Ray Allen feels your pain, disenchanted NBA fans. The Milwaukee
Bucks' All-Star shooting guard has heard your complaints. Whether
or not you're being narrow-minded, he knows that you feel little
or no connection to many of today's new-jack players, and he's
here to help. Because if you can't relate to him, it's hopeless.
You'll never love this game again.
For starters, just look at him. He's an unimposing 6'5" and 205
pounds with none of those totems that so many of you find so
off-putting: no tattoos, no cornrows, none of that anvil-sized
jewelry. He's strikingly handsome, he has a million-dollar smile,
and with no slang in his lexicon, he speaks in the soothing voice
of a pilot pointing out sites of interest below. The worst curse
word you'll hear him use is durn, which he picked up only since
moving to the Midwest five years ago.
You like golf? Allen has a 10 handicap and will gladly tick off
his favorite courses across the country. Want to talk art? Funny,
Allen does too. He counts among his legion of friends Milwaukee
gallery owner Michael Lord, who has lent Allen works by Miro and
Chagall and recently sold him a Warhol lithograph. Last weekend
Allen had a wooden sculpture delivered to his sprawling home in
suburban Mequon, Wis., to see if it "resonated" (his word) with
him. He plays the piano, just finished reading Chicken Soup for
the Soul and gets gooey when he talks about his eight-year-old
daughter, Tierra, who lives with her mother in Connecticut.
Allen also has a sharp wit that would make him a hit at any
cocktail party. Last week, for instance, he laughed after hearing
the story of Bucks coach George Karl, who had intended to send a
Valentine's Day bouquet to his girlfriend, only to learn that it
was mistakenly delivered to his ex-wife. "Man, that one will go
down in history," Allen said. "Or should I say her-story?"
What's that? You're one of those fans who doesn't mind NBA
players in the mold of Allen Iverson? You're partial to stars
with flavor, players who embrace hip-hop culture? No problem, the
25-year-old Allen can accommodate you, too. He knows Jay-Z's
lyrics as well as any of his teammates do, and you'd be
hard-pressed to find a player who donates more time and money to
inner-city causes. "Ray's definitely one of the guys," says
Milwaukee point guard Sam Cassell. "He has a lot of things going
on, but he's not green at all. He's cool. Real cool."
Allen, however, is not merely a modern-day Zelig, endowed with an
uncanny ability to insert himself seamlessly into any social
situation. He got game, too. A member of the Dream Team in Sydney
and the past two Eastern Conference All-Star teams, Allen plays
with a smoothness and efficiency that make everything he does on
the court look effortless. He's also durable: Through Sunday he
had played in each of Milwaukee's 346 games since joining the
team out of Connecticut as the fifth pick in the 1996 draft.
(Along with a future first-rounder, Allen's draft rights were
acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves for the rights to the
Bucks' choice at No. 4, Stephon Marbury.)
With a blinding first step and hops worthy of Milwaukee's finest
brewery, he's among the league's most explosive players. His
skill at dropping in floaters and finger rolls makes him more
dangerous still. Give him a step and, with the most elegant of
strokes, he'll bury a medium-range jumper. Give him two steps and
he'll hit the three-pointer, as he did on All-Star weekend when
he sank 33 of 50 attempts to win the Long Distance Shootout.
"Ray's got that smooth flow," says Bucks forward Glenn Robinson,
a fellow All-Star. "He's the most natural player I've played
Thanks in large part to Allen, the Bucks were atop the Central
Division at week's end, with a 30-20 record. Allen was averaging
21.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game while shooting
46.0% from the field, 41.8% from behind the arc and 89.6% from
the free throw line. Though Milwaukee lost 103-93 at home to the
Charlotte Hornets last Saturday, the game featured vintage Allen.
In 41 minutes he scored 30 points on all manner of drives,
catch-and-shoot jumpers and three-pointers. "He has great range,
but he can also penetrate," says Hornets coach Paul Silas. "When
you use that combination effectively, the way Ray does, you're
impossible to defend."
Hard as it is for defenders to get a hand on Allen, it may be
more difficult to get a handle on him. It's not that he's
elusive or shy--in fact, as far as star athletes go, he is
uncommonly engaging and personable. It's that his enthusiasms
and experiences are so disparate and often incongruous that no
coherent profile emerges.
Allen admits his interests are all over the map, but he figures
it's because that's where he spent his childhood. Ray's father,
Walter, was a mechanic for the Air Force, and the family moved
from base to base with the frequency of Bedouins. Before Ray's
three seasons at UConn--he had a 3.6 GPA and majored in
communication sciences--he had lived in Merced, Calif.;
Ramstein, Germany; Altus, Okla.; Suffolk, England; Rosamond,
Calif.; and rural Dalzell, S.C., where he graduated from
Hillcrest High. "We're like, 'Where are you from, Ray?'" says
Cassell. "He doesn't know how to answer."
Instead of fostering a sense of displacement, Allen's itinerant
upbringing exposed him to a wide range of people and places,
imbuing him with a worldliness unknown to most of his peers. The
cultural attache of the Bucks' locker room, Allen recently
explained the concept of a bar mitzvah to some teammates, and he
taught others about the origins of Oktoberfest. He's as
comfortable rapping along with DMX on the back of the team's
plane as he is rapping about politics with the Bucks' owner,
Senator Herb Kohl. (In fact, Allen is so close to Kohl that he
didn't feel the need to retain an agent when he signed the
maximum six-year, $70.9 million contact extension in February
"I feel like I can go anywhere, which gives me total
confidence," he says. "I can take it to the streets, or I can
take it to the boardroom. The trick is to allow people to feel
they can relate to you. The more people--white, black, young,
old--who can say, 'I know where he's coming from,' the more
successful you'll be."
This prompts an obvious question: Why is Allen still on the
B-list of NBA stars? A player this well-rounded and with this
much charisma ought to be on the front lines of the league's
marketing offensive, scooping up endorsements by the handful. Yet
Allen is as recognized for his role as hoops prodigy Jesus
Shuttlesworth in the 1998 Spike Lee flick He Got Game as he is
for any of his noncelluloid basketball feats. Allen doesn't mind
at all: He's well-enough known that he has an endorsement deal
with Nike and is a bona fide All-Star, but he relishes walking
into a Blockbuster or going bowling--now hooked on the local
passion, he claims to have a 180 average--without being accosted.
Still, at a time when the league is desperate for a transfusion
of new blood, Allen's failure to make a more serious dent in the
public consciousness is perplexing.
The easy explanation is that he plays not only for a small-market
team but also for one that hasn't won a postseason series since
1989, when Allen was in the eighth grade. The Bucks have only one
full-time beat writer, and during the regular season they appear
on NBC as often as the NFL does. "The city fits me great," says
Allen, whose tour of duty in Milwaukee has lasted longer than any
other in his life. "But we've been anonymous for so long that a
lot of people don't even know where Milwaukee is geographically."
Perhaps Allen also suffers for being too nuanced, too evolved
and complex. NBA stars are supposed to be like Hollywood
cyborgs, characters easily reduced to a single image: Shaq the
Superhero, Prince Vince Carter, Iverson the Iconoclast. Too many
people aren't sure what to make of Allen, who answers to the
cutting-edge handle of...Ray. "If you try and please everyone,
you can end up pleasing no one," says Bob Williams, president of
Burns Sports & Celebrities, Inc., a company based in Evanston,
Ill., that matches athletes with endorsement opportunities. "Ray
Allen is hard to pin down, and he ends up being nondescript."
Karl wonders if Allen isn't too polished and image-conscious for
his own good. "I call him Barbie Doll because he wants to be
pretty," says Karl. "He's a great player, but he cares too much
about having style, making highlights and being cool. Basketball
isn't about being cool. It's a tough, competitive game, and to
win you have to be mean, you have to be an assassin, and that's
Karl was especially irked by Allen's play last week in the two
games following the All-Star break. On successive nights he
surrendered 49 and 35 points, respectively, to Iverson and the
Atlanta Hawks' Jason Terry. From Karl's vantage point, those
defensive performances didn't seem to bother Allen. "Two guys
drop 84 points on your ass, and I'm thinking, Where's the
pissed-off competitor?" Karl says. "I look at Ray, he's out
there smiling. Tell me what that's all about."
Allen shrugs. "George is a passionate guy, but I can't bring
myself to see basketball as life or death," he says. Allen is
sufficiently self-aware to recognize that his game could benefit
from a dose of intensity. Still, as accommodating and flexible as
he is in everyday life, he is unwilling to change his essential
nature. Sure, he wants to win and gets competitive playing pool,
Ping-Pong and even Yahtzee with friends. "But I have to be
myself," Allen says. "I can't be all things to all people."
Perhaps not. But he comes durn close.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE Master of Arts Allen is as comfortable strolling in Lord's gallery in Milwaukee as he is launching a wide-open three-pointer.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Allen wrenched His coach may question his toughness, but Allen usually finishes what he starts.
"I feel like I can go anywhere," Allen says. "I can take it to
the streets, or I can take it to the boardroom."