Last week, Desmond Allison kissed two of his children goodbye in Columbus, Ohio. He had spent six weeks with them, playing and wrestling and snuggling, making up for lost time.
It was the longest he had ever had them on his own. When their mother, Carolyn Holloway, 31, showed up with her sister to take her babies back to Lexington, the kids and Allison were laughing about something.
Allison, who played guard on the University of Kentucky's basketball team from 1998 to 2000, had been in a hospital recently because his liver had failed due to an infection, Holloway was told, but he hardly looked it.
Everyone said their goodbyes, 9-year-old Desmond Jr. and 8-year-old daughter Deja hugging their dad tightly, as if to hold all the sadness in.
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"Don't worry," Holloway told them, "we'll bring you back next spring break."
"Next spring break? I can't wait that long. How about Christmas?" Allison asked.
"How about not."
"Then how about Thanks giving?" he asked.
Holloway thought about it for a second, and said, "Fine, we'll do Thanksgiving."
Allison was pleased.
Then Holloway, her sister and Allison's son and daughter squeezed into a black Ford Focus and drove back to Kentucky.
Fight leads to family's tragedy
Three days later, on Monday afternoon, Desmond Allison was dead at age 31, the victim of a shooting.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, police reports and longtime friend Malcolm Goff, Allison was sitting outside with friends at the Nelson Park Apartments when an ex-girlfriend took a cap off his head, setting off an argument with his current girlfriend, who had bought him the hat.
One of the women yelled at him during the argument, and Allison yelled back, but mostly, he continued a phone conversation and walked away.
Moments later, three men showed up, one accusing Allison of messing with his cousin. There was a punch, a fight, then more than a dozen gunshots.
Goff was hit twice, in the legs. Allison was hit once, in the chest. Both were rushed to Grant Medical Center.
At 3:54 p.m., Allison was pronounced dead of a single gunshot wound to the chest.
"It's ridiculous," his despondent dad, Esmond Flood Sr., muttered into his phone after leaving the coroner's office the next day. "I don't understand it."
No one did.
Back in Kentucky, the news scrolled across Holloway's TV.
Is it fair to say that UK is the place where Desmond Allison's story begins? Or maybe where the story, as many expected it to be written, ends?
By now, everyone knows the tale, of how Allison, a wonderfully gifted and silky-smooth sophomore starter on the Wildcats' NCAA-bound basketball team, was pulled over on March 12, 2000, and arrested for DUI and drug possession.
His blood-alcohol level was 0.113, just over the legal limit of 0.10. He later pleaded guilty to the DUI, and the drug charge was dropped.
But his scholarship was gone, despite his pleas. He had begged Coach Tubby Smith for a second chance. He cried, something that happened rarely, if ever.
Had the school not adopted a zero-tolerance policy in 1998 after football player Jason Watts, whose blood-alcohol level was 0.15 when he lost control of his truck, which overturned and killed a teammate and another football player from Eastern Kentucky University, Allison might have gotten a second chance.
And had the zero-tolerance policy not been softened shortly after he transferred to NAIA Martin Methodist in Tennessee, causing him to wonder what if, maybe he could have moved on.
"He might be in the (NBA) right now," said Manhattan basketball coach Steve Masiello, a teammate of Allison's at Kentucky. "You're talking about a 19-, 20-year-old kid, and the thing he loved most was taken away from him. That put him down a different path that really hurt him. That doesn't give him an excuse for all of his decisions. But who knows what could have happened?"
His mother, Detria Allison, said her son didn't care where he shot his hoops.
"I just wanna play, Momma," he told her.
Moving away was easy.
Moving on wasn't.
"Oh, he was mad at Tubby," Holloway said. "He couldn't believe this had happened. I wouldn't say he ever got over it, but I do know after a year or so, he wasn't mad at Tubby anymore."
Smith declined to be interviewed, sending a short, prepared statement instead.
At the end of the day, Holloway said, Allison knew it was his fault. And he tried to move on, convinced that he had disappointed his family and friends.
But how do you move on, from Kentucky, from a dream?
Masiello said it makes him angry that to his last day, Allison never shook the label of failed Wildcat.
"I don't know what might have happened if Kentucky didn't happen the way it did," he said, "but I'm pretty sure Desmond wouldn't have been in Columbus."
A way out
Holloway, who met Allison at a party in Lexington and became one of his best friends before they ever dated, followed him to Martin Methodist.
Allison had been a star basketball player at Robinson High School in the Tampa, Fla., area, but he turned down an offer from the ABA's Tampa Bay ThunderDawgs after his first season at Martin. He worked out for a handful of NBA scouts after his second, but nothing materialized.
He returned to Florida with Holloway and the kids, living in Orlando for a while.
When things soured in the relationship, she returned to Lexington, and he went back to Tampa, working here and there, still lighting up whatever basketball court he took his talents to.
But he couldn't escape trouble. In 2004, he was in and out of jail four times on drug-related charges. He was slipping away.
He attended the funeral of friend and former Robinson and Vanderbilt football star Kwane Doster, who was shot in the chest the day after Christmas in 2004.
A Robinson assistant football coach, Vaughn Volpi, asked Allison whether he was next. The words were like a slap across his face.
Volpi offered to help, and it mattered little that Allison's third chance would come in a town more than 1,500 miles away for a Division II football team in Vermillion, S.D.
"I'll go anywhere," he said.
At the University of South Dakota, where Allison had two years of college athletic eligibility remaining, he left his mark. He was 25 when he got there, and his teammates called him "Grandpa." It had been eight years since he had starred as a high school receiver.
He lived with Jevon Bowman, a hard-nosed middle linebacker from Rapid City and a former walk-on at Nebraska.
Allison did the cooking, earning the nickname "Chef Boy R Dez." Bowman said he can still taste the refried-bean burritos with Louisiana hot sauce that Allison would cook for them to eat while playing NCAA and NBA games on the PlayStation 3 or watching SportsCenter on ESPN.
"He opened my eyes up to a whole new world," Bowman said. "I had a dream to play pro football, and he was like, 'Why not do it?' We trained together, for the same thing. We were inseparable. They called us Smokey and the Bandit."
Allison, who beefed up to 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and became a tight end, decorated his room with pictures of his kids, Jasmine, who is now 14, DJ and Deja. He talked about them so much that when Holloway brought DJ and Deja up for a surprise visit, the Coyotes players immediately yelled out, "It's Booger and Buster!," Allison's nicknames for the kids.
"It was fun to watch him around the kids; it was a side you didn't hear or read about," Bowman said. "He was never anything like you might have expected."
Allison was determined to do something with this chance. But not everything.
After his senior football season in 2006, after 30 catches, almost half for touchdowns, he returned to Lexington with Holloway to work out for South Dakota's pro day in March 2007.
Bowman, now the team's head strength and conditioning coach, begged him to stay. He told Allison he would get him into shape around the few classes he had remaining to get his degree in sports recreation.
"It broke my heart when he left," Bowman said.
Coach Ed Meierkort said he thought Allison could have had a future in coaching had he gotten a degree. But he's not sure whether Allison was still chasing those moments he had in Kentucky, that singleminded quest for a pro-sports career.
"He got a taste of it there," Meier kort said. "I think he gave the Kentucky thing up, but what he didn't give up was the hope of being what the Kentucky guys ended up being. He still thought, 'I can do that.' But he just missed his window. And there wasn't a Plan B."
Holloway drove him back to South Dakota two months later for the pro day. More than 20 teams looked him over. He was a basketball player turned tight end, like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.
Teams were intrigued, but the phone call never came.
'He was in a rut'
Allison tried to settle down in Atlanta, but he violated probation, which stemmed from a 2004 cocaine charge, and he was extradited to Tampa, where he was in jail for most of 2008.
He begged his mom not to visit, but she did. He was MVP of the prison basketball team, his father said.
He returned to Atlanta in 2009, fathering youngest son Dynym, now 1, with a longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend, and he went back to Tampa in the summer to play in tournaments with his childhood friends.
"He was still doing the playing, pickup games; he just really wanted to do something with himself," his mother said. "He thought about coaching, telling his side of the story about what happened to him to kids. He talked about the little stuff he had been thinking about."
Allison went to play in a basketball tournament in Columbus last year and decided to hang around, living with an uncle, Julius Allison, and friends.
Another uncle, Brock Allison, said he tried to get him a job, but he was never sure of his nephew's plans. "We talked," he said, "but we didn't talk."
Allison had talked recently of moving back to Tampa, and his mother said he had an interview somewhere on Thursday, but she wasn't sure where.
"I talked to him about a week ago; he seemed pretty happy," she said.
But his father was concerned.
"He wasn't doing anything," Flood said. "I tried to tell him it was time to get out of Columbus. I was trying to get him back up to Akron with me. I told him I'd come down and pick him up; we'd have a cookout, we'd hang out. But it's like he was stuck. He was in a rut."
Remembered the wrong way
When news of the shooting broke, one of the TV stations in Lexington opened its report with Allison's mug shot from the 2000 arrest. Holloway was disgusted a basketball photo wasn't used instead.
Then she read stories online, and soon the picture was painted: Former Kentucky basketball player kicked out of school for a DUI shot in front of a Columbus apartment complex in a poor part of town over a hat.
"I just thought, 'That's how he's going to be remembered?' " Holloway said.
But those who know Allison say he was so much more than what appears to be a down-on-his-luck, adrift ex-jock who couldn't move on from his superstar days.
"It's a shame all the stuff that's put out there," said Scott Wagers, his coach at Robinson and now an assistant at East Tennessee State. "He made mistakes, but I'm telling you, man, he was a good guy. Always smiling. Always making people laugh."
Tuesday night in Port Tampa, friends and family gathered at a candlelight vigil to celebrate Desmond Allison. His mother said more than 100 were there. Wagers said the number might have reached 500 to 1,000.
At the end of the night, they gathered in a circle, held hands, and someone sang Amazing Grace.
Wagers finally left at 4:30 a.m. He called his wife on the way home and said he wanted to cry.
A letter to daddy
Before Deja got into her mother's car for the trip back to Lexington, she gave her daddy one last big hug and kiss.
"Watch, Daddy," she said, and when he looked at her, she said through the world's biggest grin, "I was born to be somebody."
Holloway will always remember the look on Allison's face, how he beamed.
Deja remembers, too. She asked whether she could say something at his funeral, held Saturday in Tampa.
Scribbling on a piece of paper, she wrote:
"My daddy was very funny.
"I'm glad me and DJ got to see him for spring break and our summer vacation in Columbus when my daddy said he loved me and he would see me soon.
"He would always pick me and DJ up and wrestle and play.
"I'm so sad my daddy died.
"But like my mommy said, I got to spend six fun weeks with him that I will always remember.
"The last words I got to say to him were I love you and I'm going to miss you.
"Watch me, Daddy, I told you I'm going to grow up to be somebody and I know you will watch me.
See you later, Daddy."