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Mike Anthony: Ray Allen's Greatness The Product Of An Obsession

Mike Anthony
Contact Reportermanthony@courant.com

Jim Calhoun challenged Ray Allen just once when it came to approach. It was after a practice in late 1993 when Allen, then a UConn freshman, was making his way off campus and toward a movie theater or something with teammates when Calhoun offered some parting words.

“I said, ‘Hey, Ray, you leaving?’” Calhoun recalls. “’Question: Did you shoot 100 percent today? No? Oh, I thought you wanted to be great.’ And he kind of just looked at me. I remember it so vividly.”

Calhoun made a Hall of Fame living by challenging players in a variety of ways over 40 years as a coach, 26 at UConn, and surely he continued to push Allen through three seasons — so much so that Allen calls playing for Calhoun the single most difficult thing a basketball player can do.

But never has there been a player who was equally hard on himself, so consumed with details, so dedicated to a craft, so focused. Allen came to UConn a gifted athlete, left a lottery pick, became the top 3-point shooter in NBA history and starred in a movie along the way not by riding his obvious gifts, but by becoming genuinely obsessed with perfection, with shooting 100 percent in every imaginable way.

Friday night in Springfield, that approach, as well as a beautiful jump shot and record 2,973 3-pointers, will be recognized. Allen will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, becoming the first former UConn men’s player to join Calhoun, enshrined in 2005, in the sport’s exclusive club.

“You can talk about his form, which is beautiful, his elevation to keep the ball up there, his incredibly disciplined work,” Calhoun said. “We're really talking, eventually, about self-belief. He's obsessive, in a very good way. Ray is different. He is one of the most meticulous people.”

Allen, 43, has done everything with purpose. He learned to act and received praise for his role as Jesus Shuttlesworth alongside Denzel Washington in “He Got Game.” He became a scratch golfer, a polished public speaker, an accomplished writer, a successful businessman.

Raised in a military family and recruited to UConn out of tiny Dalzell, S.C., Allen has always epitomized a preoccupation with getting things right — how he eats, how he dresses and, of course, how he prepared as a player.

“Doc Rivers and I have talked about this,” Calhoun said. “Ray would wear out two ball boys before practice. … Ray practiced perfect. And when you practice perfect, and combine that with [talent] and winning, what do you get? Hall of Fame.”

Allen, a two-time NBA champion, will be one of 10 people inducted, including Jason Kidd, Grant Hill and Steve Nash. He helped UConn win the 1996 Big East Tournament by rattling home an off-balance shot in the final moments against Georgetown, and he helped the Miami Heat win the 2012 NBA championship by making one of the most iconic shots in history.

With Miami trailing 95-92 and facing elimination in Game 6, LeBron James missed a 3-pointer and Chris Bosh grabbed the offensive rebound. Allen was already backpedaling to the right corner, where he took a pass from Bosh and swished the tying shot with 5.2 seconds left.

Allen had practiced that over the years, working backpedaling and broken-play situations into his routine. Of course he had.

Allen passed Reggie Miller as the league’s all-time leader in 3-pointers in 2011. It is important to remember, though, how well-rounded he was, not a specialist until late in his career. He came to UConn with bulging calf muscles and an offensive flow of powerful dunks and pull-up jumpers. He was mesmerizing, never more so than when he poured in 36 points in an Elite Eight loss to national champion UCLA in 1995, his signature college moment.

“We've had crazy athletes,” Calhoun said of UConn players. “Ray is a really good athlete, but he is not Rudy Gay or Stanley Robinson in pure athletics. But he truly aspired to be great. … I remember seeing him play a game against Riverside Church [AAU] a lot of years ago — scored 62 points, didn't make a 3. He could jump out of the gym and go to the rim.”

Allen isn’t the easiest guy to get to know. Like Calhoun, he can be difficult for the same reasons he is great. Calhoun has woken up every day for 76 years ready to battle. In Allen, he sees “elitism.”

“Nothing wrong with that, by the way,” Calhoun said. “My wife said to me, and she's right, we were talking about the kids and their egos. I said, ‘Honey, guilty. We helped create that.’ But when there are 79,000 people in Tampa-St. Pete, I want Khalid [El-Amin] to believe he can do anything. Not everybody can do that. You create that in them.”

Most players came to UConn and learned to work, learned to compete, learned to be great. Most of it was already in Allen, though, the complicated guy who was among the least complicated projects of Calhoun’s career.

“With Ray it was, ‘Just show me the map, give me the markers how to get there,’” Calhoun said. “He was smart enough to understand what was important, what wasn't important. Ray came to us with a thirst to be great as much as any person in anything.”

Calhoun is preparing for his return to the sideline as coach at Division III Saint Joseph. Yes, Allen’s name comes up all the time in the O’Connell Center.

“A lot of these young kids come in here now and I say, 'You know, you tell me how great you want to be, and that's good, but it really doesn't count,’” he said. “’I want to see how good you want to be. I don't mind you [lying to] me a little bit, but stop [lying to] yourself.' I don't think I ever — after that first conversation — had to say something like that to Ray.”

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