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

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.

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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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