.” It hit hard. It must have because it's stayed with me for forty years. My coach, the guy I'd put myself on the line for, the guy who brought me into his program because I filled a special need (my existence helped withstand a forfeit) had shattered my fragile ego with eleven words. Thirteen words if you count the contractions. I was a scrub basketball player the rest of my existence in the game.

Lance Allred played at another level. And this is his story of making it to the highest level. Lance never dragged in dog poop, but he did get dragged through some bullshit. But he never gave up. Not on the game, not on himself, not on life. He's honest about it when the failings were his own but more often than not his life story is an inspiration for anyone who's ever wanted to succeed at anything that appeared out of reach. In reading his story, you'll find yourself rooting for him. You're rooting for him when he goes to the grocery store with his brother and father and, with dignity, they find a way to make five dollars worth of food last them a week. That lesson in economics would serve him well when the paymaster for some shady-sounding European teams did new math on Lance's income bracket. But he wasn't in it to get rich. He was on the journey and the journey had one destination: The NBA.

You'll find yourself rooting for Lance and his family when they make their break to a new life, when Lance gets his first kiss, when he embarks on a quest to find his identity through a game that brings him equal heartache and joy. Did I mention he doesn't hear well? Yeah, but his vision is precise. He has scanned through his entire life and found meaning in the smallest detail. When it comes to basketball, he'll tell you he operates best when there's structure. He wants everyone to know their role and fulfill it. It works that way sometimes when everyone is on a team and a man in sweats is blowing a whistle and actual plays are drawn up to be executed. But in life there's chaos and despair. There's disloyalty, jealousy, and hypocrisy to wade through. It's tough out there. There's the very real threat that you're going to walk directly into some dog poop. The trick is in being bold enough to jump over it. Or clever enough to step around it. But more than that, an exceptional few find a way to deal with it when it can't be avoided. They clean up the mess they might have caused, then they clean themselves up and face it again. Most importantly, they face themselves. If the journey is really going to turn out well, they face themselves and one day they like what they see.

The American sports fan has lost perspective on what it means to make it to the league. We've gotten so caught up in worshipping the stars as gods, we've forgotten the worst player on the roster is still a marvelous athlete. The worst player on the roster is a member of a tiny percentage of humans out of 300 million in this country, out of 6.5 billion on this earth. The worst player is himself uniquely gifted. LeBron James is rarer still. But we don't consider much the guys on the wrong side of that fine line that separates who gets in the league and who remains in anonymity. Lance Allred found a way to cross the line. But that's just basketball. You see, even if Lance won't admit it, even if he's going to tell you his unending passion was this game, this mere game, his success was not in the completion of a goal to play in the NBA. His success was in the completion of
himself
. Because if the only measurement of Lance Allred was whether his name would appear on the back of an NBA uniform, what would it say for his life had the need not been there? If that call had not come? For his sake I'm glad it did. But the journey was always going to be his story. The NBA finally needed him when he no longer needed it. I'm not certain he even knows this yet. But you will once you read on.

—Kenny Mayne, fifteen-year ESPN

veteran and author of
An Incomplete
and Inaccurate History of Sport

Soap and blood.
It's an odd sort of mixture. It looks like tie-dye but then is magnified and stretched on the bubbles as you see your blood reflected back at you in prismatic schemes.

My life, my blood, wound down the shower toward the drain, sucking my dreams along with it. I let my tears vanish with the water needling my face from the showerhead, so no one could see me cry. I'm all alone in the locker room, a lowly Boys and Girls Club locker room in Boise, Idaho, on a late November night.

I turned in the shower, grimacing with each step as my tattered and flayed feet smarted from each new coating of soapy water. Each shot of pain was worse than the one before as more blood oozed onto the tile canvas of a sort of Van Gogh painting. I looked at my shoes in my locker, my shoes that had traveled with me to Europe and back. Those same shoes that I had been wearing for nearly a year, on which I had logged hundreds of miles on the basketball court. I loved those shoes, but that's not why I kept them and continued to practice in them: I just couldn't afford any new ones.

I asked them to do their best; I blessed them in the hope that they'd get me through this training camp here in Idaho—just a little bit further—before I got some free team shoes. They tried, but failed. They really did try. But they were so tired, those shoes, that well-aged calluses on my feet had torn without warning, without blistering, flaying my skin, tearing it fresh from my feet, like an Iroquois would've scalped a head.
This was in the first practice that morning, but I came back that evening for the second practice, daring fate to try me, as I laced those worn-out shoes one more time. I said a prayer before the second practice and teetered on the outside of my feet as I went back out on the floor, letting the blood and sweat crystallize in my socks.

It was all on the line—my life, my dreams. If this was my last run, it was going to be on my terms.

With the first day now over, nine more were left before the final cut. I was now alone, letting my tears flow as water pounded my back heavy with the weight of my dreams. Here I was, in Boise, trying to earn a $12,000 contract in the NBA Development League. $12,000. Was that my worth? This was the last run, the end of the line, and I knew it. A bloody bubble popped and gargled in the drain, gorging on my comeback dream, or had this been nothing more than a pipe dream all along?

Was there even a difference?

Part One
Utopian Dream
1

Once upon a time,
in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley, there was a town.

On the surface it appeared to be like any other American town. When someone drove into Pinesdale, Montana, circa 1981, they would've noticed nothing out of the ordinary, the town's timber sign smiling at them and saying Welcome to Pinesdale in bold plastic lettering—save the first “i” and “e,” which had been sourly painted on in a light tone of jade, discouraging any juvenile shenanigans alluding to the male anatomy.

Dirt roads were lined with tin garbage barrels where the nice folk—those who were proper and sanitary—burned their trash on a nightly basis. Then you had those who simply let their garbage fill well past the brim, too lazy to light a match. And then you had the neighbors who didn't even have or use a bin, opting instead to simply hold trash bonfires on the dirt road in front of their homes from which they roasted s'mores and hot dogs.

This was Montana, where Ford trucks were what yellow taxis were to New York. You had the obligatory psychotic jackasses who liked to shoot dogs for sport, even before the neighbor's dog could cross into their yard—a preemptive kill they rationalized with a foreshadowing of Bushisms as they spat their tobacco and straightened their brass belt buckle. When there weren't enough dogs to shoot, they rounded up all the little kitties they could find and buried them in the ground, leaving their heads above the surface as game to run over with lawnmowers. NASCAR wasn't televised in this rural part of the country yet.

You had the folk who left skeleton frames of regurgitated capitalism of all shapes and sizes on their front lawns, with a pleasant collection of wood-carved bears to add a hint of serenity to an otherwise macabre setting. Garden gnomes were frowned upon in Montana, as this wasn't England. No time for tea.

You had the disheveled, dark-haired kids running wild without their pants who liked to break into your house and eat your cold cereal and play with your toys while you and the rest of the town were at church. Mom always said it was impolite to call them “gypsies.”

We had a mercantile with a gas pump, run by the scary redheaded lady. We had community picnics and work projects to help those in need around the town. We had kids roaming the wilderness of thick pine trees between the houses, stalking prey in the ongoing pinecone war. We attended the town chapel every Sunday and sang Sunday school songs as we walked back through the woods to eat our large evening dinners at Grandmother's house.

Yes, this was just another American town. This was my hometown—Pinesdale, Montana. We were your quintessential 1980 rural American community, with one glaring exception: Pinesdale was a polygamist commune, a budding utopian society. It was a town full of fundamentalist Mormons who practiced the principle of plural marriage—reverently referred to simply as the Principle. It was a town that had been established in the 1960s by Rulon Allred, my grandfather, to escape persecution and oppression from government authorities, so that he and others could practice polygamy freely.

In 1977, Rulon was assassinated by the wife of a rival polygamist leader in his private medical practice in Murray, Utah. This happened four years before I was born. I never knew the man, but I was raised in his dream, his hope for a utopian society—Pinesdale. And in the 1980s his dream was alive and strong.

Outsiders called us Pineys.

We called outsiders Gentiles.

We called ourselves children of God, His chosen elite, whom He watched over personally. Only we could be saved, only we could reach the highest degree of glory in Heaven. Only we practiced God's true laws. Everyone else would answer to God when the Day of Judgment came. We were going to be rewarded for our diligence, behavior that was validated every day when we saw our neighbors practicing the same lifestyle, confirming our own beliefs and convictions. Our life was our religion, and our religion was our life.

My name is Lance Collin Allred. I was born in my grandmother's bedroom on February 2, 1981. The youngest of five children, I was, surprisingly, near death at birth due to an Rh incompatibility with my mother; none of my four older siblings had this issue. Noticing that I
was yellow as flypaper, my parents took me to the hospital in nearby Hamilton, where I was kept in an incubator for two weeks and received several complete blood changes. We were incredibly fortunate in that very small town there was a young doctor, Dr. Stover, newly trained at Johns Hopkins, who knew how to exchange my contaminated blood for fresh, lifesaving blood. My titer count had been up to forty-five. There was no reason I was still alive; a baby is usually dead when the count reaches thirty-five. To this day, doctors scoff or give a skeptical look when my parents tell my story. Dr. Stover said he was hesitant to even publish the findings because no one would believe him. My oldest sister, Raphael, who is now a family doctor, has no scientific explanation for it, either.

When people ask me what is was like growing up in a polygamist community, I simply shrug and answer that it was a wonderful childhood and I wouldn't change those memories for anything. I loved everything about growing up in Pinesdale, except for maybe my Sunday school teacher, who thought it her duty to tell me that God had made me deaf as punishment for not being faithful in the preexistence. She believed I had sat on the sideline in the great war between God and Satan. However, rather than sending me to earth as a black man, God had only made me deaf, and for that I should be grateful.

She was lovely.

I was a bastard of sorts, culturally speaking, as I knew my father, Vance Allred, to have only one wife, while those around me were from homes that had several wives and mothers. I never knew Colleen, my father's second wife, as she took her three children and left shortly after I was born, after investing eight years in a plural marriage with my parents. It's completely understandable to me now why a woman such as Colleen wouldn't wish to play second fiddle all her life. But in my young eyes, it was acceptable for a person to live either a monogamous or a polygamous life.

If you sit in the kitchen of a polygamist home long enough, you'll see a whole soap opera unfold before your eyes. You'll witness sister-wives coming and going, banding together to force their shared husband and provider to grant a unanimous request. After promising to stick together and hold firm, one by one they will filter out, but not before speaking venomous words about the sister-wife who just left the room. It's amazing how many people assume others won't talk behind their back after they have finished doing the same. Once one sister-wife is alone with
her husband, she will sell out all the other wives to get what she wants. Fascinating dynamics, and very entertaining to watch. You can't make this stuff up.

As an infant and toddler, I was larger than life—a ball of mass and inertia—and very photogenic. But, sadly, everyone feared me to be mentally challenged, as I was slow in developing my verbal skills and frequently screamed and hit others. I punctured my sister Raphael's cheek with my mother's stiletto heel. I hammered out my dad's car window at eighteen months. My mother needed all three of my sisters to pin me down to change my diapers. The family was coming to terms with the idea that I, their youngest son, as I grew older, would live a life relegated to simply tending the rabbits and living off the fat of the land.

In a last-ditch effort, my parents took me to a panel of specialists in Missoula. They poked and prodded and finally suggested that I be given a hearing test at St. Patrick's Hospital. It was there my parents discovered that their little hulk was severely hearing-impaired. To this day we don't know if the nerve damage within my ears was sustained because of the Rh incompatibility issue that I had with my mother before my birth, or whether it occurred when I came near death as a newborn.

As a toddler I inherited the crib my father built with his own hands, one that had served all four of my siblings well but met its demise with me. It made my life miserable, so I was determined to repay in kind. The night has always made me uncomfortable, even to this day, as I lose my sense of sight along with my hearing. I was always on high alert, waking at the slightest tremor, real or imagined. Insomnia is my companion.

While locked away in the crib, I slowly began wearing out the rail joints so that I could twist them back and forth, forcing pitched squeals. I actually became impressively skilled. I knew which knob to twist in what way to hit whichever note I desired. It must have been pretty annoying—inspiring as well—for my parents to be awakened in the middle of the night by their young child performing Beethoven's Ninth on his bed set.

As one lures a dog to its kennel with a treat, Mom did so to me with a bottle of milk. I needed my nourishment, and I loved my milk. I didn't simply suck my milk bottles; I ripped the tips off the nipples with my teeth and guzzled the savory refreshment. When a bottle was empty, I chucked it from my solitary confinement of a bed, hit the door, and yelled “Mo' miwk!” I was awesome.

My parents again sought professional help after being driven to a zombielike state of sleeplessness because I wouldn't stay in my bed. They
were finally advised to put me back in bed no matter how many times I persisted. On the first night of confrontation I was put back in my bed and climbed back out on my own accord over fifty times. The next night I did so about half that amount. Then half of that on the third night. But, as the specialist predicted, I regrouped and launched a Tet offensive on the fourth night, breaking the fifty mark again.

But my parents never gave in and continued to put me back in bed, paying my behavior no heed, as if I wasn't distracting them in any way. After that fourth night, I never got out of the bed again. My parents were kind enough, however, to grant me the right of staying awake as long as I liked, as long as I didn't get out of bed. I happily concurred and sang myself to sleep each night, spooning my mangy, gutted bottle.

At eighteen months, I was fitted with two hearing aids that hooked over the tops of my ears. While we who suffer from hearing loss may not hear well, we can still feel pain in our ears. Aside from the torture of the plastic penetrating deep down my ear canal, the blast of sound that pounded into my eardrums and reverberated throughout my skull for the first time was enough to make a grown man cry. I wasn't even two, and yet I didn't cry: I simply took them out at every opportunity and hid them. I hated those HAs.

It got to the point where Mom would “release the hounds,” dispatching the siblings to find my hearing aids, and then reward them with treats or even money. But I was not playing her game; they could have their quarters and cookies as long as I had my silence. I was able to enjoy the peace and quiet for several days at a time as my family searched for my HAs. Unfortunately, they always found them: in my mother's winter coat pocket in the middle of July; between the box springs and mattress of my parent's king-sized bed, as far in as my little arm could reach; in the tall grass beside the creek bank; even under the two-by-four framing in the sidewalk that Dad was going to fill with concrete the very next day. My sycophant siblings always foiled my schemes.

Only after I realized that I could hear Alvin and the Chipmunks better on Saturday morning with my hearing aids did I start wearing them voluntarily, only to “accidentally” lose them again once cartoons were over.

When I was three, I began speech therapy on a triweekly basis, and I would remain in speech therapy until I was fifteen. It was basically a friendly reminder that I was not normal.

I always knew I wasn't like my siblings. While they all talked really loud to me, it was when I encountered children outside of the home that
I really noticed my difference. Ours was a town where plural marriage was a way of life, and thus there were gobs of kids—hundreds of bastards scattered like little ants, rummaging through the forest, all running with their own cliques, like Smurfs. Some kids were very cruel, playing with my hearing aids and making fun of the way I talked. I always had to be on the lookout for a pinecone coming my way, on a path to embed itself in my head. The only thing that irritated me more than an unforeseen pinecone in my temple was people disrespecting Neil Diamond. This fact holds true to this day. I love Neil Diamond. I adore him and will fight to no end defending his honor. I'm being neither flippant nor facetious.

It's no surprise I became a very self-conscious, quiet, and introspective child. There was one place I loved to go to get away from it all, and that was down by the river, where I had not a care in the world. Mom and Dad took us down there on the weekends, where we played and watched the older kids jump from the bridge.

The Bitterroot River, which runs the spine of its namesake valley, is where my memories are. I spent many days lying on tubes, floating down the river with my father, letting my head tilt back and dip in the water, which had its own unique smell and taste; there's no other water quite like the Bitterroot. I loved to skip rocks across her wide channels, staring up into the Big Sky, and tell her that I'd never leave.

The Bitterroot River is my lifeline. It's where all my dreams and hopes are held most precious. It's where my heart will always be. It's where I will be when I die. And it's where my future children and loved ones will find me and talk to me whenever they need me. That's where I will be. I have already achieved immortality, for my memories are there in the water, in the bittersweet smell that emanates from the water and the banks of sage and rough sand. My memories are alive down there in the Bitterroot, and my memories are what make me.

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