Preparation is key to Ray Allen's 3s
Celtics veteran looks to reach Reggie Miller's career 3-pointers mark Thursday
It's not that Ray Allen won't leave anything to chance; it's more that he simply can't.
Allen did not hope he would break Reggie Miller's all-time 3-point shot record; he meticulously and laboriously prepared for it years in advance of the actual event, which should occur when Allen -- who is two 3-pointers shy of passing Miller's 2,560 -- and the Boston Celtics play the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday in TD Garden with Miller in attendance as a TNT commentator.
There were the obvious tasks of shooting thousands of shots from each spot behind the arc so that any attempt from any angle would feel familiar, rote, routine. The more subtle groundwork centered on a regimented diet, a controlled sleeping pattern, an increased emphasis on his rigid conditioning habits to strengthen his core and challenge his body.
These provisions are the flip side of remarks from people such as former NBA player (and ESPN NBA analyst) Mark Jackson, a bosom buddy of Miller's, who recently declared Allen was born with the gift of a shooting touch.
"I've argued this with a lot of people in my life,'' Allen said. "When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, 'Don't undermine the work I've put in every day.' Not some days. Every day. Ask anyone who has been on a team with me who shoots the most. Go back to Seattle and Milwaukee, and ask them. The answer is me -- not because it's a competition but because that's how I prepare.
"[My preparation] drives me insane. I'm wrought with anxiety about being ready, about getting my shots in with nobody on the floor but me. Sometimes I get this bad feeling, almost like an itch, and I've got to get rid of it. I've got to get out there and get my shots up so that feeling goes away. It is bothering me right now. Small things are getting to me.
"Some people could care less if they make a jump shot, a free throw," Allen continued. "I have chosen to zone in and focus on this. I played baseball and football and some soccer, and I truly would have been the best at those sports at whatever position I chose because I would have set my mind to it.
"I'm of sound mind and body, two arms and two legs, like millions of other people, but the ones who want it badly enough set themselves apart.''
Allen did not slip out of the womb curling off screens and stroking 24-footers in one fluid, mellifluous motion. As a high school player in Dalzell, S.C., he was a center who operated out of the post and wandered to the 3-point line on occasion. University of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun scouted him and left the gym remarking to his assistant, "That's the flattest jump shot I've ever seen."
Calhoun has coached hundreds of gifted players and hundreds more whose work ethic elevated their game. But Allen is different. Calhoun hasn't met anyone else like him -- except, perhaps, one.
"I was in a cab with Jerry West some years ago,'' Calhoun recounted. "He was on the road, looking at some kids in the NCAA tournament, and he got sick. He threw up in front of some people. He told me, 'I didn't leave my room for a day, I was so embarrassed.'
"I'm thinking, 'You're Jerry West. What do you have to be embarrassed about?' But then I thought of Ray. That's something he would do.''
Allen craves order, symmetry, control. Vomiting in front of strangers? It would be nearly catastrophic for a man who modeled his impeccable wardrobe after Michael Jordan's, who painstakingly shaves his head at the same exact time before every game, who chided Calhoun recently for wearing a belt and loafer ensemble that did not match. In 2009, Allen discovered just before tipoff that there was a hole in his sock.
"This is bad,'' he said, anxiously, before a ball boy hastily handed him a new pair.
Allen self-diagnosed himself with a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it has been a lifelong initiative to keep it in check. His obsessions are both his biggest strength and his biggest weakness.
They require understanding from a group of athletes who don't always subscribe to his tunnel vision.
"Sometimes it comes up,'' Allen said. "You've got those days on the road when guys want to go out as a team or play cards in the room, and I say, 'You guys go ahead.' Sometimes you need to clear your head, take a shower, stretch, get some rest.
"If you've got a team that spans a number of generations, you might have guys who are 22, 23 saying, 'C'mon, man, what's going on?' You don't want your teammates to think you're not with them, but sometimes I just really need to do my thing.''
The evolution of Sugar Ray began at UConn, where he spent 2-3 hours before each game shooting with Donny Marshall and Kevin Ollie, teammates who would become lifelong friends. After his freshman season, in which he shot 51 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point line, his mother moved to Connecticut so he could stay on campus in the summers and improve his stroke.
He became the team barber, carefully coifing his team's hair with the same precision as when he groomed himself. When players were instructed to find a pregame stretching partner, the guys jostled to choose Allen because they knew he would carefully and expertly perform the function rather than just go through the motions.
By the time he left UConn, he had multiple nicknames: Hollywood, Candy Man, Baby Jesus.
"You knew he'd be successful because anything else just wasn't an option,'' Marshall said.
You knew he'd be successful because anything else just wasn't an option.” -- Donny Marshall, on Ray Allen
Allen was picked fifth in the 1996 draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves. The No. 4 selection, Stephon Marbury, was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. Marbury had not done any pre-draft workouts for Milwaukee and made it clear he had no desire to play there.
Then-Bucks coach Chris Ford and then-general manager Mike Dunleavy announced on draft night that they had dealt Marbury to Minnesota for Allen (and Andrew Lang).
"They booed us off the stage,'' Ford said. "They all wanted Marbury."
Ford quickly realized his new rookie had "one of the all-time quickest releases I've ever seen.'' He also discovered Allen was a determined, confident first-year player who was not timid about expressing his opinions on how the team should be run.
Karl was partial to bangers such as Anthony Mason, who, a year later, was added to the roster. The coach chided Allen to become more physical and commit himself to the defensive end. He poked fun at his idiosyncrasies by referring to Allen and his girlfriend (now wife), Shannon, as Ken and Barbie.
"Ray's a perfectionist,'' Karl said. "He's also a very confident person, and, in a way, that can be somewhat detrimental when he's trying to fit into a team. His attention to detail, at times, was antagonistic to his teammates. He had to work to find a comfort level with them. We were managing a lot of egos.''
"There always [seemed] to be some angst between George and me,'' Allen said of Karl. "No animosity, just angst. It was almost like I was the one guy in his way. I was close with [Bucks owner] Sen. [Herb] Kohl, and it was like I was the one guy over [Karl's] head, maybe more powerful than he was.
"Anytime anyone asked him something about me, it was always jarring, like 'Barbie and Ken' because I wore suits to the game. Silly stuff, really.''
Allen was immense in the 2001 Eastern Conference finals, averaging 24 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds a game (as well as shooting 51 percent from the 3-point line), pushing Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers to seven games. His coach, despite their differences, was suitably impressed.
"I think that series was when he developed the confidence to be great every night,'' Karl said. "He understood how hard it is to just be a shooter. Guys take away your plays, your sets. But Ray realized he was good enough not to be that guy. He knew he could be more.''
By the time he was dealt to Boston in 2007, Allen's quirks amused veterans such as Paul Pierce, who couldn't fathom the value of sitting in the same seat on the team bus night after night or eating the exact same meal before each game.
The more serious conflict Allen encountered was with coach Doc Rivers, who wanted him to sacrifice shots, playing time and some of his precious routines. The coach changed shootarounds from the mornings until just before game time, infuriating Allen. Rivers removed the ball from his veteran's hands and informed him he'd be getting fewer touches.
"Ray wanted to do it his way, and Doc wouldn't let him,'' Marshall said. "Ray would say, 'He hasn't scored as many points as me; he hasn't done the things I've done,' and I'd have to remind him, 'But Ray, he's your coach.'"
"It wasn't that hard," Rivers said. "He fought it, but he didn't fight it. Ray was used to having the ball in his hands in Seattle, where he dribbled for 22 seconds and got to decide when to shoot and when not to shoot. I told him, 'We can't win that way.' I asked him to trust me. Then I told the other guys, when Ray was open, they had to get him the ball.
"It's no coincidence he's been as efficient here as he's ever been in his life."
In time, the coach and the shooter learned to trust each other. Together, they helped Boston win its 17th title, and, suddenly, Allen was no longer merely another prolific veteran. He was a champion, a winner, NBA royalty. With that came new respect for his game, not just as a sniper but as a complete player.
"What I've always liked about Ray is, even though he's somewhat of a finesse player, he's not fearful of making the courageous play when needed," Karl said. "Now, sometimes that means making a big shot at the end of the game, but sometimes it's taking on a difficult defensive assignment or coming up with a big rebound.
"The job he did on LeBron [James] in last year's playoffs was impressive. When he was younger, he might have done that for one game in the series. But he did it over seven games. His focus is really unparalleled.''
The accolades continue as Allen creeps toward 36 years old, well past the age most shooting guards stumble off the NBA cliff. His longevity at an elite level is what dazzles Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.
"As good as the [Celtics] are offensively, the hardest thing we have to defend is Ray running off screens, and not just because of his shooting,'' Van Gundy said. "When you take that away, he can make all of the plays. He can get the other guys easy baskets."
The flat jump shot is history, along with the draft night boos in Milwaukee, the references to a pretty-boy doll and the futility of chasing a championship.
But Allen hasn't forgotten any of it. The journey is the reward. Nobody is born with an NBA ring on his finger or his name in the record books.
"I think about anything Larry [Bird] has done, that [Kevin] McHale has done, that Robert Parish has ever done, and they are icons forever in Boston,'' Allen said. "You can accomplish great things in other cities and the historians might take note, or the real sports junkies, but I was in Milwaukee for six and a half years and Kareem [Abdul Jabbar] was the best player that franchise ever had outside of Oscar Robertson, and not a lot of people talk about either one of them.
"Here? You are immortalized.''
Allen is two baskets from history, and the routine will be the same: a pregame nap, a pregame meal of chicken and rice, a pregame shave to preserve his bald pate. He will check his socks for holes, his uniform for loose threads, his brain for thoughts that might clutter his purpose.
And then he will step on the parquet and do what he was born to do: reap the rewards of an obsession of a lifetime.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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