Ray Allen's Last Stand: Is It Possible to Age Gracefully in the NBA?

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The very things that once made the current Miami Heat shooting guard a precocious superstar have led fans to now see him as a cranky turncoat.

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Ray Allen as Jesus Shuttleworth in He Got Game (40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks)

This week, the NBA regular season began with the defending champion Miami Heat defeating the Boston Celtics, 120-107, in a game that managed to be both closer and more lopsided than it sounds. The night boasted a familiar mix of hard-fought baskets, careening momentum, and overzealous fouls. But its most indelible moment came late in the first quarter, when Ray Allen—a man who spent the last five years playing shooting guard for the Celtics—checked into the game as a member of the Heat, for whom he will ostensibly spend the next (and likely final) three years of his career popping off screens and unleashing his magnificent jumper. Boston fans shook their heads, muttered compound curse words through gritted teeth, and a world of NBA watchers were left to ponder this latest and most curious turn in the increasingly unwieldy saga of Ray Allen.

Sports discourse still has no narrative for the awkwardness of age. Ray Allen's character hasn't changed, but what's proud purpose in a 22-year-old comes off as delusional vanity in a 37-year-old.

There was a time not all that long ago when Ray Allen was a literal parody of an appealing basketball player. Back in the Iversonian early '00s, when aging white writers learned to spell "cornrows" so as to better pound out laments that the league's image was alienating aging white writers, Ray Allen was held as the antidote. He liked golf, art, haircuts, and mid-range jumpers. Here was a basketball player you could set your watch to: When Allen assumed the fictional alter-ego of messianic hoops prodigy Jesus Shuttlesworth for Spike Lee's 1998 film He Got Game, the casting worked not just because Allen proved to be a decent actor but also because there was no way to even glance upon him without inferring that he was one of the finest basketball players on the face of the earth.

Which, of course, he was: an ideal specimen of post-Jordan shooting guard—six foot five, lithe, inhumanly fluid. And that jump shot. For basketball exceptionalists (full disclosure: I am one) the sport's aesthetic pleasures are inseparable from its strategic or athletic ones, and its finest practitioners achieve a sort of formal significance: Olajuwon in the low post, Nash in the pick-and-roll, LeBron in transition. Ray Allen's jump shot was a museum piece of technique, so much so that his misses felt like perverse affronts. When he once shot 0-for-13 in a Finals game, Boston fans spoke of him in tones generally reserved for a kidnapping victim or someone in the hospital.

He rose to stardom in Milwaukee and was traded to Seattle in the 2002-2003 season, where he played what were probably his best years. It was as a member of the late SuperSonics that Allen's reputation as a peerless obsessive took shape, with legends emerging of painstaking ritualism and impossibly grueling workouts. His perfectionism could be prickly, but no one really minded since it seemed so closely related to that jump shot, in all its exquisite and tireless craft.

The Sonics traded him to the Celtics in 2007; he won a championship with Boston in 2008 and came within minutes of another in 2010, morphing from first-option Alpha dog to luxury-grade role player and one of the finest catch-and-shoot specialists the league has ever seen. His masterpiece came in the 2009 playoffs, a ravishing and exhaustive epic in which he scored 51 points in 59 minutes of a Game 6 triple-overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls.

But slowly the storybook's binding began to crack, particularly last year, when nagging injuries led to the emergence of second-year revelation Avery Bradley and cost Allen his starting role. The team tried to trade him at the deadline, a cold move that he never forgave and probably shouldn't have. Most famously, there were gathering murmurs of friction between Allen and Boston's obscenely talented point guard, Rajon Rondo.

Like Allen, Rondo is an eccentric, driven, and occasionally difficult player, but stylistically they could hardly be more different. Allen is a classicist, the descendant of such fundamental shooting guards as Sam Jones, Jerry West, and George Gervin. Rondo, on the other hand, is an avant-gardist, a font of the previously unimagined, all impossible bounce passes and absurdist box scores. If Allen's genius is for ordered control, Rondo's is for chaotic counterintuition. As the latter continued to emerge as Boston's best player, Allen grew alienated from the team's offense, and having Ray Allen alienated from any offense is to grossly miss the point of both.

When Allen departed for Miami in free agency this past summer in an implicit (and now increasingly explicit) middle-finger to the Celtics organization, his relationship with Rondo became the point of fixation among those who fantasize that NBA locker rooms resemble BBC productions of Richard II. Suddenly Ray Allen, the one-time prodigy of grace turned consummate specimen of professional craft, had come to inhabit a new persona: graying, cranky malcontent. In Boston in particular he was seen as a craven turncoat, bitterly unable to come to grips with his growing obsolescence.

Of course, none of this makes much sense. Sure, Allen lightly badmouthed his former employers on his way out the door, but NBA breakups have been far messier (see Howard, Dwight). On the Boston side Kevin Garnett spouted some vague omertà stuff, but KG approaches his work relationships with all the subtlety of a kid playing Wrestlemania on X-Box. Rondo has been alternately taciturn and aloof on the subject of Allen, which means that Ray now has something in common with every other thing that Rajon Rondo gets asked about. The fact is that Ray Allen took less money to play a more meaningful role on a team he estimates will give him the best chance to win a title this year (and he's almost certainly correct). In theory this is precisely the sort of selfless prioritization of WINNING that the sports commentariat clamors for.

The real issue with Ray Allen is that sports discourse still has no narrative equipment for the awkwardness of age. Ray Allen's character hasn't changed—what was first a precocious maturity that became a perfectionist professionalism has now become a vaguely unseemly surplus of sensitivity, but it's really the same thing. The same quality that comes off as proud purpose in a 22-year-old might come off as delusional vanity in a 37-year-old, but you don't develop one of the greatest jump shots the world has ever seen without an excessive reserve of both. We're better at talking about that quality when athletes are younger because it looks better, fits more neatly into nebulous concepts like "hunger" and "heart," but at the end of the day it's just one more thing they have that the rest of us don't.

I watched last night's game with a tugging ambivalence, my Celtics fandom wanting Ray Allen and his team to lose, my basketball fandom wanting to see that perfect shot fall through that basket as many times as I can before I never get to see it again. And fall it did: Ray Allen scored 19 points, while the Celtics played hard and still lost by 13. And so began the final act of Jesus Shuttlesworth, a man whose namesake may have gone through a lot but never had to deal with getting old.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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