On Friday night, the best high school basketball talent in the world will gather at the Barclays Center for the Jordan Brand Classic. And all this week, the players are being shuttled from practices and brand experiences to team dinners and social functions. To kick things off, Jordan Brand unveiled the players’ lounge at Terminal 23 in Manhattan on Tuesday with some help from a special guest: Ray Allen.
Allen won a pair of championships over an 18-year NBA career with Milwaukee, Seattle, Boston and Miami. He last played with the Heat in 2013-14 and will turn 41 this summer, and yet as recently as January he was still getting calls from Miami about returning to play. In speaking with us, Allen declined to officially announce anything one way or the other in regards to his retirement, but he certainly took a reflective tone when discussing his career and the career of fellow ’96 Draft Class member Kobe Bryant.
But first and foremost, the man known to many as Jesus Shuttlesworth was in the building to spend some quality time with the next generation of great basketball players, preaching the importance of keeping a tight circle, urging them to treat their bodies as “high-performance sports cars” and encouraging them to simply out-work the opposition, like he did for so many years.
“I knew a lot of guys who guarded me, who didn’t want to guard me because they didn’t want to have to chase me,” Allen told the group of high school seniors, before indulging with a quick story: “We’re playing San Antonio in the [Finals], and Gregg Popovich is shifting lineups around, and Matt Bonner comes in the game. Matt Bonner’s looking around trying to figure out, like, OK, he has him, he has him… He sees me on the floor and he’s like, Coach! Who’s guarding Ray? I looked at him and said, You got me.”
“Pop took him out right then. He knows he’s already beat.”
Allen signed with Jordan Brand in 1996, just as the brand was beginning to branch out and sign athletes not named Michael Jordan (of his first NBA match-up against MJ, he admits, “I was scared shitless”). Since, he’s become one of the most recognizable faces of the brand in the sneaker world thanks to his smooth jumper and his incredible collection of rare retros and PEs. After spending some time with the kids at Terminal 23, Allen sat down with SLAM to talk about what message he hopes to impart on the youth, how he’s grown with Jordan Brand, his thoughts on Kobe’s retirement, the “best shooter ever” comparisons with Stephen Curry and more.
SLAM: When you have an opportunity to speak to young athletes like this, is there a specific message or piece of wisdom you’re hoping to impress upon them?
Ray Allen: It’s hard because you have five or 10 minutes to try to convey some thoughts that will hit home with them. So you just really want to be in front of them and talk to them about where they are and how they should just enjoy the moment. We’re not different—there’s a lineage from me to them, and they’re all heading down this path where ultimately they’ll be walking into a room like this and giving kids a speech themselves some day.
SLAM: How do you think being a high school prospect is different now than it was for you?
RA: I think each kid, back then, we felt like we were alone, we were on an island. But now, these kids, since social media they have a way to connect and create a brand for themselves. You don’t need a corporation or a marketing company to brand you now, you can do it yourself. You can establish who you are with a social media following. As these kids now grow from high school to college, think about the followings that they’ll have, deep into their college years, because kids have been following them for so many years.
SLAM: You went to things like the Nike All-American camp, but never something like what Jordan has in store this week for the JBC.
RA: No, but see Nike camp, we got gear and we were around other players, but it was very blue collar-ish. We didn’t have photo shoots and we didn’t have performances. I told one of the girls today, You guys are lucky, to be able to be here and do these types of things, and to wear Jordans on your feet. You’ve got to make sure you understand it, because it doesn’t happen like this. None of us got this type of treatment. So just remember that the fact that you worked hard and you played well, you got rewarded, and it continues to grow that way, each level you get to.
SLAM: You were one of the original Jordan Brand athletes, with guys like Randy Moss, Roy Jones Jr. and Derek Jeter. Is it crazy to see how much the brand has grown since you signed with them?
RA: I made a gamble when I was 21. I had a few contracts on the table, including one with another shoe company. I had to make a choice between two shoe companies. The other shoe company threw out all these criteria. Me and a few people on my team asked amongst ourselves, If I’m a great NBA player, which company would I want to be a part of? And then Nike came and said, Jordan is starting his own line and we’d love to introduce you as one of the new players to be a part of it. It was a no-brainer for me, just to be able to be associated with Nike, and then Jordan on top of that. I didn’t know what it was going to be like, but I was in. Being a part of it was incredible, because every player wanted to wear the shoes that I’ve worn. Even before I started wearing retros. My first couple years, I had shoes that everyone wanted, and the gear was different. Then when I started wearing retros in Seattle and Boston, that’s all other players ever talked about. It was always special for me.
SLAM: How often would guys talk to you about your sneakers during games?
RA: Every game. Guys were asking me if they could get a pair, if I could send a pair to their locker room, if they could get the pair on my feet.
SLAM: Literally the ones you had on?
RA: Mmhmm. Like, Can you send those shoes to me?
SLAM: Wait—to wear the ones you already wore, or to keep them as memorabilia?
RA: Both. I’ve had guys that couldn’t find the shoes, so they wanted the ones I had to wear. And then I had guys that wanted to auction them off for charity. It was always an honor, knowing that they were asking me, because I always felt like they held me in a high regard. That’s how I looked at MJ.
SLAM: You obviously have an incredible sneaker collection. You’ve seen it all when it comes to kicks. So what gets you excited in terms of sneakers these days? What sneakers make you perk up when you see them?
RA: Umm. I have seen it all. As much as I’ve seen, I don’t think anything like, sparks my attention. I think I have some shoes, too, that some people haven’t seen.
SLAM: Will we ever see them?
RA: I don’t know. I have shoes in my closet, some guys will come in and go, Where’d you get these from? I give a lot of shoes away, but there are some shoes that sometimes I’m like, I don’t think they ever even released these. Sometimes I don’t know what they’ve released. But sometimes friends of mine that work for Nike will visit and say, They never made these, so you need to hold on to these.
SLAM: What kinds of emotions have you felt watching Kobe’s farewell tour?
RA: It just gives me pause, thinking about the last two decades. We came in, got drafted together. Just thinking about the eras that we played in, the players that we played with. It was such a great ride, because he’s won championships, but I think he’d also tell you that some of the bad teams were some of the funnest times, too, because you learn a lot. That’s how you appreciate winning a championship. He was a pace setter in the game, and he ushered in a lot of young people into the game of basketball. You always have to bow to the end of an era.
SLAM: Is there one Kobe moment that sticks out for you?
RA: I don’t think of anything in particular. He and I used to go at it. We used to go at it pretty good, it was competitive. It was appropriate that I ended up in Boston. And we had those two Finals years, playing in the best rivalry in the NBA. That was definitely great for TV, and it was great competition. Those things I’ll always remember.
SLAM: Where do you rank Stephen Curry in terms of the greatest shooters in the history of the League? A lot of fans might argue that you hold that title.
RA: Based on what he’s done, I think he has to be—he’s on his way to being the best ever. It’s always arguable, based on who’s telling the story. One thing I always tell people is, it’s hard to compare generations. Everybody has something or somebody that makes him feel special about the game, or the way they saw and the way they appreciate the game. I’ve sat back and watched a lot, and listened to a lot of people talk. He’s creating a lane all of his own. People comparing him to me, to Reggie [Miller]. But I think Steph is in a category of his own. Just being able to have great handles the way he has with the ball, to be able to score at will by getting to the basket. Myself, Reggie Miller, Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson—we play a different game. We’re shooters. We come off screens, pindowns—Steph can do that, but he’s creating a different lane. Point guards haven’t been able to do what he’s been able to do, because he’s mixing that 2 guard-ish in there with having the great handles of a point guard. When I broke the three-point record, they (Steph and Klay) watched that and it became something they said in their mind, this is what I want to do. Now, there are kids watching him, saying I want to work on these things, I want to be just like Steph.
Abe Schwadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad. Photos courtesy of Jordan Brand.