SAN ANTONIO -- The prop plane teetered as it descended to Stillwater Municipal Airport. Tony Allen peered out the window in disbelief of what he saw.
Outside, for miles on end, Allen saw Steinbeck's cracked earth, the infinite flatlands of northern Oklahoma.
"I thought it was a desert," Allen said. "And it was quiet, real quiet."
But for Allen, who hails from Chicago's hardscrabble South Side, the desert has been fertile.
In just two seasons, the junior college transfer has discovered God, thrived in the classroom and emerged as Oklahoma State's leading scorer. And while conforming from a borderline student to a model student-athlete, Allen has helped carry Oklahoma State to the Final Four.
"He is," OSU assistant coach Glynn Cyprien said, "an unbelievable story."
There's a storybook ending here, no doubt about it -- from Allen's mom hugging his academic advisor on senior night, saying, "I thought Tony would be in jail right now," to his chance to win a national title this weekend.
But to understand that, it's necessary to peek back to where Allen came from.
When he landed in the desert on his recruiting trip, Allen sat down with the OSU staff, and they cut a deal. The other schools promised minutes, shots and stats.
The Oklahoma State coaches promised discipline, hard work and a degree.
Allen would have to cut his braids, no small task for a city kid. He couldn't have a car on campus. He'd have to do well in the classroom, not just stay eligible. He'd have to be in every night by midnight.
"I felt like I was an eighth grader," Allen said.
OSU wasn't Allen's first turn-around. That came during his junior and senior year of high school. He transferred from Julian High School to Crane Tech Prep on Chicago's West Side. He went there to be with his good buddy, Georgia Tech point guard Will Bynum, and because his grades were slipping.
Crane coach Anthony Longstreet butted heads with Allen at first. They had plenty of chats in Longstreet's office about abiding by his rules. Don't wear hats. Go to class on time. Represent the basketball team with class.
Allen played only a handful of games in his junior year because of complications with his transfer. But when Longstreet called him in his office and told him that he finally became eligible, Allen broke down and cried.
"That's when I knew that I had him," Longstreet said.
Allen played out his senior year, earning a reputation around the city for his tough defense, and went to junior college to boost his grades.
His first juco excursion, to Butler County (Kan.) Community College, ended with Allen needing to leave school because of an off-court incident. He finished his juco career at Wabash Valley, leading it to a fourth-place finish in the JUCO national tournament.
After considering schools like Arizona State, Creighton and Cincinnati, Allen settled on Stillwater because of its serene surroundings.
"All my friends were doing illegal activities," Allen said. "I had to get away from those kind of things and surround myself with a good coaching staff to keep me focused."
When Allen came in Dr. Marilyn Middlebrook's office on his recruiting visit to Oklahoma State, one thought immediately entered her mind.
"I thought, 'Oh my God,' " recalled Middlebrook, OSU's Director of Academic Services. " 'How am I going to keep this kid eligible.' He looked like he should be on a street corner."
Now when Allen walks in Middlebrook's office, she calls him "my love." He calls her "Mom."
Middlebrook was a stay-at-home mom for 17 years who returned to the working world after her kids went off to college. She said her son teases her that she cured her empty nest syndrome by opening her heart and hope to OSU players like Allen.
Middlebrook's and Allen's love story is one of Allen's primary reasons for his success story at OSU. Middlebrook broke through Allen's tough-guy façade and instilled a work ethic in the classroom. Allen spent about 20 hours a week in the OSU academic center last year. When his jump shot went at the end of the season, he joked that it was because he'd spent so much time shackled to the computer.
The real breakthrough came when Allen's first semester grades arrived. He earned a 3.0. Allen went to Cyprien's office and cried as he told his mom about his report card.
These days, Allen doesn't need to go by Middlebrook's office as much as he used to. His GPA is just below 3.0 and after this semester he'll be five credits away from graduating. If he goes to the NBA or plays professionally overseas, Allen can take those courses on-line.
He still stops by Middlebrook's office every day, even hitching a ride from a stranger wearing an orange shirt last week just to make it to a meeting with her.
"She's my mom away from home," Allen said. "She's always on me. I need to be here. I need to go there. I need to study. Something my mother would be doing if I was at home."
Says Middlebrook: "Tony is the love of my life."
Eddie Sutton has seen a lot of kids from a lot of different city streets in his 34 years of coaching. Few have come along further than Allen during his two seasons in Stillwater.
Allen got baptized last fall. After Sutton didn't allow Allen to do interviews last season, he's become the ideal spokesman for the program.
But, Allen's OSU career hasn't been all storybook.
Soon after he arrived on campus he was arrested at Whataburger, a local fast food joint, for his part in a scuffle. (When the local papers described the incident as a riot, Allen could only laugh. "That's what they call a riot around here?" he said to Middlebrook.)
Allen's game has thrived along with his off-court life. Under Sutton, Allen has evolved into the Big 12 Player of the Year. Allen leads the Cowboys in scoring at 16.1 points a game, and Sutton has sped up his typically methodical offense to suit Allen and point guard John Lucas.
But it's Allen's changes off the court that have impressed Sutton the most.
"There have been some guys that probably would be in jail or dead," Sutton said. "I think that's the great thing about coaching, being an educator or a teacher. That to me is what coaching is all about."
Allen holds a deep appreciation for his time at OSU. He's grateful for Sutton taking a chance on him and considers him a father figure.
"I want to win it for him more than I do for me."
And if Allen leads the Cowboys to the title this weekend, he'll be remembered for lighting Stillwater's desert on fire.
Pete Thamel is a freelance writer based in Boston and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.