Tall Black's dream lives on after horror smash

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 17/06/2012
Hayden Allen
Getty Images
DREAM LIVES ON: Hayden Allen in action for the Pirates.

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Less than a year ago, Hayden Allen stared death in the face after a horrific accident on the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Now he's poised to become a 32-year-old Tall Blacks rookie, ending a decade-long quest to follow his father's legacy of playing basketball for his country.

Allen will today be named in Nenad Vucinic's 12-strong Tall Blacks squad for the Olympic qualifying tournament in Caracas from July 2-8, completing one of the feelgood stories of Kiwi hoops. No one plays harder than Allen, a two guard who won his second New Zealand NBL title with the Auckland Pirates last month. But for a long time it appeared as though he was destined to never quite make the international breakthrough.

Then a funny thing happened. Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. Allen came within a hair's breadth of killing himself in a car crash, and since then has changed his outlook on life. Last August he was a non-seatbelt wearing passenger in a speeding car that smashed into a wall on the Auckland Harbour Bridge, sending him hurtling through a window and skimming along State Highway 1. Just days from the birth of his first-born, son Reggie, Allen woke up in a hospital bed with stern-faced medics telling him how close he had come to never waking up.

Now, as he looks back, he does so with a perspective that only those who have truly faced their mortality can understand.

"Without a doubt it was a life-changer," says Allen of the August 12 accident. "You don't stew the small stuff. The sun will come up the following day. You don't take anything for granted.

"I got thrown out the back passenger window, and if you could take things back I'd love to. It's one of those things where you live and learn, and I did learn the hard way." Allen took a battering in the crash, breaking his collarbone in two places and receiving 150 stitches to his head, and a further dozen in his knee. But he well knows it could have much worse.

"Someone was looking down on me," he says. "I got a couple of chunks taken out of my head and all my points were pretty much skinned. I got a good battering on the way up the motorway, really.

"Every nurse, doctor told me I was incredibly lucky, first to still be alive and, also, to have the injuries I had. They were pretty superficial.

"To be on the motorway with cars still coming round the corner as my boys were running back to me, a number of things went in my favour."

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Since then Allen has hardly looked back. Still swathed in bandages, he was allowed out of hospital to see Reggie come into the world on August 15, and within a couple of months was back on the basketball court. "At that stage it was day-by-day, especially with Reggie coming along," he recalls. "You'd wake up in the morning and see what the day holds. I was lucky with my injuries and having a positive outlook helped. I never ruled out basketball, but I just tried to get back to life first. I'm fortunate to be where I am today."

Tomorrow he'll be a fully fledged Tall Black, joining his father Glen – a hard-nosed forward who had a long career with Auckland and Otago – in pulling on the black singlet of his country.

Allen admits that, 10 years after his first national trial, he'd wondered if he was ever going to make the breakthrough. Playing the same position as the world-class Phill Jones and Kirk Penney hadn't helped his cause either.

"Being a bit competitive, whenever you want to achieve something and don't quite make it you're always disappointed. But over the last year I've put it in perspective. There are bigger things in life to worry about, and you don't sweat the small stuff.

"But you want to push yourself to the highest level you can and there's nothing better than representing your country. A lot of my good mates have played for the country, and you hear the stories and a bit of envy kicks in. It's nice to have a shot at it."

Allen also pledges one thing as the Tall Blacks set out for Venezuela via Australia and Brazil – despite leading scorers Penney and Tom Abercrombie and emerging superstar Steve Adams all being unavailable, the Kiwi underdogs will give it their all.

"Guys like Mika [Vukona], Pledge (Alex Pledger) and Lindsay [Tait], the onus on them goes up a couple of notches, and it's going to have to be a team-first mentality where we scrap for everything. We need a bit of ticker, a bit of die-hard passion, and we have to believe." Allen, who is the community partnerships manager with the New Zealand Breakers, had a minor scare when a hamstring injury forced him to sit out the first three days of the trial. But he rejoined the fray yesterday.

"It will be an honour," says Allen. "My dad played for New Zealand, and you see his singlet in the wardrobe growing up. The boys I kick around with have all got singlets, and you just want one."

Meanwhile, the late withdrawal of Breakers development player Isaac Fotu means a likely spot for schoolboy Tai Webster, 17, in the squad. Fotu confirmed yesterday he had pulled out to fulfil academic requirements before heading to the University of Hawaii.

- Sunday Star Times

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