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Pure Talent, a Fatal Flaw : Mean Streets Lead to Prison, Not Stardom, for 6-10 Allen

May 21, 1990|DANNY ROBBINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"All Clifford had to do was sit tight," Curry said, "and in five years he'd be in the NBA."

But in September 1984, after enrolling at Carson High for what was supposed to be his junior year, Allen took Washington's car on a three-day joy ride, an episode that earned him another stay in a probation camp.

Back in Washington's hands in March 1985, Allen enrolled at Carson again and made it to the end of the semester without adding to his criminal record.

By the next fall, he was, strictly on the basis of his performance in summer tournaments, one of the top college prospects in the nation. One national scouting service, Bob Gibbons' All Star Sports Publications, ranked him 15th among high school seniors going into the 1985-86 season.

"An impact type of player who can take a team to the Final Four," said Mark Warkentien, a UNLV assistant coach at the time.

Warkentien and other recruiters were circling.

But in October of 1985, before he could play for Carson as a senior, Allen got in trouble with the law again. This time the charge was robbery.

"He got in a fight at some liquor store and beat up some guy," Washington said. "Two or three people were there. The guy dropped his wallet, and someone in the group picked it up."

For Washington, who has two sons, the incident was the last straw.

"It was either save him or save my family," he said. "And I chose my family."

But UNLV coaches weren't backing off, and during the November signing period in 1985, Allen signed a letter of intent to play for the Rebels.

"Now that he has somewhere to go, it might make a difference," UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said at the time.

As for when he would actually go to Las Vegas, no one could be sure.

PROBATION AND A SCHOLARSHIP

Found guilty in L.A. Juvenile Court on the robbery charge, Allen was committed to the California Youth Authority in December of 1985 and assigned to El Paso de Robles School in Paso Robles.

There he played in what would be his only in-season high school game, scoring 32 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in a Southern Section 1-A wild-card game that the Spartans lost to Santa Ynez.

A few months later, a photographer showed up to take Allen's picture for Sports Illustrated, and the story that accompanied the photo spoke of Allen's academic success at the CYA institution, with Tarkanian referring to him as "my first valedictorian."

In truth, Allen was something less than a glowing success story at El Paso de Robles and was ultimately deemed a "program failure," CYA terminology for a ward who doesn't fulfill the goals set for him.

"Cliff had a lot of physical talent, but he was extremely lazy," said Rea Willson, a physical education instructor at the school. "There were a lot of people who tried to help him academically because they knew he was going to UNLV, and he never applied himself. He had all that laid out in front of him. It was just a shame.

"It seemed like he always knew that basketball was going to bail him out. He couldn't see the whole picture."

With officials at El Paso de Robles believing a change of scenery might make a difference, Allen was transferred in early 1987 to the CYA's Washington Ridge facility, a conservation camp outside Nevada City.

According to Barney Lampe, the senior youth counselor at Washington Ridge, Allen arrived at the camp with a high school diploma earned at El Paso de Robles, but had to be put in remedial classes because testing showed his reading and math skills to be at the fifth-grade level.

On July 16, 1987, Allen was paroled, and, although his discharge evaluation was noted as "dishonorable," he had a scholarship waiting for him in Las Vegas.

"He was being paroled in time to work out in the summer," Lampe said. "He was going to go to summer school and had a tutor assigned to him there to help him. From what I understand, when he went to the (parole) board, he had more set up for him than most guys, what with the tutor and the college and everything."

Finally--traveling from L.A. to Las Vegas on a prepaid airline ticket provided, he says, by UNLV--Allen enrolled at UNLV, where he could be on scholarship but could not play as a freshman because he did not meet the NCAA's Proposition 48 eligibility requirements.

About a month into the fall semester, however, UNLV coaches told him that they wanted him to attend a junior college--Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Tex.

"I had heard of Texas, but I had never heard of Lon Morris," he said. "(UNLV coaches) just picked it. I just figured I'd be playing, so I said OK."

Tarkanian said it was necessary to send Allen to a junior college because Allen wouldn't go to class at UNLV. Lon Morris was selected, Tarkanian said, because it's "an isolated place."

As for Allen's claim of receiving air fare paid by UNLV, an apparent violation of NCAA rules, Tarkanian said: "He didn't get anything from anybody at UNLV."

JUNIOR COLLEGE ROULETTE

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