Graduation Spotlight: Men's Basketball Player Justin Allen

May 14, 2003

By Brian Gomez, TheSunDevils.com

Arizona State forward Justin Allen wasn't even two years old when the late Jim Valvano guided North Carolina State's men's basketball team to the 1983 national championship.

Little did Allen know that nearly two decades after the 'Cardiac Pack' did the unthinkable, he would be fighting the biggest challenge of his life with Valvano's help. Allen put a lot of stock in the words of a man he never even met and he faced consequences far more severe than those on a basketball court.

But Allen took Valvano's words to heart. He firmly believed in the preaching of a unique individual who once said, 'Don't give up. Don't ever give up.'

And this Friday, May 16, Allen will receive his bachelor of science degree in justice studies from Arizona State, just four years removed from stepping on campus and just three years from the beginning of his battle against cancer.

Two years after recovering from Hodgkin's Disease, Allen lives to tell the story of how he didn't give up. Similar to the way in which Valvano served as an inspiration to others as he lost his battle with cancer, Allen now plays that same role for people suffering from the life-threatening disease.

'It's something you'll never forget, even if you try to forget it,' said Allen, the recipient of the 2003 V Foundation Comeback of the Year Award. 'It's always there, so if other people get sick, they can look at me. I can be an inspiration because I beat it.'

The road to recovery was not one without many bumps along the way for Allen, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease in the Stage II phase in September 2000 upon experiencing severe weight loss and unexplained fatigue. He returned to the court in November 2001 after undergoing seven months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

It would have been easy for Allen to get down on himself when he wasn't feeling well, but he managed to keep his confidence high thanks to the support of his coaches and teammates. Allen also got a boost from his mother, Faye, who sent him a number of items containing Valvano's message.

'When I got sick, my mom brought me a little book that said, 'Don't give up. Don't ever give up,'' Allen said. 'She wanted me to put it on my desk and look at it when I got sad. Those words went a long way.'

Allen often turned to Valvano's sayings as a means of giving him the motivation needed to return to playing shape. He relied on them in the classroom, too.

Despite suffering through chemotherapy sessions that left him physically drained and mentally depleted, Allen kept on top of his schoolwork. Professors stayed in contact with Allen via phone and e-mail and they allowed him to take tests and in their offices at different times to help his schedule.

Before Allen was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease, he posted a 3.23 grade-point average. He will receive his justice studies degree with a 3.46 overall GPA.

'I told my mom I was going to stay here and keep going to school and try to keep everything as normal as possible,' Allen said. 'It kind of became a priority. As an athlete, you always want to be competing in something.'

Allen dealt with frustration upon returning to the court in the 2001-02 season, mainly because he played 30 pounds underweight. He also had trouble getting reacquainted with his teammates, some of whom went easy on him during practices.

One day, Allen put an end to that with a verbal outburst that straightened things out with them. He said he has been treated the same ever since, even while going in for routine checkups to make sure the lymphoma that once occupied his lower abdomen hasn't returned.

'It made me grow up a lot quicker and it made me realize there was more to life than what I was doing,' Allen said. 'It really puts things in perspective. You think it's things that happen to other people, but when it happens to you, it's a wake-up call and it really changes things.'

Allen currently weighs 225 pounds, 12 pounds lighter than he was when practices started at the beginning of last season. Although Allen played in 19 games, the wear and tear of a long season that ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament took a toll on him.

'I still have days where I don't feel as well,' Allen said. 'It could be 10 years until I get back to feeling 100 percent or it could be tomorrow. But it's such a blessing to be where I'm at now and to be playing right now.'

Indeed it is, for a youngster who, like Valvano, never gave up...a person here to make sure others do the same.

Reach the reporter at brian.gomez@asu.edu.

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