For Will Allen, the first NCAA final he attended was the historic 1966 contest between Texas Western and Kentucky. Allen, a high school star in Maryland at the time, traveled the short distance to Cole Field House where he saw Texas Western field the first African American starting five in the history of the championship game.
This weekend’s Final Four, for Allen, will be historic as well. As a former collegiate star at Miami — and the school’s first African American basketball player — Allen and his college teammates were comped two tickets to attend Miami’s first trip to the national semifinals. Just get yourself to Houston and find your own accommodations, Allen was told, and you’ll be in the building for one of the biggest weekends in sports.
But Allen won’t be standing with his teammates, who will be among the thousands of Miami fans flocking to NRG Stadium on Saturday.
“I’m a farmer, and it’s in the middle of my bedding plant season,” Allen said. “It’s when you grow starch for your farms for plants to plant outside in the greenhouse.
“A lot of the guys I played with are going. But this is an important time of the year, and it’s hard for me to get away.”
Allen’s not your average farmer.
He’s a globally recognized urban farmer.
A Ford Foundation leadership grant-winning farmer.
A Kellogg Foundation grant-winning farmer.
A MacArthur Foundation Fellowship-winning farmer.
In the world of farming, Allen is one of the guys who could be considered “that dude.” He was welcomed to the White House by President Barack Obama, invited to dine in the private dining room of a Mexican restaurant with President Bill Clinton and summoned to stand by first lady Michelle Obama’s side when she launched her “Let’s Move” campaign to battle childhood obesity.
He’s written books, been featured in films, and was named to the “Time 100: The World’s Most Influential People” list in 2010. The company he’s kept during his farming career has been so elite that one newspaper went as far as to dub Allen a “celebrity farmer,” a description that made him cringe.
“Didn’t like that so much, ” Allen said. “I have a purpose: to grow food and teach people to grow food.”
Which begs the question: How does a guy go from a solid collegiate basketball career at Miami where he still ranks second on the all-time school rebounding list to a celebrated farming career where he’s considered one of the most brilliant minds in his industry?
“I worked on a farm as a kid because of my father, and when I left for college I told him I would never do it again,” Allen said. “I told him there was a better life than farming.
“I had no idea that a better life would be in farming.”
Farming, for Allen, was a part of life growing up in Rockville, Maryland, where his family had migrated from South Carolina. Allen’s mother worked as a domestic after the family relocated, and his father worked on a farm and in construction. The farmwork, for Allen, was a natural progression.
“Neither of my parents made much money, so I worked all the time when I was in school,” Allen said. “I chopped wood, worked some of the other farms in the area, shoveled snow. That was my life.”
But as he grew in size, sports became part of Allen’s life. At Richard Montgomery High School, known as a football school, he helped lead the basketball team to three county championships. Playing locally on the Washington/Maryland basketball circuit, the 6-foot-6 Allen was teaming up on the area playgrounds with local legends including three players — Collis Jones, Sid Catlett and Austin Carr — who later played at Notre Dame.
“I went to high school with the nephew of the head coach at American University,” Allen recalled. “I wound up with a summer job there, but I think they hired me so they could recruit me to play there.”
Allen’s basketball talents put him in great demand, and he considered offers from Houston, Indiana, Penn State and Temple. He chose Miami, for obvious reasons.
“I loved the warm weather, ” Allen said. “And I loved to fish.”
Until Allen’s arrival in 1967, Miami never had an African American player. It was initially fine for Allen, who had teammates who embraced him.
“I was from Arizona where we had Black players back in the 1940s,” said Rick Law, one of Allen’s teammates at Miami. “We had players from the west and the north, so we were a team with no issues.”
Allen faced few issues playing games in Miami, where the team played its home games at the convention center on South Beach — long before it was a destination — about 30 miles from campus.
But letters that threatened his life, mostly coming from North Florida, arrived early and often.
“I got a letter from the Klan saying ‘go home, N-word,’ ” Allen said. “You knew they were coming from North Florida because of the postmarks.”
Then there were the road games in places where, unlike the north, athletics were still segregated.
“Alabama was tough, and they always called me names in Gainesville at the University of Florida,” Allen said. “The fans were tough.”
None were tougher than the fans at Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport, where the name-calling and racial slurs were delivered with such bite that Allen’s teammates nearly got into a brawl.
“The N-word was being thrown around so heavy that a few of our guys were going up into the crowd with folding chairs,” Law said. “It was us being full of testosterone. We backed down because we were outnumbered and we would have been thrown in jail. It almost got ugly.”
Allen, to his credit, simply played and produced, averaging a double-double in each of his three seasons at Miami, including 19.1 points and 12.2 rebounds per game as a senior.
“It’s incredible what he did at Miami, because we didn’t know half of all the threats against his life,” Law said. “We would hear it after the fact from the coaches, and it’s amazing how much poise he had and how he never let that get to him.”
It was expected that Allen would play in the NBA, and he was thrilled when the Baltimore Bullets drafted him in the fourth round of the 1971 NBA draft.
By his account, he was dominant during the exhibition season. “I led the team in scoring,” Allen said. But he got caught up in an organization that was in the midst of turmoil. Bullets guard Earl Monroe asked to be traded (he eventually was dealt to the New York Knicks) and the Bullets took on players with guaranteed contracts that made it impossible to keep Allen.
Allen signed with Hartford in the Eastern League and later played with the Miami Floridians in the ABA before that team went out of business.
That led to a pro basketball career in Belgium where Allen, ironically, rediscovered farming.
“One of my teammates had a farm and I would go over to help him and eventually got back into it,” Allen said. “I started growing a little bit of food for my family, and then I would invite the other Americans who played over there to my house for Thanksgiving and Christmas and fed them the food we grew.”
Allen and his family moved back to the United States in 1977 after he retired from basketball. They settled in Wisconsin, just outside of Milwaukee, where his wife’s family owned a farm.
He worked the farm on the side while taking on full-time jobs that paid the bills. He was a district manager at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and he later worked in sales and technology at Procter & Gamble Co.
In 1993, he bought the last remaining farm in Milwaukee, where he launched his career as an urban farmer, which evolved into Growing Power, which became one of the world’s top urban agricultural organizations.
While Growing Power was dissolved in 2017, Allen remains an authority on urban agriculture. He has spoken about urban agriculture around the world and is currently designing a vertical farm. “It would be five stories, and it’s important to build it vertically because we’ve lost a lot of our horizontal land mass,” Allen said. “It’s hard to grow in cities, and so you can imagine a five-story building that grows and that has classrooms in the building that are connected to universities.
“My main mission is to bring food into people’s lives and train people how to grow food. That continues to be important to me.”
It was while breaking bread with Clinton in the private dining room of an Austin, Texas, restaurant that Allen spotted Donna Shalala, the then-president of the University of Miami, on the other side of the room. Allen walked over to introduce himself.
“I know who you are,” Shalala said to Allen. “I would like for you to speak to our students.”
Since that meeting in 2009, Allen has been a regular at campus to speak to classes and meet with school administrators. In 2016, Allen was inducted into the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame.
“He’s spoken to major institutions and was on Michelle Obama’s nutrition council and was with the group that traveled with her to Italy. How many people get to do that?” Law said. “His mission is to help in areas where nutrition is terrible, and I’m so happy he’s accomplished all that he has.”
It’s because of that mission — urban farming — that Allen won’t be physically joining Law and their former teammates in Houston this weekend. But after he dons his Miami gear — he’s got a closet full of hats and shirts to pick from — Allen will settle into a comfortable chair at his son’s home, where he’ll join his teammates in cheering on the Hurricanes.
“Jim Larrañaga is a great coach and Miami has a chance to win it all,” Allen said. “It would have been nice to be there, but there are more important things for me to do.”