The young ballplayer made his way over the to gym with his father and brother, the same trip they had taken every weekend for nearly a year. They arrived before 10 a.m. to secure a spot on the sign-up sheet. It was ideal to face the first two or three teams — guys got tired out by the sixth or seventh game — and this was the best pick up basketball around.
At 6-foot-1, the youngster looked physically ready to compete. But at only 12 years old, he was a year shy of the age limit. The staff had previously let him in under his father’s guidance. But on this particular day, there was a new person on the duty who wasn’t budging. In spite of the fact that his father and several other men in the gym argued for his admittance, he was denied access.
It was the first time Ray Allen was told he couldn’t play basketball — and, as he sat outside on the curb waiting in frustration for the games to end, he promised himself it would be the last.
“I always remember that, people trying to keep me out of the gym,” Allen said. “That made me want to fight to be in the gym because I knew, even at that age, people believed in me. They wanted me to play and wanted me to be good.”
In one of several stops in a military upbringing, Allen moved from California to South Carolina when he was 11. He immediately took an interest in the pickup games that were held at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C. Allen had begun honing his skills playing AAU ball out West (where he wore No. 20 for the league’s Celtics team), and wanted to improve them against stiffer competition. Some of the men were nearly twice his age.
Allen’s father obliged, believing his son had the potential to play against the best of them.
“When he was born, I looked at his hands and feet and said he’s going to be in the NBA,” Walter Allen said in a telephone interview. “And that is the truth, too. I actually said that when he was born.”
On base, the Allen clan earned the nickname “The Lakers” for their West Coast roots and fast break style. But Allen was not a show-boater. Regardless of how much promise he had, he started out as a boy among men with a lot to learn.
“I remember there was a time when basketball-wise, I wasn’t aggressive,” he said. “I didn’t know how to just take over a game or just shoot and go to the hole or just kind of go through my man. I remember one time just learning and coming out and I started dunking. I came down the court and just dunked it. Everybody was like, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’”
Allen hit the gym “religiously” every Saturday to get his runs in. He was tested by the guys who forced him to use his left hand, improved his defense by guarding some of the best shooters in the group, and gained mental toughness by blocking out the trash talkers. So when the same people who tried to school Allen argued to let him play that morning, their support made an impact.
“I just always knew that they appreciated my game,” Allen said. “They always said, ‘If you keep working you can be good, you can do something.’”
They were right: Twenty-two years after he was told he couldn’t play ball, Allen is one of the most accomplished shooters in NBA history. The same person who once struggled with being aggressive has won a championship, a nine-time All-Star, and ranks second in league history in three-point shooting.
“It’s one of those things that you always tell yourself, ‘I’m going to do what I need to do for myself and I’m not going to allow anyone to deter me from moving forward,’” Allen said. “You look at somebody like that at the base, he’s somebody that has no idea who you are, where you come from, or what your intentions are. But in the midst of his life, he’s trying to do his job and control his surroundings, and I can’t allow that to keep me from being who I am and doing what I need to do.
“I think the naysayers in my life, the Negative Nancy’s that hover around — because every great team, every great player always has those negative deterrents around him, guys that say he’s not that good or I don’t like watching him play or I don’t like that team — when I hear those things, you just block it out. People want to criticize.”
When he arrives early on game day to shoot around, that childhood memory is never far from Allen’s mind. He had been informed in the past that the court was not open, but after being told no once before, he makes sure he is not shut out again. He has even observed notes in the arena that read, “First bus 4:45. Ray Allen 4:00.”
Those who have played with Allen are not surprised he used a roadblock as motivation.
“Usually if you talk to any great player in the league and throughout NBA history, there’s going to be something in their basketball career when they first started playing, or somewhere in the middle there, that drove them to be who they are today. And you probably have to look at Ray like that,” said Paul Pierce. “All the great players have some type of motivation as far as something that changed them and made them who they are today. They went through something that drove them to be the player that they are, and that doesn’t surprise me.”
Kevin Ollie, who has been close friends with Allen since they met on the University of Connecticut basketball team in 1993, appreciates his resilient mentality over the years.
“We all went through those trials and tribulations when you were getting older,” Ollie said. “He took it all in stride and it made him better. Every setback you have is not a setback, it’s a set up for you to have a bigger, better opportunity, a bigger, better comeback. It’s not the demotion, it’s the promotion. That’s how I look at every challenge, and I know he does the same.”
But now the same obstacle that once kept Allen off the court has resurfaced again this season. At age 12, he was told he was too young to play. Now three months shy of his 35th birthday, there are those who question how much time he has left.
As Allen enters free agency this summer, he admits that he doesn’t know how many more years he has ahead of him. But that’s because he didn’t have the answer to that question earlier in his career, either.
“I think that the way I feel, I don’t know how I’m going to feel,” he said. “Even when I was 25, I didn’t know what 30 was going to feel like. And at 25 I thought it was hard. So you have to work and prepare a little bit more. It’s really hard to say because I don’t know.
“Now at 34, I don’t know what 36 is going to feel like. Is it going to be that much tougher? Am I going to have to work doubly hard as I am now? And I think at some point, if that happens, if that’s the case, obviously the team that I’m on, hoping it’s here, what situation I’m in, how I’m contributing, how I’m not contributing, all those things come into play and I think it will speak for itself.”
Allen’s expiring contract only magnified the chatter this season. His name was buzzing in trade rumors as his usually consistent numbers plummeted as the trade deadline loomed. He shot 43.7 percent from the field and a season-low 31.9 percent from 3-point range in January.
He bounced back following the deadline and ended the regular season averaging nearly 17 points, shooting 40.3 from long range, and hitting and 52.4 percent of his shots from the floor since the All-Star Break. In the first round of the playoffs against the Heat, Allen overcame an eight-point performance in Game 1 and shot 7-for-9 from behind the arc in Game 2 for a team-high 25 points.
“Players are playing a lot longer in general,” said Pierce. “He’s just proved the consistency he’s shown throughout time and even at 34, that’s not old anymore. When you start getting to be 37, 38, you figure OK, maybe it’s time. But the way Ray keeps himself in shape, the way he plays the game, the way he shoots the ball, he’s the type of player who can play until he’s about 38 or 39. Maybe 40.”
What Allen does know is that his committed work ethic has him feeling 34 years young. He said he feels his best conditioned since the 2002 season with Milwaukee, and is getting his lift back after undergoing double ankle surgery three years ago.
Allen’s father attests to his son’s discipline, pointing out conversations in which he has referred to playing basketball as his job. “That’s what he does, he works on his game,” Walter Allen said. “He doesn’t go out and party and stay out, hanging out. He’s very dedicated to the game.”
For Allen, the longevity of his 14-year career can be traced back to his earlier days with Milwaukee and Seattle, when he began prepping his body for the long haul.
“People don’t know, regardless of what you see of me and what you watch on TV, most people don’t know what I do behind the scenes to get to where I am,” he said. “What I feel every day, how I come down from games, the type of rest that I get, what I don’t do and what I do in the summertime, all those things come into play when January comes around. And not to mention what I didn’t do when I was 22 or 23.
“So I believe I’m so far ahead of the game that I’m able to play longer. People look at basic standards of guys my age at 34, like some guys at 34, there’s no way they could play basketball right now. And I’m thinking at my age now, I can go even a few more years doing what I’m doing the way I’m doing it because for me, it’s not rocket science.
“And on top of that, I know exactly what I need to do and how I need to do it and how to prepare for it. Scoring for me is second nature, playing with a team and being a good teammate is second nature. Sometimes even if you can’t contribute as much on the floor, off the floor is just as good.”
With every season that passes, Allen will be met with skepticism and doubt because of his age. But it’s the moment when he was told he was too young that will continue to resonate with him throughout the years of his career.
“If I could say one thing [to the person who didn‘t let me in the gym], I would say thanks,” he said. “As well as the positive people in your life, you need the negative ones. The negative ones push me, I think, more.”