Shortly after inventing basketball, Dr. James Naismith declared
that his new game "cannot be coached, it can only be played."
The best player in this season's best conference is an emigre to
western New England, just as Naismith was, and in his own
persistent way, Connecticut's Ray Allen--along with cohorts like
Georgetown's Allen Iverson, Villanova's Kerry Kittles and a
brace of other players in the Big East--is vindicating the good
The Big East first took its place in the college hoops firmament
in the early 1980s by making stars of its coaches, then fell to
earth when those coaches retired or took other jobs or got lazy.
This season the league has dominated the Top 25 more than any
other conference--UConn, Villanova, Georgetown, Syracuse and
Boston College were all ranked for six straight weeks before BC
dropped out on Monday--while putting the spotlight where it
belongs: on the players. In addition to All-Americas Allen,
Iverson and Kittles, John Wallace has had a showcase season at
Syracuse, which is good news for the senior forward who would
have been a lemon had he gone early to the NBA last spring.
Instead, he remained an Orangeman and added a feathery
three-pointer to his inside game. At St. John's, Zendon Hamilton
has been a rebounding fool and the calm eye of a stormy Red
Storm season. Boston College's Danya Abrams and Seton Hall's
Adrian Griffin are both around the rim like a tire. With five
leagues ranked ahead of the Big East in the RPI power ratings,
you don't need Gary Kasparov to tell you that computers don't
know nothing. As Allen says, "We've got a lot of guys who get
the job done and do it with flair."
Kittles should have been making a final case for conference
player of the year on Sunday by exhibiting the Sean Elliott-like
quality of his game in a matchup with Allen. But on Feb. 21,
Kittles, a eucharistic minister at the Catholic school, admitted
to Villanova's Augustinian fathers that he had sinned in
charging an unspecified sum in personal phone calls to a
university credit-card number. The university duly notified the
NCAA, which ordered him to sit out the Wildcats' final three
regular-season games, including Sunday's 70-59 loss to UConn in
the Spectrum--no small penalty for a senior who was looking
forward to his last collegiate appearance in Philadelphia.
Iverson knows about involuntary sidelinings, too. He spent four
months in jail in 1993 for his involvement in a bowling alley
brawl, and after his release he was banned from playing high
school basketball his senior year (the conviction was later
overturned). He took refuge at the playground at Davis Middle
School in Hampton, Va. "When we would play pickup games, they
used to say I was the answer," says Iverson. "If you wanted to
win, I was the answer. If you wanted to score, I was the
answer." Hence the tattoo on his left biceps reading THE ANSWER.
By shooting more selectively in his sophomore season, Iverson
has boosted his field goal percentage by 10 points over the past
year. But he still pinballs so heedlessly around the court at
times that he has needed 27 stitches this season and wears
matching scars over each eye. "Think about what happened in that
child's life," Georgetown coach John Thompson says. "He had been
incarcerated, so I didn't want to incarcerate him on the
After Iverson dropped 16 points on BC in a 67-64 victory last
Saturday, someone asked him where the Hoyas would be without
him. Iverson furrowed his disfigured brow but came up empty. The
Answer had no answer.
For all of Iverson's kinetic brilliance--he's such a literal blur
that photographers from The Hartford Courant, shooting
Georgetown's 77-65 defeat of UConn on Feb. 19, chose to scrap
their newfangled autofocus cameras and reach for their old
manual jobs--it's Allen who might be the nation's best player and
is certainly the Big East's. UConn coach Jim Calhoun intends no
disrespect when he points this out, but he says, "Iverson makes
it look difficult. Ray makes it look easy."
"Control is basically the whole agenda of my life," says Allen,
a 6'5" junior swingman. "To take charge of everything and make
decisions for myself."
As he goes up for one of his jumpers, a shot so reliable that he
was making 47.4% of his three-pointers at week's end, Allen is
compact, in control. He plays defense with the relentlessness of
a spurned long-distance company that wants you back, but always
... in control. When he curls off a screen and takes a pass from
his usual setup man, Huskies guard Doron Sheffer, and slashes
his way to the basket, it's the same thing. "He's committed one
charge all year," says Calhoun. "For a guy who's averaging 23
points a game, that's remarkable." Indeed, Allen may sometimes
be too controlled for the Huskies' own good; Calhoun frets that
Allen is so adept at altering his flight path with midcourse
corrections that he often avoids contact altogether, thus losing
out on a trip to the foul line.
Calhoun still isn't sure he has figured his star out. "He's
independent, but really caring," the coach says. "He's driven,
but not possessed. He's proud, but humble, too. I'm learning new
things about him all the time."
You could call him a military brat, but brat doesn't seem quite
right for the sweet-tempered Allen, the third of Walter and
Flora Allen's five children. The family bivouacked at Air Force
bases--Castle, Ramstein, Altus, Bentwaters, Edwards--in
California, Germany, Oklahoma, England and California again,
respectively, before settling in Dalzell, S.C., near Shaw Air
Force Base, when Ray was in the eighth grade. (His parents
separated last summer, and Flora recently moved to East Hartford
with Ray's youngest sister, Kristie; Ray has a daughter, Tierra,
3, who lives with her mother in Dalzell.) His childhood was a
series of uprootings and resettlings, as Walter, an airplane
mechanic (now retired), was never stationed in the same place
for more than three years until the family reached South
Carolina. Even so, "there has always been some kind of
uniformity, some structure, and that rubbed off," says Allen.
"Seeing people say, yes, sir, this; no, sir, that--I'm not
necessarily going to conform to that point, but I like order."
The man on the mike at ball games at Dalzell's Hillcrest High
called Allen the Candy Man, for the sweet quality of his game,
but in fact Ray had a flat, erratic jump shot when he arrived at
UConn in the fall of '93. After one four-game stretch in his
freshman season, when Allen made only one of every three shots,
he acted on Calhoun's suggestion and employed an old Oscar
Robertson trick, carrying a ball with him everywhere he went,
even to bed, for two months. Soon Allen was stroking his shot
This season Allen has redressed the remaining significant
weakness in his game--his passing. "We used to make fun of Ray,"
says UConn's Travis Knight, the 7-foot center who, in the
off-campus apartment he shares with Allen, plays Oscar to
Allen's fastidious Felix. "He would dribble 10 times on the
wing, then maybe feed it to the post." Now Allen reliably finds
open teammates when defenses do what they're often obliged to
do, which is double-team him.
"Thrown into new environments the way he was, Ray could either
have become reclusive or adaptive," says Calhoun. "He's gone
beyond adaptive. If you tell him he can't do something, that's
just another challenge to overcome. He doesn't like the
stereotype about athletes in the classroom, so he got a 3.1
grade point average last semester and made the athletic
department honor roll [as a communications sciences major]. I
tried to get him into the Olympic Festival in 1993 and couldn't.
But he finally got in the next year--and broke Shaquille
O'Neal's scoring record."
Before UConn's first game with Villanova this season, on Jan. 9,
Calhoun knew he didn't have to do much more than remind Allen of
his career 13-point average against the Wildcats. Allen knew
that Kittles, who had edged him out for Big East Player of the
Year last season, had lit up the Huskies for 37 on his last
visit to Storrs. To get in the mood, Allen screened videotapes
of vintage encounters between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Then
he sprang for 29 points and 11 rebounds in the Huskies' 81-73
During UConn's 79-70 disposal of Syracuse on Jan. 21, Wallace
sank a shot and then yapped at Allen as they headed downcourt.
"What you got, Ray?" he asked.
"I didn't say anything because I didn't have anything at the
time," Allen would say later. But in the second half Allen
answered with 22 of his 27 points, springing free to make 5 of 6
from beyond the arc.
Allen wished he could have been so elusive last spring, when all
the world seemed to be hanging on whether or not he would decide
to put in for the NBA draft. "Cap's comin'!" whispered the
agents, referring to the rookie salary cap that would be
included in the new collective bargaining agreement. To Allen,
their anxiousness seemed to reflect doubt in his ability to
continue his steady improvement. He decided he still had work to
do. "When I can do whatever I want on the court, against
anybody, that means I can go to the next level," Allen says. "I
don't want to have a weakness."
When NBA teams persisted, pointing out that he would likely go
high enough to command a $50 million deal, Allen's reaction
wasn't typical. He got angry. "They throw money in my face,
materialistic things in my face, as if I was somebody who was
going to jump at it," he says.
In fact, it sounds as if the pros will be perfectly happy to
take him on his timetable. "You get excited just watching him
dribble," says Phoenix Suns scout Dick Percudani. "You get
excited just watching him get into a move. I mean, he's just got
it. And you say, what is it? It's it. He's got it."
On Sunday, after the Wildcats closed to within 36-34 early in
the second half, UConn started looking for it. In less than
three minutes the Huskies sandwiched a Sheffer three-pointer and
Eric Hayward's two free throws around two acrobatic Allen
buckets. Suddenly UConn led by 11. Allen called his final total
of 26 points "a hard 26"--but then the Wildcats' defense had been
prepared by the suspended Kittles, who donned a second-team
jersey in practice and spent the week doing what Villanova coach
Steve Lappas called "the best Ray Allen imitation I've ever seen."
Afterward Allen explained why the Huskies hadn't been more
demonstrative after clinching their third straight
regular-season Big East title. "Last year we had guys who drank
a lot of coffee," he said. "[Former Huskies] Bu Willingham and
Donny Marshall, they were all hyped up."
Someone suggested that Allen was a decaf guy. "No," replied this
most fluid of players. "I'd say I'm just water."
Will Allen sluice his way to the NBA after this season? To
legions of Nutmeggers with nothing else to get excited about
besides hoping for a glitch-free commute, history is not
auspicious, for rarely has Allen spent more than three years of
his life in the same place. Then again, he does like to flout
expectations--to let the world know who, ultimately, is in
This season--at UConn and other outposts in the Big East--control
no longer belongs to the coaches.
COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY LOWE Allen, here at Shaw Air Force Base, grew up moving from one post to another. [Ray Allen using his head to hold basketball against nose of airplane]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Always under control, Allen plays with such fluid grace that he makes the game look easy. [Ray Allen]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS No question about it: Iverson is the Answer for the Hoyas, shredding defenses with his slashing drives. [Allen Iverson]