When we talk about Ray Allen, a lot of us tend to do so in mechanical terms. This is probably because, when you think about him, chances are the first image that flashes to the front of your mind — or second, if you’re a Spike Lee fan — is the pristine purity of his jumper, a shot-doctor’s Platonic ideal, meticulously honed to the point of perfection through thousands of hours of painstaking labor in the gym.
Allen hit plenty of jumpers over the years, including an NBA-record 2,973 from behind the 3-point line, but chances are you’re thinking of one in particular. With good reason. Because it’s one of the greatest shots in the history of the sport.
That shot’s a big part of why we sometimes talk about Allen like he was an automaton. Because the miracle of Allen’s championship-saving right corner 3 in the dying seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals is that it wasn’t “miraculous” at all. It’s that Allen, a military brat quick to credit his father’s commitment to accountability for instilling him at an early age the importance of unerring consistency, had not only practiced that exact motion; that he had, in fact, been practicing it for years:
As a young player in Milwaukee, Allen invented a drill in which he lies in the key, springs to his feet and backpedals to the corner. A coach throws him a pass. He has to catch and shoot without stepping on the three-point line or the sideline. In Allen’s first training session with the Heat, just after Labor Day 2012, he performed the drill. “It was the first time I ever saw anybody do that,” [Heat head coach Erik] Spoelstra says. “He told me he does it for offensive rebounding purposes. He said, ‘You never know when you’ll be in a situation where you have to find the three-point line without looking down.'”
When the situation came with his team down by three, with nine seconds to go in a game that could have cost him a championship, Allen didn’t have to scramble to get ready. He’d been ready, in position to execute thanks to more than a decade of deliberate, exacting preparation.
“I know you want me to let you in on some big secret to success in the NBA,” Allen wrote in a “Letter to My Younger Self” published on The Players’ Tribune in November 2016, in which he announced his retirement after 18 NBA seasons, 10 All-Star appearances, two championship rings, an Olympic gold medal, and more 3-pointers than anybody else in the history of the game. “The secret is there is no secret. It’s just boring old habits.”
Those “boring old habits” provided the foundation for the defining characteristic of Allen’s brilliant career, which will be recognized Friday with enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.: his capacity to endlessly replicate that model form, regardless of game situation, defender or whatever chaos might be swirling around him. First minute or 48th, October or June, night after night, year after year, Allen rose, fired and found the bottom of the net — a catch-and-shoot Terminator, a metronome in the cleanest collection of kicks in the game.
But while that’s all true, and while there’s no doubt that the legendary rigidity of Allen’s pre-game routine frames any conversation of his greatness, I worry a bit that something gets lost when we focus so much on the precise machine logic of his J. Namely: Ray Allen was a hell of a lot more than some 3-point-shooting robot.
Before he was a championship-winning designated sniper, Allen was a full-service monster, earning Big East Player of the Year, All-American and All-Rookie Second Team recognition for his talent at roasting defenders inside and out.
“I remember seeing him play a game against Riverside Church [AAU] a lot of years ago,” legendary UConn coach Jim Calhoun recently told Mike Anthony of the Hartford Courant. “Scored 62 points, didn’t make a 3. He could jump out of the gym and go to the rim.”
As Allen grew into his gifts at the next level, he averaged better than 23 points, four rebounds and four assists per game for an eight-season stretch while serving as the leading light for the Milwaukee Bucks and Seattle SuperSonics. He could handle the ball, work the pick-and-roll, weave his way into the paint and finish in traffic. He could punish smaller defenders in the post, push the ball in transition, elevate and throw down in the face of shot-blockers.
Allen was never an elite playmaker, but he was more than capable of taking advantage of the extra defensive attention he drew with slick feeds to open teammates. On the rare occasions when his man had somehow managed to lose the best shooter alive away from the play, he could smartly move without the ball to make himself a threat inside the arc, too.
You don’t get to 24,505 career points, 24th-most in NBA history, by being “just a shooter,” even if you’re one of the greatest ever to lace them up. (Allen stands as one of just 15 players ever with at least 24,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists in his NBA career.) A scratch golfer away from the floor, Allen had every shot in the bag on it, and he used them all to rain fire on defenders of all shapes, sizes and skill levels for years.
In many ways, he set the template for a generation of high-volume, sharpshooting offensive creators to come. As is the case with Reggie Miller — whose career regular-season and playoff 3-point records Allen broke, and who will present Allen for induction on Friday — it’s hard not to wonder whether Allen would have occupied even more rarefied air had he come around a bit later, benefiting fully from the fruits of the 3-point revolution he helped shepherd.
“When [then-Bucks head coach] George Karl came in, we played faster,” Allen recently told NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner. “And if we had a good shot available, we’d always take it. But early in my career, a lot of my coaches – if you took the 3 – were like, ‘You don’t have to settle. You’re settling.’ Now that’s changed.”
While Allen earned seven All-Star berths and a pair of All-NBA selections as a bona fide No. 1 option in Milwaukee and Seattle, he didn’t experience much team success in his first two stops. There was that run with Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell and Tim Thomas on a damn good 2000-01 Bucks team that came up one win short of the Finals thanks to the Game 7 heroics of Allen Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo. (And, as Allen famously said during the series, some officiating that Milwaukee found deeply squirrelly.) But on the whole, Allen had made it past the opening round of the playoffs just twice in his first 11 pro seasons.
And then, at the 2007 NBA draft, came the trade that changed everything: Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, No. 5 overall pick Jeff Green and a 2008 second-rounder went to Seattle, while Allen and rookie Glen “Big Baby” Davis headed to Boston.
Adding Allen to incumbent All-Star Paul Pierce made the prospect of playing in Boston more palatable to Kevin Garnett. A month later, KG was a Celtic. Ten months and 18 days later, Allen drilled seven 3-pointers and scored 26 points as Boston annihilated the rival Los Angeles Lakers to win the 2008 NBA championship.
It was the culmination of an all-time great season, the crowning of an immediate, ready-made super-team that would wind up changing the course of the NBA for the next decade … and also, of Allen’s willingness to sacrifice to be part of a winner for the first time. He accepted real reductions — in minutes, in shots, in priority, in stature, the kind of stuff that’s made an awful lot of legitimate superstars balk over the years — to play the role that made him a champion.
“You see him sacrifice,” then-teammate Kendrick Perkins told Jackie MacMullan in 2008, “and you think, ‘If he can do it, then I can do it, too.'”
The Celtics would continue contending, but would never again lift the O’Brien Trophy, succumbing to ill-timed injuries — Garnett’s knee in 2009, Perkins’ knee in 2010, Rondo’s elbow in 2011, Allen’s ankle in 2012 — and to the rise of the post-“Decision” Miami Heat over the next four years. All the while, behind the scenes, the ties that bound the ’08 title team were fraying, and after a year of hearing his name bandied about in trade rumors and what he claims was a lowball offer in free agency with the intention of moving him to the bench, Allen chose to join the Heat for less money, accepting a reserve role on the reigning NBA champions, because that’s where he felt wanted.
“You move into a situation coming into the summer and you don’t know potentially what could happen,” Allen said at the press conference announcing his new deal in South Beach. “And here I sit.”
The move decimated many of Allen’s relationships in Boston. It also put him in position to continue competing for championships, to play in two more Finals, and to make the shot for which he’ll be remembered forever.
“I don’t rate my shots, but it was special,” Allen told Shams Charania of The Athletic. “There are so many shots that I have been a part of. The shot is one thing, but I know what I have done to get in that position. The things that happen in practice mean more to me than anything. The games are what fans see, but practices are really how I was made.”
But before the practices could make Ray Allen a Hall of Famer, something inside Ray Allen made him want the practice — crave it, need it — on a level few of us will ever understand.
“I wish I could tell you that it will get easier, and that you’re going to blend in, and that it’s going to be alright,” Allen once wrote to his younger self. “But you’re not going to fit in with the white kids, or the black kids … or the nerds … or even the jocks. You’ll be the enemy to a lot of people simply because you’re not from around there. This will be both the toughest and the best thing that will ever happen to you.
“What I want you to do is this: Go to the basketball court. Stay at the basketball court. You can build your entire existence there.”
Pop the hood on all those practices, the untold hours of relentless work that formed the most beautiful jump shot the game ever saw, and what lies beneath isn’t a machine. It’s a kid who’s moved around a lot and never yet felt at home, who’s just looking for some place to belong.
It took Ray Allen a few decades, but he finally found it. He moves in Friday.
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