A banner day for Ray Allen
STORRS - It was a swarming, claustrophobic sea of humanity. People wrapped around every aisle, fighting for their spot, arguing who was there first, and doing this in front of children no less.
Black Friday? Nope. This was in the spring of 1996 for a Ray Allen autograph signing at the Meriden Square Mall (Travis Knight was there, too). I went with friends from school and despite getting there more than two hours in advance, we were still 200th or so in line. The number swelled to well over 1,000 and Allen and Knight graciously stayed far past the two hours they allotted for.
UConn-mania in the state was never higher. The players were celebrities, basically every game was sold out for the entire decade, and everywhere you turned, someone was wearing Huskies gear.
At that time, “Connecticut 34” jerseys (no name on the back because of NCAA rules) were top sellers, and, not surprisingly, a popular sight at this event. People were buying them, wearing them, and getting them signed.
If you asked me that night if I’d be surprised that Allen would go on to become the NBA’s all-time leading three-point shooter (2,973), a two-time NBA champion, and Hall of Famer, what would I have said? Of course he would. UConn fans, especially then, worshipped the ground the players walked on.
It’s to Allen’s credit that he lived up to those insanely high standards. He received yet another honor on Sunday when his No. 34 was retired during halftime of UConn’s 60-58 victory over USF at Gampel Pavilion. His number is the first one retired by the program.
“It’s truly the honor of my life to come to the state of Connecticut,” Allen said as he stood at midcourt on the Huskies logo. “It’s such an indescribable feeling to be able to travel the world, play in so many different cities in the NBA, to have won two championships, to have played in the Olympics, to have had so many great teammates and coaches. I tell everyone how magical basketball is and how it’s transported me all over the world and continues to do today.
“Everything that I have received because of this game of basketball was as a UConn Husky.”
At UConn, Allen ranks fifth in all-time scoring (1,922 points), was a two-time All-American, played in the NCAA Tournament all three years, and remarkably lost only one home game, including a perfect record in Hartford games.
His last game at UConn, however, was an ugly upset loss to Mississippi State in the Sweet 16. When he left UConn, he did without a national championship, and the program, at that point, had still yet to win one with people wondering if it ever would happen. Four championships later, though, the fans, it’s safe to say, have moved past that defeat.
“It’s not about the wins and losses, it’s about the true growth of an individual, the young man and young woman that come through the university,” Allen said.
He is, arguably, the face of UConn basketball when it comes to players.
“This building wasn’t here when I got here and I needed some pieces to put the whole thing together,” Allen’s coach Jim Calhoun said. “I needed hoops, needed fans, needed a whole bunch of things. Most importantly, we needed a great player. The guy who shined an incredible light on UConn (was Allen). He was the prototypical guy of what a UConn basketball player should be like – as a person, a great player. When you say Husky, I want you to think of Ray Allen.”
In the NBA, Allen played for the Milwaukee Bucks, Seattle SuperSonics, Boston Celtics, and Miami Heat. On Sunday, every variation of those jerseys were on display in the stands, along with ones of his character in the movie “He Got Game,” Jesus Shuttlesworth.
In addition to this three-point prowess, Allen is particularly known for two shots. The first, which has been played approximately 10,167 times during UConn home games was his game-winning, somewhat discombobulated runner to beat Allen Iverson and Georgetown in the 1996 Big East championship game.
Then, of course, with the Heat in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, his three-pointer in the corner with 5.2 seconds left sent the game into overtime and saved the season as Miami eventually defeated the Spurs in seven games.
Allen’s motivation for greatness has been well-documented. There’s the story of him showing up at Madison Square Garden so early before a game that the baskets weren’t even up yet. He says he practiced that step-back three against the Spurs thousands of times. In retirement, he’s stayed active physically and in the community. There is no off-switch.
“What I’ve come to learn over my career is that talent is not enough,” Allen said. “It’s the hard work we put in on a daily basis that makes us who we are. The name on the back of (your) jersey when you come here does not matter. You don’t know who we are if we don’t work hard.”
UConn’s team of today is on the brink of NIT elimination, territory Allen never came near. Head coach Dan Hurley hopes Allen’s current presence in the program grows. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.
“Ray shares, man,” Hurley said. “He loves to share wisdom. Ray has repetitively during the season reached out to players on the team and reached out to me with encouraging text messages. Ray doesn’t do it in a billboard manner. He does it behind the scenes, not trying to draw attention to himself. He is a great resource for me.”
Calhoun, noted earlier, referred to Allen as the prototype. Since Allen, there’ve been players at UConn who’ve had as much, if not more, success. Eventually, there may be more in the future. It will be hard, though, to top his popularity and standing at the school. That was evident at the mall in 1996 and also Sunday at Gampel when his banner was unveiled.