With each passing year, the tone and substance of the phone conversations have changed.
It's no longer a coach lecturing his pupil. Or a mentor teaching his young professional. The interactions between two longtime friends have become a cherished time to reflect and catch up.
Tony Allen calls Eddie Sutton at least once a month. He has to. Sutton makes him.
But even if he didn't, Allen would gladly dial the number anyway. Just to talk life and basketball with the man he still considers a coach, mentor, friend and father figure.
“Once we get on the phone, we're on there for at least a good solid 25 minutes,” said Allen, now a guard for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. “Like one time, he sent me a picture of him riding a bull. I thought it was funny so I called him right back. Had to make sure he was OK, didn't fall off it or nothing.”
The conversation begins anywhere: women, weather, health or even bull riding. But it always finds its way back to basketball.
That's what brought them together more than 10 years ago, a bond that formed at Oklahoma State after Sutton snatched Allen out of the rough streets of Chicago.
Sutton promised Allen a bright future. He just needed to work hard and keep his nose clean.
They certainly bumped heads (Allen refers to it as Sutton's “tough love”). But the lessons got through, and the pleas from Sutton's late wife Patsy were always received. Go to class and get your degree, you'll be a better man for it.
He did and he did, graduating in his final year at OSU with a degree in education.
And Allen kept his basketball side of the agreement as well, playing with unmatched tenacity and leading Sutton's 2004 Cowboy squad to the Final Four.
“He was always so appreciative of what we did for him,” Sutton said. “Well I appreciate what he did for Oklahoma State. I'm just so proud of him not only as a basketball player, but as a person.”
Allen was drafted by the Celtics in 2004 and helped Boston win a title in 2008. But along the way, there were off-court issues (an aggravated battery charge — he was later found not guilty — in 2005 for an incident outside a nightclub) and injuries (a torn ACL in 2007).
Through it all, Sutton was always there, suffering through his own personal problems but still finding a way to provide direction for Allen.
He'd warn Allen about the financial downfalls for athletes post-retirement, tell him to always listen to his “wonderful mother” and, of course, critique his defensive stance and intensity.
“Most importantly, he just taught me how to be a man,” Allen said. “On and off the court, he stayed on my behind. When I was doing good, he kept me levelheaded and I like that about him.”
Allen's finally found a home, and key role, in Memphis, starting at shooting guard for the playoff-bound Grizzlies. He's 31 years old. His life has settled.
Sutton, meanwhile, is well into retirement. He's 76 years old and living in Tulsa.
They're at different stages of life, in different parts of the country. But the two make sure to find time for each other, at least once a month.
Like a couple weeks ago, when Allen called Sutton to check up on him after the death of his wife, a woman Allen loved and respected. Or Thursday, when the two will be reunited in person, with Allen's Grizzlies in Oklahoma City to play the Thunder. Sutton will be there.
“Most definitely, it's a special relationship,” Allen said. “That's Coach Sutton. He means everything. He's been a great mentor, put a lot of guidance in my life. So I love him for that.”