Walter Ray Allen was born on July 20, 1975. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Flora and Walter, lived a military life. At the time, the couple was stationed at Castle Air Force Base in Merced, California. Ray was the third of their five kids. Walt was a welding specialist. "Flo" was a wide-eyed girl from Arkansas who had picked cotton as a child. For her, moving from base to base every three years and seeing the world was still an adventure at this stage of the game.
Always smiling, Ray was a happy kid who seemed unaffected by Walter's hopscotching career. Early in Ray's life, his father was sent to Bentwaters Air Force Base in England, and the family naturally followed. There they lived in an American community in Saxmundum, a town about 25 miles from the base. This is where Ray got his first exposure to organized sports, in Pee Wee football. If you think youth football parents are over-the-top, try taking in a game at a military base. Ray was no bigger than the other boys, but he was clearly an exceptional athlete.
He was also a great soccer and baseball player. On the diamond, Ray could hit the ball a mile. After his eighth birthday, he was old enough for a league in which coaches pitched. Ray was the only kid who could clear the line drawn in the outfield demarcating a home run. Before long, Little League parents were pushing for him to jump to the next level.
Ray's first growth spurt started when he was around 10. He gravitated to basketball and joined an organized league while the Allens were stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In no time, he was flashing an advanced offensive arsenal and anticipating enemy passes with uncanny accuracy.
After Ray's first game, Flo told him that he had a gift for basketball—and that he shouldn't waste it. She also told him that exercising his brain was just as important. Ray grew to be just as comfortable with a book in his hands as he was with a basketball.
Ray’s skills took an enormous leap forward when he began working with Phil Pleasant, who ran youth basketball leagues in the Allens' Southern California neighborhood. Pleasant's primary objective was to keep local kids out of trouble, but he recognized a spark of genius in 12-year-old Ray and spent extra time breaking down the fundamentals for him. By analyzing the strengths and weaknesses in his own game, Ray made rapid progress. Simultaneously, he learned how to size up an opponent's vulnerabilities.
At this point, Ray was big enough and good enough to run with adults. One day, after the family had moved to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, his father took him to the gym to play with the other fathers and sons. A guard stopped the Allens, pointing out that Ray wasn't 16 and therefore not allowed in the building. Walt argued to no avail that his son was taller—and better—than most of the fathers. Later he was reprimanded by his superiors for insubordination. The incident infuriated Ray, who vowed to become the best hoopster on the base.
By the end of ninth grade, Ray had sprouted to a height of 6-2. When he was 15, he moved on to the varsity at South Carolina's Hillcrest High School, where he averaged 18 points a game for coach James Smith. The teenager brought the crowd to its feet on a nightly basis. Ray blossomed into a first-rate star by the 11th grade, with an excellent all-court game. Intelligent, thoughtful and self-assured, he was a natural leader who formed close friendships with his classmates.
In the spring of 1993, after Ray completed his junior basketball season, things started getting complicated. His longtime girlfriend, Rosalind Ramsey, announced she was pregnant. For Ray, the idea of being a parent was crippling. As the due date approached, he arrived at some important decisions. In order to provide for his child, he needed a college education. The best way to get one was to earn a basketball scholarship. And the better a player he was, the more choices of schools he would have. There was always the possibility of playing pro ball, but he treated it as a long shot.
Ray got super serious about polishing his game that summer. Meanwhile, he and Rosalind celebrated the birth of a little girl, Tierra. The plan was for mother and child to live with her parents, with Flo helping out until Ray graduated from college. Then his family would be his responsibility.
In the meantime, the Allen home was recruiting central. Coaches loved Ray's diverse talents and leadership skills, and they weren't scared off by the fact that he was a father. The competition to sign Ray intensified after he attended the Nike All-American camp in Indianapolis. Against the nation’s best high school juniors, he was able to do pretty much whatever he pleased.
The week provided Ray with a valuable learning experience. The kids in camp constantly talked about playing college ball and then going to the NBA. Ray realized that only a handful of the campers would get that far. That made him see that skill was not enough. He had to raise his mental game to stay ahead of the pack.
When the 1993-94 season rolled around, Ray felt like a different player. Physically he had matured, but it was intellectually that he had really grown. He was now being called one of the smartest players in South Carolina—this despite an embarrassing blunder after the opening tip-off on his senior campaign. Ray grabbed the ball, raced down the floor, and did a monster jam—in his own basket! As it turned out, that was about the only thing he did wrong all year. Hillcrest went 26-4 and made it to the state championship game.
That contest, against Byrnes High in the Carolina Coliseum, marked the first time the Rams had ever challenged for the state title. Ray played brilliantly in the first half, as Hillcrest opened up a 40-14 lead. In the second half, Byrnes came storming back, and what had looked like an easy victory was suddenly in jeopardy. Coach Smith called a timeout and told his players to let Ray take over. Eager to nail down the victory, he finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Rams to the championship.
On a high from his state title, Ray chose to attend the University of Connecticut. He had been wooed by several bigger programs and at first leaned toward Rick Pitino and Kentucky. But Howie Dickenman, an assistant from Jim Calhoun's UConn staff, worked hard to make a good impression on the Allens. He seemed to care about Ray and what was best for the family. When Calhoun showed the same concern—and promised Ray that the Huskies would be "his" team after a year or two—he decided to head north to continue his career.
ON THE RISE
Ray arrived on the Storrs campus in the late summer of 1994, after a successful debut for USA Basketball at the Olympic Festival in Colorado. Playing for for the East team, he led all scorers (25.3 ppg) and rebounders (8.8 rpg) and was selected to the All-Festival Team.
At UConn, Ray joined a promising squad coming off a 15-13 season. The Huskies were led by junior forward Donyell Marshall, the best player in the Big East, and guard Doron Scheffer, an Israeli import who had won MVP honors with Galil Elyon before coming over to the U.S.
The team got off to a hot start, winning eight straight. After a loss to Ohio University, the Huskies began their conference schedule by beating seven Big East opponents in a row. Ray's job was to provide instant offense off the bench, a role in which he flourished. By the end of February, UConn was ranked #2 in the country. The Huskies went on to finish first in the Big East but lost in the conference tournament. Still, they were awarded a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament.
UConn reached the round of 16 and had Florida dead to rights in the closing seconds. But Marshall—runner-up to Glenn Robinson for Player of the Year—missed a pair of free throws down the stretch and the Gators won in overtime. Despite the heartbreaking loss, there was cause for celebration on campus. Ray had stepped up his game and proved to be a primetime player. Though a reserve, he was the team's second-leading scorer in the postseason.
When Marshall opted to go pro that spring, a starting spot opened for Ray. Calhoun slotted him in at forward alongside Donny Marshall, while Scheffer would remain the offense's catalyst. Ray was now a go-to guy, and he responded with a great year. He created terrible match-up problems for opponents, which freed up many of UConn's talented support players. The Huskies played terrific team defense and ran a killer break.
After upsetting Duke early in the schedule, UConn went on an incredible roll, staying undefeated longer than any team in the nation. In February, Ray and the Huskies achieved the #1 ranking in the polls. At the same time, UConn's women’s team, led by Rebecca Lobo, also earned the nod as the country's top team. Storrs was the center of the college hoops world.
The Huskies won their second straight Big East crown but were again beaten in the conference tournament. Villanova—one of only two teams that defeated UConn during the regular season—did the honors. Kerry Kittles, fast becoming one of Ray's biggest nemesis, starred for the Wildcats.
UConn received another 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament and this time advanced to the Western Regional Final. In that game, gainst UCLA, Ray was terrific, scoring 36 points and helping to keep Player of the Year Ed O’Bannon under wraps. Unfortuantely, the Bruins’ backcourt of Tyus Edney, Cameron Dollar and Toby Bailey was too much. UCLA won the game and eventually took the national championship.
As soon as the postseason ended, Ray was thrust into a new spotlight. With the NBA draft on the horizon, he was being mentioned as a top prospect at shooting guard. The stock of Wisconsin's Michael Finley was, dropping, and scouts were questioning the outside shot of UNC’s Jerry Stackhouse. Ray, in turn, stood a good chance of being a lottery pick. But after talking it over with his parents, he decided to stay in college. Ray has since admitted he wasn't 100 percent convinced that he was ready to make the jump to the pros. He was also intrigued by Calhoun’s promise to design the team's offense around him.
That summer, Ray joined Team USA at the World University Games in Japan. Named captain of the squad, he was one of a host of college stars tabbed to represent their country. Among the others on coach Lon Kruger's roster were Wake Forest center Tim Duncan and Georgetown guard Allen Iverson. The talented Americans steamrolled to the gold medal with an 8-0 record. Ray contributed more than 15 points a game. Later that year, he was voted USA Basketball's Male Athlete of the Year.
The stories that lived on after the U.S. squad returned home, however, had little to do with basketball. Bored out of their skulls between games in Fukuoka, the Americans often played practical jokes on one another. From this horseplay came rumors of a full-blown rivalry between Ray and Iverson. The imaginary competition carried into the 1995-96 Big East season, with Ray wearing the white hat and his Hoya counterpart cast as the bad guy. Ray liked Iverson and thought it unfortunate that the press decided to play it that way. Even worse, he didn't want to give his buddy extra incentive to beat the Huskies.
After dropping an early game to Iowa, UConn reeled off 23 straight wins. But the Huskies still found themselves in a dogfight with Georgetown and Villanova for supremacy in the Big East. Ray was the most polished player in the conference, scoring clutch baskets, pulling down huge rebounds and clamping down on enemy scorers. Along with Duncan in the ACC, he was considered an NBA no-brainer.
By the time the #3 Huskies and #5 Hoyas played in February, the hype surrounding Ray and Iverson was out of control. Some papers said their showdown would decide the #1 pick in the draft. When a number of NBA executives showed up at Washington's US Air Arena for the game, the notion only gained credence.
Ray lost the battle and the
war. He got off to a slow start, while Iverson was
on fire. The game was never really close, as the Hoyas cruised to a 12-point
victory. Afterward, Ray wondered what would happen in the NCAA Tournament
if he hit a cold streak. He feared that Calhoun was too inflexible to alter
his coaching style. From that moment on, their relationship deteriorated.
The Huskies met the Hoyas again in the final of the Big East Tournament. Georgetown held the lead as the second half wound down, but this time Ray rallied his team. Down 74-73, he grabbed a Hoya miss, sprinted up the court and put up a leaner that found the bottom of the net. When Iverson couldn't respond, the Huskies had the conference championship. Ray was the toast of Connecticut.
The 30-2 Huskies earned a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they rolled in their opening games. Against Mississippi State, however, UConn did not have an answer for the red-hot trio of Erick Dampier, Dontae’ Jones, and Darryl Wilson. The Huskies hung in until the end, when Ray launched a 3-pointer that could have tied the score. But it bounced away, and the season ended a few seconds later.
Ray earned First-Team All-America honors for his brilliant junior season and was a unanimous All-Big East First-Team as well. He averaged 23.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Calhoun tried to talk him into staying for his senior year, but Ray decided to enter the draft. He worked out for several NBA teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks. His best session was with the Toronto Raptors.
On draft day, Iverson went first to the Philadelphia 76ers. UMass center Marcus Camby was picked next by the Raptors. The Vancouver Grizzlies then tabbed Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Ray hoped he would last until the #6 selection, owned by the Boston Celtics. But unbeknownst to him, the Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves—holding the fourth and fifth picks, respectively—had already agreed on a deal. Stephon Marbury ended up a T-Wolf, and Ray packed his bags for Milwaukee.
Ray knew he would be a good fit with the Bucks, who had two good forwards in Glenn Robinson and Vin Baker, plus a veteran at the point in Sherman Douglas. Baker invited Ray to stay at his loft until he got settled in Milwaukee and gave him just enough of the rookie treatment to let him know his place on the club.
When the 1996-97 season started, Ray found himself in coach Chris Ford's starting lineup. In an unsettled division, the Bucks had a legitimate shot at a playoff berth.
Ray faced off against Iverson and the 76ers in his first NBA game. He scored 13 points and nailed the go-ahead 3-pointer in a 113-103 win. Ray remained a key contributor as the Bucks continued their winning ways into January. With the trade deadline approaching, the team chose to stick with the players it had—a decision that cost them. As the playoff race tightened, the Bucks started losing the close games. They finished out of the running at 33-49. Ray ended the year at 13.4 ppg and was named to the NBA's All-Rookie squad.
During a trip to New York that March, Ray was approached by film maker and well known Knicks fan Spike Lee about "He Got Game," a movie he was casting about a young basketball star. Oscar winner Denzel Washington had already signed on for the film, and Ray was among several young players (including Iverson, Marbury and Kevin Garnett) being considered for the lead role of Jesus Shuttlesworth.
Ray got the part after a great audition and spent the summer filming in New York. He was assigned an acting coach named Susan Batson, who helped him get his lines down. He also managed to fit an hour or two of practice into his schedule each day.
Taping wrapped in time for training camp. As Ray began his second NBA season, he found he had an unexpected challenge to deal with. John Lounsbury, a UConn booster, told ESPN that he had given gifts to Ray and other UConn players. In Ray’s case, it was a cheap pager—no big deal, but still against NCAA rules. Though the story fizzled out, Ray was disappointed with Calhoun, who wasn't particularly supportive during the controversy.
The Bucks entered the 1997-98 campaign with a new look after a series of offseason moves. Baker was gone, and All-Star Terrell Brandon, big man Ervin Johnson, and power forward Tyrone Hill were among the fresh faces on the roster. With Robinson at small forward, Milwaukee had a very respectable starting five.
Opponents figured out quickly
that the Bucks were not going to run their offense through their two inside
players and focused their defensive efforts on Robinson, Brandon and
Ray. As long as Milwaukee moved the ball, this was not a problem. But
as the season wore on, Ford's big three fell in love with 20-foot pull-up
jumpers, and things began to unravel. When Brandon and Robinson got hurt
in the second half of the year, Ray was asked to play point guard. Although
he did a good job, Milwaukee's scoring options became even narrower and
the team faded from contention.
Ray was the last guy standing when the season ended. He had been asked to run the team and shoulder the scoring load—and accomplished both without complaining. Still, the campaign proved to be a furstrating one. Ray improved to 19.5 points a game and almost doubled his assists. The Bucks, meanwhile, went 36-46 and missed the playoffs.
"He Got Game" premiered shortly after the campaign concluded, and Ray received great reviews. It was a hassle to do all the publicity for the picture, but he was proud of his effort and glad the movie did well. At one point, it shot up to #1 at the box office.
The film also took Ray’s mind off the festering labor discord between the NBA's owners and players. By the time the resulting lockout was settled, the season had been pared down to 50 games. As hard as it was to start the winter without basketball, Ray was excited about Milwaukee's big coaching move. Ford was out, and proven winner George Karl was in. Another interesting development was the retirement of Michael Jordan and the breakup of the Chicago Bulls. If the Bucks could pull it together, they stood a decent chance of contending in the East in 1999.
Under Karl, the Bucks turned things around, going 28-22 in their abbreviated schedule. Robinson played better all-around basketball, and Sam Cassell—acquired after Brandon was traded away—did a nice job at the point. Ray found his niche, providing whatever the team needed on a given night. He scored 17 points a game and was fourth in the league from the foul line.
Ray stepped it up against Indiana in the first round of the playoffs, leading the team in scoring and giving the Pacers fits. Still, the Bucks were bounced from the postseason without much of a fight. Afterwards, Ray received the ultimate compliment from Indiana coach Larry Bird, who proclaimed him one of the league’s elite shooting guards.
MAKING HIS MARK
The Bucks turned in another winning season in 1999-00, and Ray blossomed into a full-fledged star. He led the team in scoring with 22.1 ppg (fourth in the NBA), and his 172 3-pointers were second in the league to Gary Payton’s 177. Ray also made the All-Star team for the first time. He scored 14 points in 17 minutes of action.
Ray wasn' the only Buck who had a nice year. Robinson had his most consistent season as a pro, Cassell set
a team record for assists, and Tim Thomas turned into one of the
NBA's best sixth men. Milwaukee fell victim to the injury bug again,
but unlike seasons past, none of the team's key players lost significant time. A
42-40 record was good enough for another playoff berth, against Indiana
again. This time Ray and his teammates took the Pacers to the final buzzer
of the decisive fifth game. Unfortunately, they dropped a heart-breaking 96-95 decision.
Ray spent the summer preparing for the Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Though Team USA experienced some scary moments in the tournament, it went undefeated to capture the gold medal. Ray chipped in with nearly 10 points a game, including better than 50 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
From Australia, it was back to business with the Bucks, who were looking forward to an exciting year. The staring five of Ray, Robinson, Cassell, Thomas and Ervin Johnson was strong, while veteran role players Jason Caffey, Scott Williams and Lindsay Hunter provided great depth off the bench.
Milwaukee fans got nervous when the team started slowly, but the Bucks won 49 of their remaining 70 games to grab the franchise's first division title since 1986. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat and spanked the teams that should have spanked them, fashioning an 8-0 record against the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs. The Bucks were at their best at home, where they went 31-10.
Ray was the man again, averaging 22 points and setting career highs in every significant statistical category. He was also proving to be an ironman. When the regular season ended, his consecutive-game streak stood at 366—the longest stretch of any active player.
Ray got plenty of support from his teammates. Fellow All-Star Robinson also hit for 22 a night, and Cassell was masterful running the offense. Thomas, meanwhile, raised his scoring average to 12.6 points.
In the playoffs, the Bucks torched Tracy McGrady and the Orlando Magic in the opening round to earn a meeting with Baron Davis and the pesky Charlotte Hornets. After splitting the first four contests, Charlotte beat Milwaukee 94-86 and seized homecourt advantage. But Robinson came up big in the next two games, posting a pair of 29-point performances and stepping it up on defense. The Bucks took both games in dramatic fashion and won the series in seven.
One step away from the NBA Finals, Milwaukee faced Ray’s old rival Iverson and his 76ers. There was reason for optimism. The Bucks had beaten Philadelphia twice during the year, and Iverson was nursing a sore elbow. With the series tied at one game each, the 76ers won one of two in Milwaukee to set up a pivotal fifth game. When Philly earned a dramatic one-point victory, the series appeared to beover. The Bucks rebounded in Game 6 with a 110-100 win. Back in Philadelphia for the decider, however, they were no match for the 76ers, who closed them out 108-91.
Ray was everywhere during the playoffs. He averaged 25 points and six assists, upped his steals and blocks, and sizzled from the field and foul line. The only criticism was that he lacked the raw edge leaders need to whip their teammates into shape. Over the offseason, that idea got a fair amount of play in the Milwaukee papers.
The 2001-02 began on a high note for Milwaukee—with nine wins in 10 games—but ended in disaster. Karl's club was running smoothly, playing 10 games over .500 and looking strong for the playoffs with just a couple of months to go. Cassell, Robinson and Thomas were enjoying good years, Ray was scoring more than 20 a night, and youngster Michael Redd was gaining confidence everyday. Then the injuries came. Ray, Thomas, and Redd all went down with bad knees, leaving the Bucks without a single shooting guard. Cassell sprained his toe, destroying his effectiveness. And Robinson was hobbled by twin ankle injuries.
Karl couldn't do or say a thing. With everyone hurt at exactly the same time, all he could hope for was the eighth playoff spot, banking that his players would get healthy for the postseason. But losses in 14 of the team's final 19 games ended that dream. On the final day, the Bucks still had a chance to squeeze into the playoffs with a victory over the Pistons. When they were humiliated 123-89 by Detroit, the finger-pointing began.
Among the most vocal Bucks was newcomer Anthony Mason. A defensive bully, he was appalled at the perimeter game his teammates played. Even before the injuries, there were signs that the Bucks lacked the commitment and resolve they had displayed the year before. The blowout against Detroit emphasized that point.
The Milwaukee front office reacted over the summer, dealing Robinson to the Hawks and promoting Thomas to the starting lineup. Otherwise, Karl and GM Ernie Grunfeld kept a pat hand. Ray, now the team's undisputed leader, was asked to be more aggressive. He obliged by going to the hole more often. But he paid the price with a severely sprained ankle that slowed the start of his season.
Ray returned to health in January, and the Bucks went undefeated on the road for the entire month. But the news wasn't all good. Ray's ankle still bothered him, and opponents noticed he wasn't exploding to the basket anymore. When they began crowding him on the perimeter, his shooting percentage dropped. His defense was not up to par either, and with a .500 record and a bloated payroll, the Bucks needed to make a change.
On February 20, amid predictions that no major deals were in the works, the Bucks announced a mind-blower. Ray and Kevin Ollie were headed to Seattle for Gary Payton and Desmond Mason. Though they hated to say good-bye to Payton, the Sonics felt fortunate to get a great shooter for a player they were likely to lose to free agency.
In Seattle, Ray’s presence had an interesting effect on the Sonic offense. He was more involved than he was in Milwaukee, yet less involved than the man he replaced. The Sonics were used to running everything through Payton on every play. Now they were just running—no one was sure who would distribute the ball, finish the break or take the perimeter jumper. The talent flowed, the players had more fun and felt more freedom, and the team started to win. Eight games under .500 before Ray arrived, the Sonics finished strong at 18-12.
Seattle’s two draft picks that summer, forward Nick Collison and point guard Luke Ridnour, were selected with this new team rhythm in mind. Ridnour was one of the best passers to come out of college in a while, which promised to amplify Ray’s skills. Collison was a versatile athlete who offered rebounding and defense.
But that new chemistry took time to develop, especially after Ray missed the first 25 games of the 2003-04 season due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Once he worked his way back into shape, he found his old stroke and his numbers remained strong. Ray finished the season with solid stats: 40 percent from three-point land, 44 percent from the field and 90 percent at the charity stripe. (His free-throw shooting was second in team history to Ricky Pierce.)
Ray's excellent shooting helped him score 23 points a night. Unfortunately, he couldn't lift the Sonics into the playoffs. They ended the season at 37-45, out of the postseason for the seventh year in a row,
While he was with the Bucks, Ray was best known for his prowess from the perimeter,. As a Sonic, however, he demonstrated a well-rounded game, becoming a player who could handle the ball when needed. He also moved easily into a leadership role for Seattle. His confident, do-whatever-it-takes attitude took the pressure off of his younger teammates, including rising star Rashard Lewis, who became a consistent 20-point scorer alongside Ray.
The 2004-05 campaign turned out to be a brilliant one for Ray and the Sonics. Working with the same basic core of talent, coach Nate McMillan led the team to 52 victories and the Northwest Division title. Ray played in 78 games and logged more than 3,000 minutes. He averaged 23.9 points per game—10th in the league—and was one of the NBA’s best from the charity stripe. The team was impressed enough to ink Ray to a five-year extension worth $80 million.
The Sonics blew past the Kings in the first round of the playoffs but ran into the Spurs in the next round. They lost to San Antonio in six games. Ray scored 26 a game in the postseason but it was not enough. Against the Spurs, the Sonics played hard. Unfortuantely, San Antonio's depth and experienced prevailed. The Spurs later beat the Pistons for the NBA title.
The high hopes generated by Seattle’s 50-win season began to evaporate over the summer. McMillan left the Sonics for a higher-paying job with Portland and was replaced by Bob Weiss. He lasted less than half a season before giving way to Bob Hill. The Sonics, in turn, stumbled to a 35–47 record. Ray and Lewis were still good for 40 to 50 a night, and Ray set a new personal high by averaging 25.1 per game. However, the support players did more watching than contributing, and the Sonics played the worst defense in the league.
Over the summer, more uncertainty crept into the Sonics' future when the team was sold to Clay Bennett. The Oklahoma City tycoon made no bones about his displeasure with the franchise ’s accommodations in Seattle and began to turn the necessary wheels to relocate the club.
During the 2006-07 season, the Sonics looked like a team ready to move and limped home with a record of 31–51. Ray was one of the few bright spots in the lost campaign. In a January game against the Jazz, he netted 54 points during an overtime win. He recorded his 1,000th steal during the season, too. On the year, Ray upped his scoring average to 26.4 points before ankle surgery ended his season after 55 games.
In May, a ball finally bounced Seattle’s way when the team was awarded the second lottery pick. The Sonics tabbed Kevin Durant as their man and began dismantling the team’s old guard. Ray was the biggest name to go. He was dealt to the Celtics for Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak, and Delonte West. Lewis was also sent packing, to the Magic.
Ironically, Ray ended up in the place he had once hoped to start his career. The Celtics would have taken him 11 years earlier in the draft one pick after the Bucks grabbed him.
The trade to Boston was a revelation for Ray. He had begun to wonder whether he would ever be part of a legitimate championship contender. With the Celtics, that was finally a real possibility. His job was clear—stretch the defense with his perimeter work. That would open the lane for Kevin Garnett and give Paul Pierce room to slice and dice opponents from the wings.
That's exactly what Ray did in the 2007-08 season. He got off to a great start, averaging 20 a game in November. Doc Rivers gave him plenty of playing time, and Ray responded.
He continued his excellent play as the calendar turned to January. Ray shot extremely well from the field, did his job on the boards and found the open man when defenses began crowding him. The Celtics moved into first in the Atlantic Division and established themselves as the class of the Eastern Conference.
Ray's minutes caught up to him in February and March. Injuries forced him to miss a handful of games, and his scoring average plummeted. Ray entered the playoffs a bit of a question mark. Against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, he regained his stroke, especially from beyond the 3-point arc. Boston survived a seven-game scare and advanced to face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Ray went cold against the Cavs. Without his offense, Pierce and Garnett had to do more, as did the Boston bench. The Celtics also stepped up their intensity on defense. Again they faced a seventh game, and again they won the decider on their home floor.
Boston had an easier time of if in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons. Ray was a major reason why. He knocked down his open jumpers and created scoring opportunities by driving to the hoop. His best performance came in Game 5, when he poured in 29 points. The Celtics closed out Detroit two night later.
The NBA Finals provided fans with the game’s most classic matchup—Boston versus Los Angeles. Again, Ray carried much of the scoring burden for the Celtics. With Pierce dogging Kobe Bryant, Ray was free to look for his shot. He delivered with a superior performance. Ray hit on more than 50 percent of his attempts and averaged 20.3 per game. The Celts won three times in Boston and finished off the Lakers in six games for their 17th NBA championship.
The Celtics faced an uphill battle to defend their championship in 2008–09. They were getting older, while their conference rivals were gaining experience and confidence. Rajon Rondo continued to develop as an impact point guard, but his gains were largely erased by a midseason knee injury. Ray assumed some of the scoring load, upping his points per game to 18.2 while shooting a career-high 95.2 percent from the charity stripe and 48 percent from the field.
The playoffs started for the Celtics with a rematch against the Hawks. Again, it took seven tough games for Boston to prevail. Ray ran hot and cold during the series. He had a 1-for-11 game and a 51-point game. Without Garnett, however, the Celtics could not survive the next round, losing to the Magic, who went on to beat the Cavs and reach the NBA Finals.
Garnett returned to the court in 2009–10, but he was no longer the same player. Fortunately, role players like Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins helped with defense and rebounding. Ray had another terrific shooting season, hitting 47.7 percent from the field. He averaged 16.3 points per game, saving his best for clutch three-pointers. His 91.3 percent from the foul line was third-best in the league.
The Celtics won 50 games, good for the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. They opened the playoffs against the Miami Heat. Dwyane Wade put up his usual heroic fight, but Boston was too good. The Celtics won in five games. Ray led the team in scoring in two of the four victories.
Up next were the heavily favored Cavaliers. Few outside of Boston expected the Celtics to survive this matchup, but the team had learned a thing or two about the Cavs. After dropping the opener, Boston won Game 2 in Cleveland, 104–86. Rondo stepped up and played brilliantly, while Ray led the Celtics with 22 points. The teams split the next two games, in Boston, setting up a pivotal Game 5.
With the Cavs looking to make a statement on their homecourt, Ray and his teammates demolished Cleveland in a 120–88 laugher. Ray was on fire, scoring 25 points. Nine of those points came on 3-pointers that followed scuffles for loose balls in the Cleveland end. The win tore the heart out of the Cavs, who went quietly in Game 6, 94–85.
The Celtics nearly swept the Magic in the Conference Finals, taking the first three games before dropping the next two. The series never seemed in doubt. Ray led Boston with 25 points in the opener.
Suddenly the Celtics were being taken seriously. With the Lakers surviving a tough series against the Phoenix Suns, the NBA Finals looked like a great matchup. Few doubted that Ray’s long-distance shooting would be one of the keys. After dropping Game 1, the Celtics seized homecourt advantage with a 103–94 Game 2 win in Los Angeles. The first half belonged to Ray. He scored 27 points and finished with 32. Along the way, he nailed eight of his 11 shots from behind the arc to set a new NBA Finals record. Seven of the makes came consecutively—tying the mark for 3-pointers in an entire Finals game.
Incredibly, in Game 3, Ray was as cold as he had been hot just two days earlier. Derek Fisher stuck to him like glue, and Ray bricked all 13 of his shots from the field as the Lakers regained the advantage in the series. Boston battled back to take Game 4, and then won Game 5 by a score of 92–86. Ray’s shooting improved, and he played an important role in Boston’s stifling defense.
Ray and his teammates were playing good ball, but it was the emergence of his backcourt mate Rondo as a floor leader that was making the difference. The Lakers couldn’t deal with him, and Rondo knew it. In Game 5, his best moment came after Ron Artest fouled Garnett hard under the basket. Rondo walked right up to Artest and shoved him off the court. Ray and the Celtics had to hide their smiles as the refs whistled the point guard for a technical. Artest could have broken him in half, but he wanted to send a message not to mess with the old-timers. It was a leadership torch Ray was all too happy to pass.
The Celtics needed to take one of the final two games in LA to win the championship, but it was not to be. Game 6 was a blowout by the Lakers. In Game 7, Ray led a Boston defense that hounded Bryant into a horrendous shooting night. But LA used itssize and speed to erase a 13-point third-quarter lead, and the Lakers pulled away in the fourth quarter to win 83–79. Ray was off from the perimeter, hitting just one of seven shots from inside the 3-point line and only two from from behind the arc.
Ray has always possessed the traits of an elite sports personality—style, smarts, talent, and good looks—yet he has long been one of the most under-recognized athletes around. At this point, it is hard to imagine how he can add to his hoops résumé. But as he proved in the 2010 Finals, as long as he has the ball in his hands and the rim in his crosshairs, there’s now telling how high he can fly.
RAY THE PLAYER
What do you say about a guy who is so smooth and economical on the court that he’ll drop 40 on you and you don’t realize it until you pick up the paper the next day? To borrow from Spike Lee, he's got game. Ray’s success is predicated on silky long-range shooting and an explosive first step that keeps defenders honest.
Ray’s address change to Boston gave him new responsibilities. Some nights he is expected to fill it up from long range, and other nights he has to take a backseat to his All-Star teammates. On those occasions, his focus shifts to rebounding, playmaking and giving space to his teammates. Ray, however, is too dangerous an outside shooter for his man to slide off—even when he's 25 feet from the basket.
Every great player has an unblockable shot, a move that cannot be denied. Ray’s comes off his dribble-drive, as he heads toward the hoop down the left wing, then bounces back for a fadeaway. If his wheels are sound, that will remain his bread-and-butter move.
Although he has never been the relentless attacker his coaches hoped he would be, Ray is a superb finisher and a deadly catch-and-shoot player from medium range. His defense is no longer top-notch, but his dedication and all-out hustle should cover up any deficiencies in this area, especially when the Celtics are playing in May and June.
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