The now-retired guard wanted greatness without fame. He got what he wanted.
Ray Allen officially retired from professional basketball this past Tuesday. There was no press conference or one-day contract with the Bucks, or Celtics, or Heat. He has, after all, been out of the game since 2014. Allen did release an article on The Players’ Tribune – a letter to a nervous 13-year old Ray living in Dalzell, South Carolina. Something like that would usually turn out painfully artificial and soppy, but Allen’s letter seemed deeply personal. It seemed like he was actually his intended audience.
At 41, Allen is “at peace with himself,” which is ironic because he never seemed at peace with his own greatness. Allen’s prime lasted roughly the first decade of the millennium, an era when star players were cult figures known strictly by nicknames: A.I., Mamba, Vinsanity, T-Mac, KG, Shaq. Somehow, the early 2000s all-star most averse to fame (besides the great Tim Duncan, of course) was the one who’d starred in a Spike Lee film as a dude literally named Jesus.
The markets in which he played early in his career didn’t help. Milwaukee isn’t exactly the media hub of America, and while Seattle was a somewhat larger market, the SuperSonics a) don’t even exist anymore; and b) made the playoffs just once during Allen’s tenure.
More importantly, Allen was essentially free from controversy his entire career. One of his few dramatic moments came in 2004 when he called out Kobe Bryant…for being dramatic. Tracy McGrady was often called lazy, Allen Iverson hated practice, and KG said some absolutely despicable things on the court. These players, though sometimes loathed, were edgy and interesting and fun.
Allen won the NBA Sportsmanship Award in 2003, making him the only surefire Hall of Famer since David Robinson to win that honor. He was also named The Sporting News’ “Good Guy” three(!) separate times. He was just a good guy with a great jump shot. That’s awesome, but it doesn’t pack the stands or sell jerseys. In fact, the statistics available show that Allen never landed in the top 10 in annual NBA jersey sales. In 2003 – in the middle of his prime – he somehow finished behind Mike Bibby. Allen, though, was clearly uninterested in his fame. If his retirement letter was anything to go by, he was just interested in “boring old habits.”
I doubt that Allen cares, but his legacy – I believe – will be clouded by his persona. The 6’5” shooting guard likely had a better career than many of the players who were more conventional superstars. Let’s compare him with Allen Iverson and Vince Carter, per 36 minutes:
Here’s each player’s best season:
Allen was by far the most efficient of the three players, and before he went to Boston and had to sacrifice shots, he could quite simply get buckets. Sure, Iverson’s isolation game was unmatched and Carter’s dunks were flat out disrespectful, but do those ticket-selling qualities have a discernible impact on team success? Are fame and greatness always correlated?
Judging by the numbers and the championships, the answer to both of those questions is probably no. Allen, a two-time NBA champion, was as talented and – more importantly – as clutch as they come. Still, when asked about Allen this is what Paul Pierce had to say:
“It’s not a bad thing with Ray. We had a great relationship on the court. But even the year we won it, after a game we’d say, ‘Let’s go have something to eat and have a night with the older guys.’ We’d get there and it would be me, Kevin and Sam (Cassell), but no Ray. In a lot of ways, me, Sam, and Kevin were our Big Three.”
That year, Allen went 7 of 9 from three in the championship clincher. He was also named to his eighth All-Star Game, played the best defense of his career, and barely ever turned the ball over. He may have been aloof, but he was integral to Boston’s title run. Then five years later he hit the shot. Ray Allen just wasn’t fazed.
And that stroke. That jump shot was just pretty. As the NBA’s all-time leader in made threes, Ray Allen is arguably the best shooter in NBA history, but even so, his shot was probably more beautiful than it was effective:
Although Allen should be remembered for his all-around offensive brilliance, his shot sticks out as one of the most influential weapons in recent NBA history. Watch JJ Redick spend entire games scurrying around screens; that’s Allen. Watch Steph Curry jack up nearly 900 threes in a season; that’s Allen. As Bradford Doolittle of ESPN once wrote, “He really proved how, in the 21st century, a player could provide elite value without dominating the ball.”
And yet, the exact qualities for which we knew Allen were the same ones that alienated him from us. His obsessive commitment to basketball and his willingness to defer the ball and the spotlight made him more of an enigma than an icon. In the letter, he wrote:
“Most of the time, you will be alone.
That won’t make you the most popular person. Some people simply won’t understand. Is the cost worth it?
Only you can answer that.”
It was probably worth it. Even if other players will be remembered more, Allen was one of the best and most quietly influential players of his generation. Let’s hope, as he moves toward enshrinement in Springfield, that he finally gets the fanfare and appreciation he deserves.
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