There were two trains that took me to the Garden from my apartment in North Cambridge. The first one got me to North Station about 3 and a half hours before tipoff. The second one got me there 90 minutes later with plenty of time to handle pregame reporting duties. More often than not I would opt for the earlier train because that meant I could watch Ray Allen shoot.
Night after night I’d take a seat a few rows back from the court and watch Allen go through his routine. Invariably there would be almost no one else there, just me and a ballboy or two, watching one of the greatest shooters who ever lived practice his craft.
In a few hours the place would come alive with the crowd in full throat drowning out even the most profane Kevin Garnett outbursts. But in those quiet pregame moments, the only sounds in the building were the occasional squeak of a sneaker and the swish of the ball ripping the net.
Sometimes Allen would acknowledge my presence with a nod, but more often than not he went about his business completely oblivious to everyone and everything but his routine. The only time he ever got annoyed was when he’d miss a free throw. He’d stare at the rim as if to say, ‘How dare you get in the way of my shot.’
Allen would then drain five or six straight without so much as a whisper from the net cord, and that was that. His work done, he’d retreat back to the locker room to continue preparing for yet another game. He did this more than 1,300 times during his Hall of Fame career. It was always the same thing, night after night.
Ray Allen, who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend, was much more than a shooter. In his early days as a Buck and Sonic, he was an athletic scoring machine who could dunk on your head just as easily as he rained 3’s in your eye.
By necessity, his game with the Celtics was a mere facsimile of Early Ray. Joining forces with Garnett and Paul Pierce mandated that they all take a step back to see the big picture, and no one saw it as clearly as Ray. He would sacrifice shots and points, but his shooting and spacing were the backbone of their offense.
He goes into the Hall of Fame as an amalgam of all those experiences, representing his own pursuit of pure form as much as a city or franchise. It was in Miami when that pursuit would reach its apex, and it was in Miami when I finally asked him a question that had been in the back of my mind this whole time: What, exactly, does he shoot at when he shoots?
Allen considered this for a minute and replied, “There’s no target. I don’t aim. If I’m aiming that’s when I’m missing. The way I look at it is, just get the ball in the air. You do it over and over again, you should never have a target.”
I asked that question before Game 1 of the 2013 NBA Finals, a few weeks before he would make a shot that would essentially define his career. Allen was in his first year with the Miami Heat, having left the Boston brotherhood to join forces with LeBron James. It was a controversial move that still reverberates to this day with his former teammates, although it was very much in line with how Allen lived his life.
More than anything, Allen craved control. He was meticulous to a fault, a self-described obsessive who always did everything the same way from the way he dressed (impeccably) to the time he talked to the press before games (one hour before tip-off). His pregame shooting routine was merely the outward manifestation of his obsessive personality and it saw him through almost two decades in the NBA.
Yet, control was an elusive thing with the Celtics. He was the third wheel in the Big 3 and his name was constantly in trade rumors. When someone had to go to the bench, it was Allen who came off the pine. When the time came to decide for himself where he wanted to be, he chose to leave.
Allen remains one of a tiny handful of players who left Boston on his terms. Signing with Miami wasn’t just a rebuke of his former teammates, it was a declaration that Walter Ray Allen was in control of the situation.
The greatest moments in sports are unscripted. They are messy and chaotic. They have no linear path even if it seems that way in the cool light the morning after when the winner has been decided and the game is no longer in doubt. They are the result of a loose ball from a rebound gone awry, a lucky bounce, and a moment in time frozen forever.
Take the shot in the closing seconds of Game 6 in the 2013 Finals, when everything was on the line. These kind of moments are unfathomable to the average person who couldn’t imagine performing under that kind of pressure. They are made for people like Ray Allen.
As the seconds ticked away and the Heat’s season hung in the balance, the ball found Allen in the corner and he did what he prepared to do for his entire career. He went through his mental checklist, gathering his legs beneath him and making sure his feet were behind the 3-point line. A two wouldn’t cut it, as he said later. He needed a three to tie the game and send it into overtime.
“I honestly can say I gave myself a great opportunity, a great chance to make that shot,” he said afterward. “And it wasn’t unfamiliar to me positionally. When it went in, I was ecstatic. But at the same time I was expecting to make it.”
The shot was Ray Allen personified: confident, calculated, and considered. Allen didn’t aim, of course, and his shot was true, as he knew it would be. It was validation that one could spend all those hours trying to perfect something that can never be perfected to control an uncontrollable situation for just one moment.