February 3, 2000

Derrick Allen, Men's Basketball's 'Little Big Man', Leads The Gauchos

Feb. 3, 2000

Go ahead, tell Derrick Allen that this isn't going to be a good basketball season for UCSB. The Gauchos' Little Big Man has made a career of proving people wrong.

There were the coaches at John F. Kennedy High School in New Orleans who cut him from the junior varsity during his sophomore year. Undaunted, he worked so hard on his game that he made the JVs as a junior, was promoted to the varsity by the start of league play and wound up in the starting lineup for the playoffs.

During his senior season -- which began with his coach declaring, "this could be the worst team I've ever coached" -- Allen averaged 17.1 points, five assists and a remarkable 8.3 rebounds in the best season of Coach Brian Gibson's career. Little Big Man was only 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, dripping wet. But he was dripping wet a lot.

From there, Derrick Allen took his game to Porterville Junior College, where Coach George Nessman took one look at his slight, small frame and declared, "Either you've got to get better, or a whole lot bigger."

Allen did both, hitting the weight room and the basketball court with abandon. And by the time the buffed-up, 6-foot and 190-pound guard was through with Porterville, he was averaging 7.1 assists and 8.1 rebounds for a team that went 56-11 in two seasons.

While at Porterville, then-UCSB coach Jerry Pimm and assistant Jon Wheeler came to watch a practice -- naturally, to scout a different player. But while Nessman was talking with them, Allen took over running the practice. The Gaucho coaches took notice and eventually offered Allen a scholarship.

"I love the game," he pointed out. "They saw that in me, that intensity."

But Little Big Man had to start proving himself all over again when Pimm retired before Allen even arrived at UCSB. After all, the little things that he did for Porterville weren't something that new Gaucho coach Bob Williams could find on any resume. Allen was just an "honorable mention" after-thought on the All-Central Valley Conference team.

"I was the only person on my team's starting five who didn't make the all-conference team," Allen noted with a smile. "But that was OK. I got a lot of handshakes from people -- fans of our school as well as of other teams, even their coaches -- who would come up and say how much they appreciated how hard I played, and that I did the things it takes to win.

"That meant a lot to me. I didn't have to get the big trophy."

But he still had to win over Bob Williams.

"When I got here, I thought that Derrick Allen probably wouldn't play for us at all," the Gaucho coach conceded. "I thought he'd just be a great guy to have on the team. I'd heard nothing but super things about him as a person. I knew that he played really hard.

"But I didn't think that he had the perimeter game to play at this level."

He had changed his mind by the time his first exhibition game rolled around last year. The Little Big Man had become his starting point guard.

"In practice, you see a light go on every time you talk to the guy," Williams said. "He wants to be a basketball player. He wants to win. He wants to do the things that a coach wants done on the floor.

"You can't tell that on tape. You can't necessarily tell that when you watch a recruit play. It wasn't until I had the chance to coach him every day that I saw all the little things that Derrick brings to the table ... and that one, great, big thing: That he has just a huge heart."

That heart broke often at the start of last season when the Gauchos lost their first eight games -- four by just one point. But he just kept taping up that heart for the next day of practice and plugged on even harder.

His fury on defense was good enough to lead the Big West in steals with 68 (2.4 per game), which was just four off the school record. He tied the Gaucho mark for steals in a game by ripping UC Irvine off eight different times. His playmaking also became pretty good. He became the only Gaucho in history to get at least 10 assists in a game with no turnovers. And he was still taking all those rebounds from the big guys, ranking third on the team with an average of 4.4 per game.

It all helped UCSB win 15 of its last 20 games and earn the Big West Conference's western division championship.

"As a coaching staff, there are guys that you're concerned with (during a losing streak), keeping an eye on them to make sure we don't lose them," Williams observed. "But Derrick's a guy who was never a concern. That's huge. You know that Derrick is going to respond and give his best every time. And he seems to get other people to do that, too.

"Derrick has tremendous pride in himself. He's had a very good upbringing."

Although he came from a rough section of New Orleans, a loving family devised a good outlet for all of Derrick's nervous energy.

"I grew up in an area where my family was basically my whole block, so I was kind of protected," he pointed out. "It was pretty cool. My friends, we all grew up together. We played Pee Wee Football, and Bitty Basketball and Little League baseball all together.

"My dad was the coach at this playground, and we played four different sports. That kept us out of trouble, being active after school."

One of his youth teams wound up winning a national YOBA championship in Orlando, Fla., when he was 12.

Little Derrick loved a challenge. No one knew that better than his older brother, who had to keep picking up the gauntlet whenever Little Big Man called him out for a game of one-on-one. Never mind that he was eight years younger and that Roy Jr., a New Orleans basketball star, was never going to let his kid brother beat him.

"The last time we played, I was up 9-to-8 (in a game to 11), I'd hit eight straight jump shots on him, and it was my ball," Derrick recalled. "But then he twisted his knee, and we couldn't finish the game...

"We'll probably never finish the game because now I'm taller than him, and bigger than him, and can jump higher than him."

He sounded truly disappointed. It's the only losing record of his life.

But Little Big Man did have bigger fish to fry. He'd stay up late, watching ESPN telecasts, and dream of playing college basketball. He remembers feeling upset, as a Runnin' Rebels fan, while watching some upstart school hand Nevada-Las Vegas its last loss before it won the 1990 NCAA championship.

"I'd ask myself, 'Who's this team playing on television at 11 o'clock at night?'"

Years later, he'd get to know that UCSB program pretty well.

Allen remembered seeing those raucous, sellout, Thunderdome crowds on TV. It left him "shocked" when he showed up last year to discover "that most of those seats weren't filled anymore."

But instead of whining, he did something about it.

"I guess we earned their respect last year, and it got pretty exciting by the time the Cal Poly game came around," Allen recalled. "The crowd was into it. And the Stanford game (this year) was pretty intense. The fans were into it. We were into it."

The Gauchos lost that game and six others in their first nine games. They also lost a lot of those fans. But of course, they didn't lose Derrick Allen.

Even in the midst of a 0-3 start to Big West play, even the fans from other schools could see UCSB's Little Big Man laying himself on the line, hitting the floor for lose balls and grabbing nearly five rebounds per game. As he walked off the court after a 76-61 loss at New Mexico State two weeks ago, several Aggie fans chased him down -- just so they could shake his hand.

Since then, UCSB has come alive with two very tenacious, back-to-back wins over Nevada and Pacific. A 7:30 game at league-leading Long Beach State looms tonight.

"Everybody is hanging in there," Allen said. "They're pretty positive. A lot of players weren't here last year, but guys like myself, and Larry Bell, and Erick Ashe, and Brandon Payton know what it's like to be down, and doubted, and then come back up.

"And now a lot of people out there are saying, 'Here they come again.'"

And Derrick Allen is leading the pack -- the little man who's playing awfully big.

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