2018 Hall of Fame: Ray Allen's tireless work ethic

NBA.com Global on Sep 02, 2018 09:16 AM
2018 Hall of Fame: Ray Allen's tireless work ethic
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 30: Ray Allen #34 of the Miami Heat poses for a photo during media day on September 30, 2013 at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Given the manner in which Ray Allen has gone about his basketball profession over the past three decades or so, referring to him as a creature of habit seems wildly insufficient.

A zealot for repetition? That’s closer to the truth. A borderline sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder? That’s very real, as Allen sees it. A cautious soul who respects ritual, heeds superstitions and prefers never to tempt fate?

That’s all part of Walter Ray Allen’s journey to Springfield, Mass., too. Mostly, though, when Allen officially is enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Friday, he’ll go in because of his diligence, with which he honed every skill he possessed to maximum sharpness across 18 NBA seasons.

Long before Sam Hinkie, Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers turned “Trust the Process” into a marketing slogan and a Twitter hashtag, Allen had embraced it as his personal pebble-grained philosophy.

“Our nickname for him is ‘Everyday Ray,’’’ Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said when he had Allen as a Heat sniper from 2012-2014. “It’s every day. It’s not every other day. It’s not some days. It’s every single day Ray. His work ethic and his discipline are in the top percentage in this league. Ninety-nine percent of the players do not have that type of consistent work ethic.’’

Any highlights shown before, during or after Allen’s induction as part of the illustrious, 13-member Class of 2018 at Springfield’s Symphony Hall will be the final cut from mountains of virtual video and faux film that went unshot in gyms across America. The sweat, the effort and the precision of taking the same jumper in exactly the same way – footwork, form, elevation, release, launch angle, backspin – went largely unseen.

From his days as a preternaturally mature high school player through his days at UConn and on to memorable stops in four NBA markets – Milwaukee, Seattle, Boston and Miami – Allen took author Malcolm (“Outliers”) Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours Rule to the extreme, appending an exponent to it.

That old carpenter’s motto of measuring twice and cutting once applied 50 or 100 times over to the 6-foot-5 shooting guard’s regimen; for every clutch shot that dropped in the fourth quarter of a game that mattered, Allen had launched multiples just like it in front of empty seats.

By uber-practicing, Allen left little to chance and shut the door on doubt, enabling him to work amid chaos in a warm glow of preparation and confidence. Exhibit A: Allen’s business-as-usual 3-pointer from the right corner in the late moments of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, a make that snatched a championship away from San Antonio and ranks as arguably the most famous and impactful shot in NBA history.

He had made that shot, identical in every way – same backpedaling to the arc, time running out, smooth and swift release – so many times before, only with nothing on the line and no one in the house. As Spoelstra told Fox Sports the next season: “[I’m] grateful for Ray and his obsessive-compulsive work ethic to work on that shot thousands and thousands of times, when everybody else would think that was too ridiculous a circumstance to actually try to practice something like that.”

So much of Allen’s basketball career sprang from intelligent design, you almost wonder if he had a schematic tucked in his back pocket way back on draft night in 1996, when Minnesota picked him but promptly traded him to Milwaukee for Stephon Marbury. It’s as if Allen had a plan from the start, something simple like:

1. Practice. A lot.

2. Methodically build a magnificent career brick by brick – or in Allen’s case, non-brick by non-brick – by incessantly repeating No. 1 on this list.

3. Pocket two championship rings, play in 10 All-Star Games and exit as the league’s all-time leader in 3-point field goal attempts and makes.

4. Write Hall of Fame speech, clocking in at a tidy 4:59 given the five-minute max, for first-ballot enshrinement in 2018.

Allen chuckled a bit at the idea of such a plan in a wide-ranging conversation last week.

“I’ve got to tell you, you couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “I had a plan for nothing. I didn’t know how it was supposed to go down. What I wanted to make sure of was that I didn’t take myself out of the game by causing my own faults and my own mistakes.”

Allen’s approach was far less detailed and limited primarily to what he could control. “The No. 1 key for success – for All-Star games, Olympic team, Hall of Fame – is being available,” he said. “So I made sure I was in the best shape and the most prepared I could be to give myself the best chances to be out there.

“I’m seen as a clutch player over the course of my career because I hit shots in the fourth quarter. But being out there in the fourth quarter means I’m one of the best in shape. You get to that mountain in the fourth quarter, other people are starting to fade and you’re still going.”

With all due respect to the other nine enshrinees this year, Allen, 43, is one of four recently retired NBA legends elected in their first year of eligibility for the Naismith shrine. They entered the league two at a time in the 1990s: Grant Hill and Jason Kidd (1994), and Steve Nash and Allen (1996).

In Allen’s case, a straight line can be drawn from his upbringing in a military family to the habits he developed and channeled into basketball. His father Walter had served as a metal technician in the Air Force, moving his wife Flora, Ray and Ray’s four siblings from California to Germany, to Oklahoma, to England and eventually to Dalzell, S.C., about 40 miles from Columbia.

The value of work and a sense of duty were ingrained in Allen by that life. “As a child,” he said last week, “the one thing I paid close attention to was the simple fact that my dad, every day, he went to work. And he couldn’t choose to not go to work. He couldn’t say, ‘Today I’m not coming in’ or ‘I’m quitting.’

“Today we live in a culture where kids decide they want to transfer from their school or they want to switch AAU teams because ‘the coach doesn’t like me.’ I saw from my dad, he didn’t have a choice. Once you sign up for the military, you are property of the U.S. government. And you have to own up to that and be accountable to that. Not only to the government but to the people you’ve enlisted with.”

Forced repeatedly to adapt to new surroundings, Allen hit South Carolina – and experiences off a military base – at a pivotal point. In junior high and in high school, he got a taste of race relations Southern style, where crossing social lines wasn’t easy even for a basketball star, even in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. So that pushed him even harder, making him careful not to stumble when some might have wanted him to fall.

Allen’s sense of purpose, of seizing any opportunity to move on from Dalzell and succeed, made him a little wiser beyond his years.

“It goes back to when I was 12 or 13,” he said. “There were so many outside forces I paid attention to, when it came to drinking alcohol, exercise, food. What I always did, I put myself in situations around people I could learn from. People who were doing it the right way.

“I didn’t know it while I was doing it, but I was gravitating toward those individuals. Going to UConn, I was around other people how had like minds, who wanted to grow and get better and win. It wasn’t just that they were saying it – I was seeing it. … The habits of being successful.”

In college, it was coach Jim Calhoun and teammates Kevin Ollie, Donyell Marshall, Donny Marshall (no relation), among others. When Allen joined the Bucks as an NBA rookie, veterans Michael Curry and Elliot Perry were there to share their practice routines.

His talent and preparation paid off quickly, with Allen averaging 19.5 points in his second season and, in his fourth, earning the first of three consecutive All-Star invitations. Milwaukee thrived as a team, too, coming within a game of reaching the Finals in 2001, losing the East title to Philadelphia in Game 7.

Egos, poor personnel decisions and personalities – not the least of which was coach George Karl’s dislike for Allen’s smooth, centered, unemotional manner – torpedoed that Bucks team and sent Allen packing to the Sonics. He had his greatest statistical success in Seattle, averaging 24.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg and 4.2 apg in 296 games, and in 2005-06 set the then-single season record for 3-pointers (269).

Allen still was a full-service offensive threat, equally adept at scoring off the dribble or shooting from outside. But the league was changing. When he was drafted, NBA teams averaged 1,377 3-point attempts per season. In his 10th season, Allen took nearly half that number (653) by himself. And by his final year, 2013-14, teams were jacking up nearly 30 percent more treys than when he started.

“When George Karl came in, we played faster,” Allen said. “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.

“I don’t want it to go completely in that direction – I like to see the big men in the game, to play in the post and play inside-out every now and then. It’s great to see so many shooters, but I don’t want to see bad percentages.”

Five years after Allen set the single-season mark for 3-point makes, he snagged Reggie Miller’s NBA career regular-season record by hitting his 2,561st shot from distance. Miller, who had held the record for eight years, was working the game that night in Boston for TNT. He will be in Springfield Friday as Allen’s Hall of Fame presenter.

“Reggie seemed like the most logical choice when I thought about my career,” Allen said. “When I first came in, I watched him and how he prepared. He was always somebody who set a tone. In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘Wow, I need to have this type of routine and consistency.’ With he and I being the tops in 3-point shooting in the NBA, it seemed like a no-brainer.”

When the two met head-to-head early in Allen’s career, he dreaded chasing the peripatetic Miller around and through screens set by Indiana’s bigs. It was hellish, but the younger shooter got up close and personal with Miller’s stroke, unorthodox as it was. Allen’s always was much prettier, but there still was a lesson to be drawn.

“In trying to figure out consistency for my shot, every coach would say, ‘You’ve got to keep your elbow tucked, you’ve got to work on this,’ just this whole thought process of what shooting is supposed to be like,” Allen said. “Then I saw Reggie cross his arms. I was like, ‘The best shooter in the NBA crosses his arm but he’s shooting 90 percent from the free throw line and 45 percent from 3.’ It gave me the power to say, ‘Whatever you’re doing, stick to what you know but make sure you work at it.’”

Allen’s career shifted into a different gear in 2007 when he – and soon thereafter, a boyhood acquaintance from South Carolina hoops, Kevin Garnett – got traded to Boston. He, Garnett and Paul Pierce quickly sorted out the opportunities and sacrifices on tap from that super-teaming, and with coach Doc Rivers’ “Ubuntu” team cohesiveness and precocious point guard Rajon Rondo, the Celtics won the Larry O’Brien trophy in that group’s first season together.

They stayed together for five, posting a 273-121 mark while reaching the Finals again in 2010 and getting to the brink in 2012, leading 3-2 in the East championship series before losing to Miami. Allen, who increasingly had been used as a perimeter threat (his 3-point attempt rate went from 39.3 percent in Seattle to 43.6 in Boston), didn’t like Rivers’ plan to bring him off the bench after that (or appreciate growing friction with Rondo). Instead, he signed with the Heat as a free agent.

That ruffled Celtics’ feathers but enabled Allen to team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and get his second ring. By this stage, before and after his yellow-rope-defying, history-making corner 3, Allen was in full craftsman mode, his consuming preparation setting the bar high for the entire NBA.

Allen would eat the same meals daily, at home or on the road. In hotels, he would take his game-day naps and order room service at precisely the same time each day. Then he would leave for the arena long before his teammates, arriving about 3 and a half hours before the game. When a few of his super-friends began to join him, grabbing taxis rather than waiting for a team bus, the Heat had to adjust.

“We said, ‘Wait a minute. If we have millions of dollars [in player-assets] going in these cabs, this organization needs to create a new bus,’” Spoelstra said back then. “Now because of Ray Allen, we have three buses. It’s called the ‘early shooters bus.’”

Often, though, Allen was alone, save for some team staffers who would rebound and help with his grinding drills.

“It was my obsession to be good every day,” he told NBA.com. “So things had to be in order. After a while, you obsess over it. My shoes needed to be side by side in my locker before a game – that lets me know I’m prepared and in turn tells my teammates, ‘This guy is ready to go.’ It’s small things like that. Is it ritual or is it paranoia or is it just systematic? For me, it was all of the above.”

For someone self-diagnosed with mild OCD, Allen wrapped his career with some nice clean numbers: 1300 games, 19.0 ppg, 40.0 accuracy from the arc. He also proved durable, playing in every game his first five seasons and missing fewer than 10 in nine of his other 13 seasons.

“Being available is so simple, but it’s so complicated,” Allen said. “Playing 82 games, it’s very doable, especially when you’re young. But when January hits and you have to go to Cleveland or Milwaukee and it’s 10 degrees outside and you’re on a back-to-back or you have to get up the next day and go to practice, how committed are you on that day? You’ve got to show up and not just bring your body but bring your mind with you too.”

If Allen at times seemed almost robotic on the court, his shooting stroke locked in and his emotions held in check, well, he’d take that as a compliment.

“It’s a process and once it’s in play, you’ve got to follow it through so you become like a machine,” he said. “Teams that do well in the playoffs, they’re machines by then because they’ve been doing it all year.”

When James left Miami in July of 2014, effectively ending Miami’s Big Three run, Allen left too – unsigned. He stayed that way in a quiet, unofficial retirement before making it official two years later. Why no comeback, given his marathoner’s physical condition and his ability to still drain jump shots? A combination, Allen said, of limited interest, teams that weren’t ready to win or offers – in money or roles – that he could refuse.

Instead, Allen threw himself into his post-playing life. He wrote a memoir, “From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love.” He and his wife Shannon found an organic fast-food restaurant, “Grown.” He has talked about resuming an early passion, acting – remember, he played Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s 1998 drama “He Got Game.” He indulges an even greater passion on the golf course, attends to business and charitable duties and is immersed as “coach” to the four boys – Rayray, Walker, Wystan and Wynn – he and Shannon are raising.

And yes, Allen has a routine now as well. At least, he’s getting there.

“My routine is changing a lot,” he said. “I used to say, when I retired, I wasn’t going to have a weight room in my house because I wanted to go to a gym and get out in the world a little bit. Well, I’ve had my taste of that – now I want to build one in my house.”

Too many Heat fans who recognize him in south Florida, he said, too many distractions interrupting his regimen.

“I want to wake up at 4 in the morning and work out,” he said. “And then I can get the kids up, fix some breakfast and take ‘em to school. Then I can go play golf. The rest of my day will fall in line accordingly.”

Allen is busier now, he said, than when he played. “I love it. I might get an email next week where they tell me, ‘We need you over in Shanghai.’ I’m like, ‘Put me on a plane. I’m gone.’ I love it.”

Going forward, he’ll be doing it all as a member of the Naismith Hall.

“There’s no formula for being in the Hall of Fame because every Hall of Famer has different statistics. Some have won 10 championships, some have won none,” Allen said. “I think ultimately it’s a moment of reflection on what you mean to basketball, your ability to change the game or have an impact on your teammates or the league itself.

“The legends I grew up watching, it was everything in the world to see them play. It’s unfathomable to me that I’m a part of that class. That I’m sitting here talking, and kids are looking up to me that way. But that’s the way the torch is passed.

“Now we’re the ones trying to usher in the next generation.”

For any of the young guys serious about following in his footsteps, Allen surely has his notes. The early shooter’s bus runs daily. 

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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