Nearly two decades into his NBA career and with two Championships to his name, Ray Allen’s still at it. Here, he speaks candidly about the journey.
by Datwon Thomas / @Daydog
Ray Allen’s 18-year career in the NBA has had its rough patches, especially when spread out among four different teams. But the NBA career record holder for most three-point shots and 10-time All-Star is now in a bright spot, enjoying the rays of light off the Miami sun, not to mention the Championship rings he and his Heat teammates picked up on this season’s opening night. Averaging 10.1 points and shooting 37.8 percent from three-point range this season, we caught up with Ray as he was fighting the flu during the Heat’s long November homestand.
SLAM: You had a unique upbringing as a “military brat.” What did that lifestyle do for your focus?
Ray Allen: I was maybe 10 or 11, I got caught stealing while my dad was doing a tour of duty in Korea. I remember I was threatened as possibly costing my dad his stripes because of my behavior. He had to answer to his superiors. It was five of us kids and we didn’t have the money as it was; I couldn’t be creating more upheaval in our household. So I did everything I could to fall in line. When I did that I was devastated ’cause I knew I was taking food off our table. The military taught me that there were repercussions.
SLAM: Where did you live, and for how long?
RA: We mainly spent three years everywhere. I was born in northern California at Castle Air Force Base. From there we moved to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, then Altus Air Base in Oklahoma, then Bentwaters in England, then Edwards Air Base in California, then Shaw Air Base in South Carolina. Everybody wants to say I’m from South Carolina. I always tell people, I’m not really only from South Carolina. I went to high school there, but I have so much more to where I come from and so many people that it doesn’t stop there. But if I never lived in South Carolina, I wouldn’t be in the NBA. The people in South Carolina made me tougher. I had to really learn and be tough, had to fight. I had to find a way to find my place or I wasn’t gonna make it.
SLAM: So you had to learn to maneuver within cliques and then start it up all over again at the next location?
RA: There were two buses that went to my neighborhood to school that I rode with. So those were the kids I knew, so once I got off the bus to school, that’s the direction I went in…with those kids. But I’m a black kid, somewhat tall, that played basketball. The other black kids looked at me and saw me as the white boy ’cause I didn’t hang with all the other black kids. I was hanging out with the kids that I was with every day at school once I got home on the military base. So I was torn for a while because I knew who I was, but I was questioning who I was. I was like, Am I supposed to be hanging out with these kids? Or should I be hanging out with the other kids that I’m just meeting? And I was in a catch-22. Some days they’ll be looking at me and I’m going in that direction like, I’m going over here because I need to be with the black people. And that was the first time that I experienced racism because as a young kid, every base I lived on, black or white, it didn’t matter who you dated, you just kinda existed. I remember when I got to high school, I said, I’m gonna bridge the gap, because once I start playing basketball and they realize I’m good and can play, then everybody can see I’m friends with everybody and I’ll bridge the gap and everybody will be able to exist around each other.
SLAM: Do you feel like your basketball talent helped more so than your personality?
RA: Of course. My personality was still growing. I was still growing in terms of who I was. After a while people wanted to see me play and people came over to the house to spend time with my family and my family accepted all people so it was like I had to make sure that I was accepting of all people and all things, like I’d always been, but I had to make sure I did that out in the open to the point where everybody saw it and would know there was no segregation when it came to who I was.
SLAM: How did learning all of that help you in the NBA?
RA: We always say it’s a job, and that you may not like everybody you play with. You just deal with it and make sure the relationship works on the floor. The teams that really like each other, that really bond, are going to be successful teams. The chemistry will be so off the hook that you’ll win because you really like each other. That’s what it boils down to.
Since I’m a quiet person, I’m very introspective. George Karl told me a long time ago, “Hey, sometimes you are perceived as arrogant, because you are not saying anything.” I understood what he was saying, but I was like, I’m the furthest from arrogant. I’m just in my own lane but I’m happy for everybody. If you become the best player you can on this team, then the team becomes better. That’s all I’ve ever asked of anybody I’ve ever played with. Sometimes you have to do your job better so I can do my job better. I’m not trying to enforce my routine on you, but I feel like I can help you. I want to put you in a situation to better yourself. If I’m shooting 90 percent from the free-throw line, let’s shoot together. I remember, a long time ago when I first got into the NBA, I used to shoot with this guard, Jeff Nordgaard. Jeff used to beat me at free throws all the time, but competing in practice helped me in games. So ever since then, I used to find whoever I could to compete with so I could improve my free throw shooting. Over the years I’ve shot with many different guys and some guys are like, “Nah, I’m good.” Some guys are like, “You’re gonna win anyway.” That’s the whole point. I’m gonna keep beating you, but at some point you’re gonna say, enough is enough and figure out a way to beat me.
SLAM: Who do you compete with these days?
RA: This is my 18th year and probably the first guy that continuously took Ls but came back to start competing in free throw shooting contests every day after practice was LeBron James. We’ve had at least 40 free-throw contests; he probably won two or three times. He wants his free throw percentage to go up. So he was like, “I want to compete and beat your ass every day.” That’s the competition that I want ’cause I want to stay ahead of the curve so I can continue to be good at shooting free throws. You can’t let go of the rope.
SLAM: Was there anybody like that on you as a player?
RA: The one person I’d have to say was like that with me for as long as I’ve been in the NBA was Kevin Ollie. He’s now coaching at UConn. He was the one guy I knew, no matter where he was, was always working harder than everybody on the team. He always kept a job because of it. I always felt like I wasn’t working as hard as he was working. It always hovered over me: “Damn, I know that Kevin is gettin’ it in. I need to put my work in.” He was tagged as not shooting the jump shot. So preseason we’d be up in UConn, we’d find gyms to workout in and we’d workout. We’d find a way to get our workout in. I always knew there were no off days—we’ve got to do it like we’d do it in a game.
SLAM: Your clutch shots really cement your legacy. What goes through your mind when the moment comes, like when Game 6 of the Finals was winding down last year and you get the ball, basically going diagonally and backward before you shot?
RA: That goes back to all the preparation. If anything, the legacy of who I have been in my career has been about me having the willingness to prepare and be ready in every situation. I look at the times it took for me to get in the gym early and work on my game and my shot more than I actually worked in the game. Once I got to the game, it seemed to me that everything is so much easier. It’s like having the answers for the test. I was so ready for that moment, however it came down. It wasn’t about, “I’m gonna shoot the ball from this angle.” I was put in an extreme situation and I had to make a shot that anybody would have said is impossible to make.
SLAM: How many times have you looked back on that moment and realized that was why you went to Miami—to be in that exact situation?
RA: That sums it all up for me right there. I took so much criticism going into that last season, but knowing that this team wanted me and they’re going to put me in a situation to win another Championship. At the end of the day when we play sports our job is we want to be put in positions to win. That’s the ultimate objective. That was the ultimate situation to help this team win.
SLAM: Doesn’t that situation make you feel a bit better after all the drama and criticism for leaving the Celtics?
RA: I had to take interviews and hear all year that I abandoned the team. But just like anything else in sports, when you become a free agent, the team has the right to continue to pay for your talents or bring somebody else in. I was in a unique situation, ’cause for three years the team had shopped me around and tried to move me. For that final year I was there, I was actually traded to Memphis. I got the phone call and told that I was traded for OJ Mayo. I was in San Francisco to play the Warriors. Danny Ainge and I talked and he asked me how I felt about it—I told him I was upset, that I couldn’t believe it. I said, “I can’t knock you, you have to do what you do for your team. I understand it’s a business [and] there’s nothing I can do about it.” He was like, “Well, I’ll be in touch.” I told my family we’ve been traded to Memphis. One of my sons said, “Don’t worry about it Dad, we’re Grizzlies fans now. We’re gonna make this work.” I took that into my summer, that I could potentially—regardless of what I did for the team, there’s no great loyalty shown amongst the teams to the players, ’cause they’ll trade you in a heartbeat. When they trade you, they’ll tell you, “We’re a team but we have to do what’s best for our squad.” As a player if we want more money or ask for a trade we are looked upon as being greedy, or disloyal.
SLAM: Which is sometimes worse.
RA: Yeah. I was branded as disloyal and I was the guy that was put on the trading block. But since I decided to leave on my own I was disloyal.
SLAM: How did you deal with that all summer? The Memphis deal broke down obviously, but how did that make you feel heading into free agency?
RA: There were some things negotiated trade-wise that I wasn’t particularly happy with. The direction of the team, so many things that I wasn’t happy with, and the team wouldn’t give me any assurances. It bothered me. I had to move on. I had the choice between going to the Clippers, Memphis, Minnesota or Miami. I came to visit Miami and I’m thinking, we just lost to them in the Conference Finals. They just won the Championship and I’m over here thinking—it was hard. It was hard for me to come to Miami. This is a team that we just went toe to toe with in a Game 7—can I see myself playing here? I spent two days meeting the general manager, meeting the owner. Then the other options started to shape: The Clippers said, “We signed Jamal Crawford, so we are no longer interested in recruiting you.” So I said, OK. Now my only other options were Memphis, Minnesota or go back to Boston. Boston had already proven to me they weren’t really going in my direction. Case in point now ’cause they traded the whole team. I knew from the previous summer that if things didn’t work they were going to blow the whole thing up. I was like, I’m not signing back to a team where you guys are going to say we are going to trade everybody in order to move forward in rebuilding. Now you start to sit down and look at it like, Memphis has a good team and they made it deep into the Playoffs. Minnesota had made the Playoffs. I was like, I don’t know who in their right mind, knowing the skills that you possess—you start looking at the Miami situation as more and more attractive, ’cause they could use me in this position and they just won a Championship. So, the rest is history.
SLAM: Throughout the time you’re making this decision, are you getting calls from your teammates? Did you get calls from your old teammates on the Celtics?
RA: No. Nobody. I didn’t get a call. Nobody called me. When we made the decision, it was me circling the wagons and everybody was doing their thing, going in their directions and it was just us sitting here. It was about what we had to do to keep my family happy and together.
SLAM: Seems like it was the right choice—you got a ring and you seem to be in a good place. When you saw the team get broken up and sent to Brooklyn, what were your initial thoughts?
RA: Just like I thought. That was my thought. Going into the situation, they were going to blow it up. I told my wife, “Imagine where we would be right now.” People were disgruntled and angry because I left, but it would’ve been easier for them if I got traded away. They felt better about it themselves.
SLAM: You’ve been around so long I think people forget about you as a Buck. What were your years like in Milwaukee?
RA: That’s the thing that I tell people all the time, as much as people talk about what happened in Boston, and we won and played a lot of basketball on TV—part of of that, too, is one of the things I really loved about playing in Boston and the east coast, being on center stage ’cause we were always on TV. When I was playing in Milwaukee, I would go into a store there would be no Bucks hats, nothing. It always felt like you were second fiddle in the NBA. Even Seattle was so far outstretched away from everybody that I felt like I was on another plane. Boston was such a great feeling of being alive, being there. One thing that I always have to remind people is that Boston wasn’t my first rodeo. You see me saying how great it was to see me as a Celtic—go to Milwaukee and talk to some of the people there who watched me play my first seven years. Those people will tell you that I’m like a natural born son to them because they watched me grow up as a young player coming to the League. I got booed by everybody in the Bradley Center, not everybody, but—I got traded by Minnesota when they picked Stephon Marbury. It goes way back. We’ve got so much history there.
It’s the same thing like how I grew up. I’m not just from South Carolina. Every time I play in L.A., one of my original coaches when I first started playing comes to every game. Taught me how to shoot free throws. He’s a Clippers season ticket holder. I have friends from the first grade that come and see me when I’m in Portland. So I remember and connected to everything and not one place to pay homage too. That’s how my career is: I’m just not a Boston Celtic, [though] I’ll always be a Boston Celtic. I’m just not a Milwaukee Buck, [though] I played there the longest. I’m a Seattle Supersonic. Now I’m a Miami Heat. My connections, now I have friends and family in each location now. I pay tribute to people being good to me.
SLAM: Where do you consider home?
RA: Connecticut. When the season is over, we go back to Connecticut for the summer. When I first went to college there, I didn’t really have a hometown. So when it was time for me to lay my head down somewhere, I was like, my college buddies were the guys I spent the most time around with and had the most fun with, growing up and being connected to something.
SLAM: You were in a classic NBA Draft class that is storied for the ups and downs of the top-six picks, as well as some of the great players who went later. One to six was AI, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Marbury, you and Antoine Walker. You are the most stable guy on that list. How’d you make it through The Hunger Games?
RA: SLAM Magazine, you guys had the accolades of all of us in that Draft and it said, “Most Likely to Fade into Obscurity” with my name next to it. I thought I knew what obscurity meant, but I had to go read the definition because I was like, I know they not saying that I’m just gonna disappear. You say something like that…you can’t gauge a person’s heart. A guy can have talent coming into college, but you have to be able to have heart to be great at the next level. To be great, you can’t be a great college player and automatically be great in the pros. You have to really commit to the craft. Just making it there isn’t good enough. Overcoming all obstacles that come to you is what takes you to the next level. So I appreciated that little blurb that they put in there, ’cause it put a chip on my shoulder without even having to talk about it.
SLAM: Well, I’m glad we were wrong about it.
RA: I tell people all the time, if I never put in the work and stayed true to the craft nobody would know who I was. The only reason people know who I am is because I do what I do everyday and I work to do my job. I tell kids that everyday. If you want people to remember your name, then go work at it. Go spend time in the gym by yourself when nobody else is there and when the lights come on, people are going to remember your name. It’ll be because of the work you put on the floor when nobody was else there.
SLAM: Earlier this year, Nike had an event for Spike Lee’s new sneaker, The Son of Mars. He pulled his favorite clips from his projects over the years. It was like two Jordan commercials, a Do The Right Thing clip, a clip from Malcolm X and a clip from He Got Game. He explained the work ethic of you taking the offseason of your second year off to work on your acting skills, saying how you didn’t miss a beat in learning to film and staying strong in developing your NBA skills at the same time.
RA: He and I never talked about that, but that’s what it took. I wanted to be somebody that you didn’t know could put on a good performance. Where you didn’t have to think about it like, “Awww, this acting is kind of iffy.”
SLAM: Seems like you walked away from a potentially real acting career, though.
RA: Well, I was either gonna walk away from an acting career or a hoops career.
SLAM: That was in ’98. You’re in the NBA and making a movie for Spike Lee. What was your mindset then?
RA: I didn’t want to be the guy who said, “Oh, he asked me to do that, but I didn’t have time.” I made the time. I didn’t want to live with any regrets. That’s part of the reason I don’t drink alcohol. Growing up in the military, there’s a high rate of alcoholism. I used to go to the big gyms all the time, these guys would say, “I would have done this if I never drank.” I was always paranoid about that. I didn’t want my success to be gauged upon if I was gonna be good enough, not based on if I could succeed because of my downfalls, like being an alcoholic or being on drugs or getting in trouble and getting locked up and being in jail. I didn’t want those things to have to come into play. That scared me. I wanted it to be solely on my ability to play this game.
SLAM: So you weren’t the type to go out and party extra? I’m sure you had your club days—how did you steer clear of all the flashy fun times in the ’90s?
RA: I think my generation was a feel-good generation. When people went out, people went out. The music was party music, and my first four or five years everybody was in the club dancing, having a good time. We were listening to Biggie; people were wearing gold chains, being flashy. For me, it was more subtle. I still understood what I needed to do for myself to be focused. I wanted to make the All-Star team. It didn’t deter me from wanting to be out in the clubs, but I had goals that I wanted to achieve. I got to the NBA, but I wasn’t content. I knew when there was a time to go out and a time to be at home.
SLAM: Your Jordan sneaker connection is a strong one. What’s your take on the exclusives that have been released in your honor?
RA: I’ve never owned a pair of Jordans until I got into the NBA. I had never met MJ. My first game in the NBA I played against him in a preseason game. I’d never seen him before. I started in Brand Jordans October 15 at the United Center and that was a dream come true. The best of all times. I’ve always been a guy to adapt and try different things, so when they put new shoes out I’m with it. Let’s do some crazy things with the shoes. Over the years we’ve come with some funky designs, different colors. In hindsight, people are like “Wow, did you see this shoe?” It’s so exclusive it makes everybody want to have that shoe. That’s always been something that I’ve prided myself in. Just be different, be yourself but be different. At this stage I’m more comfort over anything. Easy on the feet, ’cause you can’t wear everything nowadays.
SLAM: What’s your favorite shot of all time?
RA: My best shot of all time is that one versus the Spurs, but another one of my favorite shots was in the Playoffs against Sacramento when I was on Seattle. We played in Sacramento and I was going to my right and the shot clock was running down and I hit a floater going to my right and the looks on their faces was, “How do we stop that?” They kept trying to get back in the game but that night I had 45. There’s a point where you’re just beat because there are certain things you can’t guard against. You can’t defend. They played good defense, I just hit a shot going to my right. Ran out to me, guys in front of me and I still knock it in.
SLAM: What’s your secret to shooting the three-pointer?
RA: It’s not just one thing I can attribute it too. It’s all in the legs and having your feet ready. It’s like squats, work on your legs, keep your lift—it’s so much.
SLAM: After that crazy shot and win in Game 6, what was it like going into Game 7 for the Championship? What was that pep talk like?
RA: ”We made it this far. This is it right here, this is the game. We got out of game 6, there’s no way we’re losing this game. Everybody all in, let’s take this game to the house.” We just had so much belief, we even knew coming into Game 7, we’re actually in a place where we know that this is where we’re supposed to be. In Game 6, when we were down, we were like, this isn’t where we’re supposed to be. Once we were in that game, we’re like, OK, this feels more familiar.
SLAM: You’re 38. How much more time you got?
RA: Hmmm. It’s hard to say. I was telling Mario Charlmers the other day, Any time you’ve done a job for so long, people tend to see it as a negative thing. People will say, “Oh he’s old. He got tired.” I was like, it’s interesting that we look at it as a bad thing, as much more we should be looking at it in celebration ’cause somebody has been able to last and take care of him or herself and have longevity in a career. That should be something that’s talked about more. It’s not like you’re in prison—you are doing something that you want to be doing for a long time. And you’ve got to manage to stay in tune, keep your body together, keep your mind together. For me it’s been a great challenge, but at the same time, there have been so many great rewards that come along with it. There’s a time when you look around and hear the conversation and the way things are going, like, wow, I’m starting to phase myself out ’cause generations are passing. Yet you still have to enjoy it.