Two of Seattle's three best players are out, but the one who matters most is doing a yeoman's job of keeping the SuperSonics alive.
Being in great shape is an underappreciated part of basketball, and it's part of why Ray Allen is able to dominate through all these injuries.
Some players don't work hard to stay in great shape. Some work hard to stay in great shape because trainers and coaches tell them to. Then there are some others who never needed to be told at all.
Seattle's Ray Allen is in that last category. He'll be working hard long after he leaves the NBA, and he'll probably be good at wheatever he's doing then. Here's an article I wrote about him for HOOP magazine earlier this season.Man Ray
He may not get as much attention as some high-flying youngsters, but the Sonics' Ray Allen is all grown up and ready to shine.
As one of the showiest positions in the NBA, shooting guard has long been home to some of the biggest names in basketball. Michael Jordan was a shooting guard. Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson are shooting guards. Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Lebron James--it's unfair how many of the biggest names in basketball play the "two."
In theory, the job description is simple: score the ball. But in practice, it's a little tougher. Every player must play defense, make passes, and grab their share of rebounds. Shooting guards have to do all that and, no matter how big, tough or fast their defenders are, no matter whether or not their shots are falling, and no matter how many double teams they face, the best among them are counted on make points by the bushel. When it comes to scoring the ball, they need to do it all: shoot from the outside, penetrate on the dribble, post up, catch-and-shoot and finish on the fast break.
There are certain people who make some NBA stars more famous than others--people who hand out shoe endorsement deals, decide who to focus the TV camera on, and select subjects for glossy magazines like this one, for instance. In recent years they've all showered a lot of glitter and hoopla on some of the youngest shooting guards in the NBA.
Lost in all those bright lights, somehow, is Seattle's 29-year-old Ray Allen. Stuck on a middling Sonics team, Allen is about as far as the NBA gets from the media centers of New York and Los Angeles. To judge by pure publicity, he's surely a notch or two behind the Lebrons, Iversons and T-Macs of the world.
But don't you believe it. Not for one second. Ray Allen is a star and he's ready to shine.
The numbers make a convincing case all on their own: eight-plus seasons of twenty-plus points to go with five rebounds and four assists. Four all-star appearances. Career highs of 47 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists. He once set a league record by starting 388 straight games, which is just shy of five straight seasons starting every game.
Walter Ray Allen Jr. is certainly the best American shooter playing today, and maybe the best shooter of any nationality. (The other candidate is Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic. When the two squared off in the finals of the 2001 three-point competition, Allen nailed ten straight three-pointers near the end to secure a clutch victory.) His career averages put him in the league's top ten all-time in free throw percentage, and the top twenty ever in three-point accuracy. In games, he has set team records by making ten-of-fourteen three-pointers and 19 of 20 free throws.
The 6-5 Allen also looms large where it counts most--delivering wins. When he missed almost half of last season to injury, the media talked up how well his replacement Ronald "Flip" Murray and the Sonics played in his absence. But it was a red herring. When Allen was on the floor the Sonics outscored opponents by 88 points. When he was on the bench, the Sonics lagged behind by 139. It's that simple.
And in crunch time, Allen catches passes and makes shots like few others. The website www.82games.com reports that if he scored all game like he does in the last five minutes of close games, he'd average almost 43 points per game.
But forget the numbers.
Because, in the end, it's not numbers that get people cheering. It's that hodge-podge of celebrity qualities: excitement, charisma, charm, character, athleticism, credibility and Q-rating.
Allen would seem to have just about as much of that as anybody. He's a role model of business savvy, professionalism and off-court good deeds. He is always on the NBA's all-interview team, and his charisma and good looks were enough to make him the only NBA player to ever truly star in a major motion picture which he did opposite Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's He Got Game.
There is only one chink in his armor. Even though Allen loves hip hop (to check his street cred, a reporter once ambushed him with a quiz on Jay-Z lyrics, and he aced it happily), the one thing that might be missing from his celebrity bag of tricks is the total embrace of the hip hop generation.
Allen simply doesn't fit the mold, and he's not the type to fake it. He is more likely to be caught in a conference call than a night club. He fits nicely into a suit and tie and makes easy conversation with business executives who are far older, whiter and stuffier. He talks readily about trips to Europe. His perfect day includes golf. His DVD collection includes plenty of foreign films. He does not drink, smoke or use any kind of drugs. He goes to bed early. He watches what he eats. He changes his baby's diapers. He is not tattooed. He loves to get involved in the small details of his life: where the bay window should be installed in his new house, what species of grass the landscapers should install.
Most importantly, he is neither from the ghetto nor the inner city. Instead, he is from just about every city, town and Air Force Base in America. His father, Walter, worked on airplanes for the military, so Ray, his mom Flora and his four siblings followed him to various jobs across the country. He was born at Castle Air Force Base in California, and graduated from Hillcrest High School in South Carolina with a few stops including visits to Germany and Englandï¾in between. College was at the University of Connecticut.
Ray Allen was still a junior at UConn when he confessed to writer Alexander Wolff that he is something of a control freak. "Control is basically the whole agenda of my life," Allen said then. "To take charge of everything and make decisions for myself."
That control blossomed in the off-campus apartment he shared with a somewhat messy teammate Travis Knight (who would later become a backup center for the Lakers, Celtics and Knicks). Allen learned about the drudgery of maintaining a neat home without parents to help out. He learned to put everything in its place.
He has never stopped.
Matt Wade is the executive director of Allen's Ray of Hope foundation, and says Allen is no diva: "He's very understated and he's very prepared. He doesn't show up at events and just expect people to love him. He really wants to get across the message. He wants to know people's names. He understands what's going on. He's unlike any other pro athlete I've ever dealt with."
"And another thing," adds Wade, who has also worked in similar capacities for the Sonics and other organizations, "he's early. He's always early. He has arrived at a couple of events before me."
In He Got Game, Allen plays fictional Coney Island hoops star Jesus Shuttlesworth, the best high school player in the country. The movie takes place in the week when Jesus has to either select a college from his many suitors, or decide to go professional. His father, his family, his girlfriend, his coach, agentsï¾in one way or another, everyone is pressuring him one way or another, while lining up to benefit from his decision.
Just about the only person who doesn't need anything from Shuttlesworth is the local drug lord, Big Time Willie. At one point Big Time, played by Roger Guenveur Smith, takes Shuttlesworth for a ride and delivers a vicious lecture spelling out the risks of drugs, groupies, hangers-on, corrupt family members, amoral agents and everything else bad that confronts top basketball players these days. It's a classic and graphic warning. "Can you handle that?" barks the drug dealer.
Mr. Shuttlesworth might have his internal conflicts about such things, but Ray Allen, the king of control, certainly seems not to. If that scene of the movie is scary at all, it's a tribute to the acting (and the coaching ability of Susan Batson, who tutored Ray Allen in theatrics for eight-weeks prior to shooting), because Allen himself may need that warning less than anyone ever to play the game.
"I call him the anomaly'" says Orin Mayers, who left a good job with the Milwaukee Bucks to help Allen full-time with various business endeavors. "He's not overwhelmed by what's going on at all. If you took him out of the NBA he'd sitting right next to you at some regular job and he'd be fine with that. He picks up his own dry cleaning, he does his own shopping. He's a normal guy. He just happens to be extremely talented at basketball."
The only things he might be addicted to are things like exercise, competition, golf, or the Snapple and soft drinks he pummels when he's out late. There have never been any whispers about Ray and drugs, or Ray and guns, or Ray and violence. The only blip on the squeaky clean radar was his first child Tierre years ago with a college girlfriend. (He and his fiancÃ©e Cheryl are knee-high in diapers these days with Walter Ray Allen III, who arrived in September and was a big reason Allen skipped the Athens Olympics.)
Along the way, he has been fanatical about being the best--at pretty much everything.
In college he fixated on Yahtzee, until he ran out of people to beat. At other times he has affixed to elements of his basketball game, like passing or driving to the hoop. "I don't want to have any weaknesses," he admits. "And I have never doubted my ability to do anything."
One of the survival skills Mayers has had to learn on the job is not to play too many games against Allen. "You know that game Connect Four?" asks Mayer. "I hadn't played it since I was about twenty, but the other day Ray asks me to play. We both win a game, and then he beats me nine straight. In some games, he had me beat three different ways at once. He's so clever and competitive. Sometimes I have to stop playing. It's not good for my psyche to get beat that much."
Like a lot of NBA players, Allen likes to golf. But he doesn't really do it to unwind. "Oh my GOD," says Wade, who golfs with his boss fairly often. "He is fanatical. He will play 18 holes in the morning, 18 holes in the afternoon, go to the driving range and hit a couple of buckets of balls, and then work on his putting. Then he'll go home and work out for three hours for basketball. In the summer, that's just a regular day for him."
Mayers reports that Allen has a handicap of five or six, and says he wouldn't be at all surprised to see Allen do something involving golf as a second career. "I could see him organizing tournaments or something like that. Obviously, being a professional golfer is one of the most difficult things in the world to do, but I could also see him being just the kind of guy to succeed at that too."
Wade once organized a fundraiser that involved Allen's playing 100 holes of golf at several different courses in just one day. Allen finished the day with a heavy duty workout at home.
The money raised that day, and a reportedly large but secret percentage of Allen's private income, goes to the foundation Allen started as a rookie. The Ray of Hope foundation is involved in diverse project which all help youth.
One big new initiative attempts what many had thought impossible: making inner-city middle school kids more interested in algebra. Through personal visits, professional after-school help and a truckload of incentives for students and parents, Allen hopes to fix one of the biggest weaknesses in the public school system. The program is up and running at two test schools and there are plans to roll it out to several more.
The foundation also conspires with parents to surprise certain lucky children by completely redecorating their bedrooms while they are out. "It's amazing," says Wade, who organizes the program. "We get contractors, interior decorators, and we map out with the parents exactly how everything should be done. And, of course, Ray likes to be there for every single meeting. He's intimately involved in every little decision."
Allen isn't at all ashamed to be a little controlling. "I think that's the fear that I've always had of not succeeding," he explains. "You always want to work harder and do everything you can to prepare so you don't have to worry about putting yourself in a situation where you might lose."