June 12, 2024
Sports - DeKalb County

Sports - DeKalb County

Malta grad Allen uses cancer win, love of basketball to teach others to follow their passion

Justin Allen brings in the group of middle-school age children before switching groups during a basketball camp run by Allen at the Sycamore High School Field House on Saturday, March 28, 2015. Allen is a Malta High School alum and played basketball for Arizona State University. He was a national comeback player of the year in 2004 for coming back from Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

Justin Allen’s journey starts in Malta, a place he hopes it ends one day as well. A product of the now-closed Malta High School, Allen graduated in 1999 as the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder – although no one got a chance to challenge those numbers. The school closed in 2000. He went on to Arizona State. After his freshman season, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. After eight months of treatment, it went into remission, and he played three more years with the Sun Devils. Now, he not only runs a travel club out of Arizona, but is a speaker, author of the children’s book “No You Can’t. Yes I Can,” and runs a series of basketball camps, On The Rise. All his activities are built around his personal motto, Follow Your Passion – something he said he started to truly believe after his battle with cancer. On The Rise was in Sycamore on Saturday and Sunday, and Allen talked to the Chronicle about battling cancer, playing hoops overseas with (and without) his family, and the assist Will Smith – the Fresh Prince – had in getting him back into basketball after a short career as a data analyst.

Eddie Carifio: Let's just start off talking a little about the camp. What is the camp all about? Justin Allen: Well, we actually started these camps because my whole philosophy – from speaking stuff I've been doing, and I wrote a children's book about it – but it's like if people can find what their passion is in life, you find that passion and you work a little harder, develop the skills you need to be successful in life whether it's time management, overcoming obstacles, driving through failures, loyalty, teamwork. You learn all that stuff and it can take you to the next level. So I've created this philosophy that if you can help kids find their passion in life, it can end up catapulting them to another level – whether it's a college education or just developing. From that, my partner Paul [Fabritz] is one of the best trainers in L.A. So we started teaming up on these camps, and really trying to get these kids more fundamental at something they love and get them to realize what they need to do to get to the next level.

Carifio: How much did you experience with battling lymphoma pepper the "follow your passion" philosophy, or were you already like that? Allen: You know, I don't think it was until after I got sick. Some of my experiences in life totally changed. When I got to college, all I thought about was going to the NBA. It was a pipe dream, what everyone thinks, right? So I got to Arizona State, and that was my whole goal. I wasn't even a very good student my freshman year. So once I got sick, it changed my whole perspective on life. So I ended up graduating with better grades, and I ended up taking a different perspective where I'm going to work really hard at it, because, I'm going to put all my heart and soul into it because it's what I love to do. But at the same time, there's a bigger picture to it. There's something over it that I could use to get to that point. So it was all about constantly developing who I am, then taking that same model to help people realize it.

Carifio: At what point did helping others materialize into starting the camp? Because I saw that you had played professionally for five years. Allen: Some of my experiences were so cool and awesome. Basketball helped me get my education paid for, helped me get to Arizona which I love, helped me travel the world, gave me a job for seven years. It did a lot for who I was as a person. When I came back, I was just working a basic sales job. I was working for a data analytic company and selling enterprise accounts, multimillion dollar accounts.

Carifio: When was this? Allen: Two and a half, three years ago. I was already doing basketball on a lower level, still training and coaching and stuff. And then one night, but don't tell anyone (laughs), but I was watching Oprah with my wife. So I was watching it, and Will Smith was on it and talking about following your passion, and he made a comment that if you're not helping someone else, you're wasting your time. So I was just thinking about me selling data analytics, who am I really helping? I have a passion for this game and what it did for me. So from that moment I just flipped my switch, started working on this stuff, then six months later left my job and started doing this full time.

Carifio: You mentioned the children's book. When was that released? Allen: Yeah, I actually self-published it, and it's on Amazon, and I have it on another site and my website. So I've used that, and I've been around to a lot of local schools, I've actually been on like an Illinois tour, gone up to Wisconsin, done stuff in Arizona. I go talk to kids, read the book to them, and talk about overcoming obstacles and challenges and fighting for what you love to do. For Allen, that passion is basketball. He spent five years playing overseas in seven different countries after beating his cancer. He did six weeks of chemotherapy and eight weeks of radiation therapy after his original diagnosis in September of 2001, the start of his sophomore year at Arizona State.

After the radiation, he was told they couldn't see it anymore. If it stayed away for five years, doctors said, that was a win. The fifth anniversary came while he was playing in Australia. Allen: I was still in remission and I didn't realize what the dates were. It was in Tazmania, Australia, a little island is where home base was, then all of a sudden my mom came walking through with a cake. She's in Illinois, she flew to Tazmania, Australia, for my five-year anniversary. She showed up with a cake, and a little bracelet that said five years, so that was a day that was really special.

Carifio: Where all did you play besides Australia? Allen: In Argentina, Venezuela, Australia, Japan, Kuwait, Korea, Israel. So I was all over.

Carifio: What was that experience like? Allen: It was just unbelievable. Everywhere you go, you play in their pro league. There's usually two to four Americans on every team. Just the experience and the culture and the people, the communication methods you had to use to work with your teammates, taught a lot of valuable lessons. My son (Elijah, now 10), we lived in Japan for two years, he spoke Japanese by the time he was 3. Just the culture and everything was unbelievable.

DC: It seems as if this all just ties into the overall follow your passion mindset. Allen: Totally. It is what I love to do. It was an investment, in part for my family, because we had to uproot and go travel and be here and be here and be here. You never knew where you're next job was going to be. It was a big leap to do it, and it was something I loved and would never take back. Ever since I was a little kid, I had the dream to play basketball. So I just decided to go for it. To me, if you love something you have to put in all the hard work you can towards it and at least give it a go. I always tell kids even if you fail, all the hard work it took to get to that point, you're learning and you're growing and you're developing. Even if your goal is to play in the NBA or college, even if you don't get there, all the hard work you put in to try to get there is going to come back to help you become a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, an architect. You take the same work ethic, you're going to be successful.

Carifio: What made you decide to stop playing, then? Allen: I think it was my body started getting a little beat up, but I would have kept playing. We had our second child (daughter Kennedy, now 6) and our son was going to start school, and it was one of those things I kept playing and they were staying in Arizona. So I was gone for six months. I came back when my daughter was born, I was here for the first three months, went to play and came back six months later, and she didn't recognize me. At that time my heart melted. I figured I was done, I'm good, I want to be around the kids.

Carifio: I guess it was still following your passion, it just changed ... Allen: It did. One hundred percent. Basketball used to be what my passion was, and now it's not only my kids but mentoring. I used basketball because that has always been my medium. It shifted more to the mentoring aspect. In addition to the camps, Allen helped run an Arizona-based travel basketball club, the Arizona Magic. He recently left to run his own team, Arizona Passion for Ball. He said they have seven teams, and one of his 17-and-under teams is going to be one of the best in the West.

He said the camp is a different beast, since players are only under his tutelage for a couple days at a time. He focuses a lot not only on skills, but attitude and demeanor. That comes from personal stories from not only with what Allen went through, but his partner Paul Fabritz, a fitness expert and vertical jump specialist who Allen said had to develop his own training system to battle constant injuries. Allen: He had to fight to get to where he wanted to get to, and I had to do the same thing, fight where I wanted to get to. So we preach that at the beginning of every camp. We tell them it's not super easy. You're going to have a lot of struggles, and we tell our own stories in that model to show what it takes. You're going to fail over and over again, you just have to keep getting up. In our training we talk about that a lot. We don't want them to get upset when they mess up or they fail cause it's part of the process.

Carifio: What about Malta High? I know you graduated in 1999, do you know what year it closed? Allen: Yeah, I graduated in 1999, then they had 2000 and it was closed after that. The one class after me was the very last class at Malta High School.

Carifio: Did you know it was going to close? Allen: I had no idea. I heard the next year when I came back for the homecoming soccer game that it was in the process. The school board was going back and forth, and it was a money thing, and they only had 67 kids (in 2000). We had 78. We were huge. It just got too small. It's pretty sad. It's one of the things I have at home, I have a box, and it's called my motivation box. It has my kids in it, then I have – I love the city of Chicago – so I have a little skyrise, 'cause at some point I want to have a second home in the middle of the city. I have that, and I have Malta High School.

One of my goals, whether it’s private or charter or something, is to bring a school back into Malta. I feel like a small town without a school feels a little different. You don’t have that same sense of community. Everything was built around the school. Our soccer team, our basketball team. It was a really strong community because of the school. I want a school back there. It’s hard when you drive by it and it’s not Malta High School anymore.

Eddie Carifio

Eddie Carifio

Daily Chronicle sports editor since 2014. NIU beat writer. DeKalb, Sycamore, Kaneland, Genoa-Kingston, Indian Creek, Hiawatha and Hinckley-Big Rock coverage as well.