I was saddened to hear tonight about the untimely death of former Kentucky basketball player Desmond Allison in Columbus, Ohio. Preliminary reports from the ABC affiliate in Columbus suggest that Allison was shot after an argument between two women and was pronounced dead thereafter at a local hospital. There is as of yet, no word on the suspect in the shooting or if any particular motive could be established.
I have always been a fan of Desmond Allison, in large part because his time at UK paralleled my time at Transylvania University. Allison was part of the first complete Tubby Smith recruiting class at Kentucky. He came in with Tayshaun Prince, Jules Camara, JP Blevins and Todd Tackett in a class that was supposed to be the cornerstone of the early Tubby Smith era in Lexington. Allison was an all-world athlete, excelling at both football and basketball due to his unbelievable physical ability. Watching Allison explode to the rim in pickup games in Lexington was the stuff of early-internet legend and he thus became a particular favorite of those young message board fans. In my time following Kentucky basketball, I have seen no player whose initial jumping burst was quicker than Allison. His stats at Kentucky weren’t spectacular, but he was a starter most of his Sophomore season and had some great individual games, such as his 23 point career-high performance versus Vanderbilt. When he was focused, his career seemed headed on an upward path that would include college, and potentially professional, success.
However unfortunately for Allison, problems reared their head at Kentucky. He was part of the group that later became Team Turmoil, due to the constant discipline issues that engulfed the team. This was the team that spent time living off campus during the renovation of Wildcat Lodge, and the resulting discipline problems were prevalent throughout the period. Allison was part of a group of players that were notorious for being involved in messy situations and his play, like that of the team’s, often suffered in response. The explosive athlete and shut-down defender, often looked lethargic during his Sophomore season at Kentucky and issues followed him throughout the season. Then, Desmond Allison was caught driving with an open container of alcohol and a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit in Lexington. If Allison were in a normal circumstance, he likely would have been suspended, but allowed to remain at Kentucky. But his incident followed the enactment of UK’s short-lived “no-tolerance policy” that followed the Jason Watts tragedy, where one UK footballer was killed. Allison was thus dismissed from the team, the only basketball player who lost his career due to the policy, and ended up transferring out of Lexington for good.
His life then took a circular path, that included a trip to an NAIA school, tryouts for professional leagues and unfortunately, a number of drug arrests in a short period of time. Allison however tried to turn his life around and even spent some time at the age of 25 playing football in South Dakota. As this article from 2006 summarizes, Allison went to South Dakota to try and build a better life for himself and his words about his time at Kentucky and his hope for the future are haunting to read today:
The pivotal moment, Allison said, came the morning after the arrest in Lexington, when at 7 a.m. he sat in his Kentucky sweat suit across from coach Tubby Smith and then-athletic director C.M. Newton.
A DUI conviction would make him the first athlete affected by Kentucky’s zero-tolerance drinking-and-driving policy, instituted by Newton after the alcohol-related traffic death of a football player. Kentucky’s rule meant loss of scholarship, loss of athletic eligibility and de facto banishment from UK (a policy that was later drastically eased).
Smith was saying the rule would be followed to the letter.
Allison’s face fell in his arms on Smith’s desk.
“Oh, please, pleeeease,” he sobbed. “Isn’t there anything we can do? Oh, God, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Allison said Smith, who declined to comment for this article, told Allison he was sorry but didn’t say much more.
Allison looked up from his arms at the men who held his fate in their hands and thought, I’m lost.….
In the end, Allison said, what is important now is that he becomes a better provider for himself and his family. That means, at the very least, getting his degree.
Unlike his days at Kentucky, where it was, “almost all about sports and trying to make it to the NBA,” now he cherishes the little things: walking with textbooks on a tree-lined street through the pretty campus, sliding into a classroom chair and learning “everything I can.”
“I may not live at “the Lodge’ (the plush basketball dorms at Kentucky),” he said, “but I do like “the Mansion’ (the wooden house he shares with Bowman).
“Plus, there’s really no place to get in trouble around here. Everybody here is so good.”…
Allison says that no matter what, he’s staying out of trouble, and if the NFL doesn’t work out he would like to teach at Robinson High and, he said with a huge grin, “Coach the Knights.”
He said he will always cherish “Nowhere,” South Dakota, where he has been embraced like a son, a friend, and, yes, a grandpa.
“The best part,” Allison said, “Is that I know this place can help me go somewhere.
In 2005, the Turkey Hunter and I took a road trip across the country for three weeks and strangely ended up for a night in Vermillion, South Dakota, the home of the college that Allison then attended. When we mentioned we were from Kentucky, a young man there told us about Allison attending the school and we were shocked to learn of his new life. We talked about Allison’s troubles in Lexington and asked how he was now doing. The student said that there were bumps in the road, but that Allison was a popular figure on campus. He then added, “Desmond is always in the middle of things, but I can’t help but like him. He just makes you really want to pull for him to do well.” Personally, I always felt the same way. Even though his time at UK was troubled, I always hoped he would eventually get it turned around. For a time it looked like that might happen, which made the news today particularly sad.
After his time in South Dakota, Allison disappeared for a bit from our radar and I was recently asked on the radio show what had become of him. We don’t know how he ended up in Columbus or what he was doing at the time of the shooting. Unfortunately however, it is clear that in the end, he was unable to avoid the trouble that seemed to follow his life at nearly every turn. He was 31 years old.