After 20-year, Hall of Fame NBA career, Ray Allen’s relatively brief three-year stint at UConn can fall into the backdrop. He won a handful of accolades in college, but absolutely shined as a pro. He won two NBA titles with the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, made 10 All-Star games and hit countless clutch shots en route to setting the all-time 3-pointers mark.
He found his confidence, and his legendary textbook jump shot, in Storrs.
Growing up in Dalzell, South Carolina, Allen was sought after as a recruit but wasn’t viewed as one of the elite, can’t-miss prospects. His final decision came down to historic blue-blood Kentucky — then coached by Rick Pitino — and the up-and-coming UConn program.
Ultimately, Allen surprisingly picked the Huskies, thanks in large part to Jim Calhoun and his coaching staff’s commitment to developing Allen into a good college player instead of promising NBA stardom.
“Coach [Calhoun] never sold me a bill of goods, saying he was going to make me an NBA player. He didn’t say he was going to get me drafted,” Allen said. “He said I could be good if I did good work.”
In high school, the NBA was the farthest thing from Allen’s mind. Growing up, he had almost no exposure to the professional game.
“I had never seen a professional athlete, I didn’t know what a professional athlete sounded like, looked like, walked like, so when somebody says, ‘Have you ever thought about playing in the NBA?’ I was like, ‘Well what does that mean? I don’t know what it takes to do it,’” Allen said.
Even though he was a star inhigh school, Allen didn’t have enough confidence in himself to believe he could excel at the college level. He had to come into a new situation with new teammates and coaches and prove himself all over again.
“I was good in South Carolina. When I was leaving South Carolina, I had no idea what I was going to amount to once I got to college. Then the same thing happened at UConn,” he said. “But the best thing was I never believed I was greater than where I was at the moment. Let me focus on what I have in front of me and try and build on that.”
While plenty of young players wanted to go to school in a city with bright lights and a strong nightlife, Allen had a different mindset. He liked the seclusion that came with living in Storrs in the 1990’s.
“I believe that Storrs is a special place that doesn’t create a lot of distractions for you but you learn the environment,” Allen said. “The people that come from different places, when they see Storrs, they see it for what it is. It’s an institution of higher learning and it’s a place where you can perfect your craft, get better, take it to the next level and young people have to be smart enough to understand that.”
When he arrived at UConn as an 18-year old freshman, Allen wasn’t the 3-point sharpshooter that eventually became his trademark. He could hit it from beyond the arc, but he wasn’t gifted with pure shooting ability. It wasn’t until one day inside Hugh Greer Field House that the light finally went off in Allen’s head.
“I remember my freshmen year, I was at the field house at UConn and Brian Fair, Donyell Marshall, and Scott Burrell were shooting and they didn’t miss a shot. They were just going around the horn and knocking them down,” Allen said. “I was like, ‘How do they do that?’ I’m a player now on this team. I wasn’t consistent enough to make shots like that over and over again. I could play and I could shoot, but I didn’t know how to work at shooting.”
After that, Allen realized shooting wasn’t just about hitting a high percentage of shots. It wasn’t about how many you could hit in a row. It was about putting in the work in practice so that when the game started going down to the wire and fatigue began setting in, those shots would continue to fall.
“When you’re tired, everybody else is tired, can you draw that energy through your legs and body and do the same thing you did in the first quarter in the fourth?” Allen said. “That’s what I learned over the course of understanding what shooting really is.”
That same season, Calhoun asked Allen a basic question: What did he want to do with himself and his career? The talented freshman didn’t hold back with his answer.
“I said I wanted to be the best, one of the best the university had ever seen,” Allen replied.
It was a bold statement from a freshman but Calhoun knew that Allen had the talent to achieve it. From then on, the coach refused to let his young star off the hook.
“You said you wanted to be the best, well not everybody wants to be the best so on that quest you have to be willing to do things other people aren’t willing to do,” Calhoun reminded Allen before a game.
Some players would have wilted under Calhoun’s style of coaching. Allen embraced it.
“It was always like the constant stream of accountability that he always imposed on me and I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” he said. “I had to continue to do what I needed to do, even far greater than the other person was willing to sacrifice.”
It didn’t take long for Allen to find success with the Huskies. He had a strong freshman season, finishing as the second-leading scorer on a team that won the Big East regular season championship and reached the Sweet 16.
As a sophomore, Allen blossomed into a star and led UConn to a 15-0 start on the season. In the NCAA Tournament, Allen upped his game to another level, averaging 20 points per game and guiding the Huskies into the Elite Eight against UCLA — one win away from the program’s first-ever Final Four.
Against the Bruins, Allen had his best game ever in a UConn uniform, dropping 36 points. However, the Huskies fell in a 102-96 heartbreaker.
After such a strong tournament, Allen easily could have left for the NBA and been picked in the first round. Nobody would’ve blamed him if he did.
“Now that there was this small steam where NBA executives said as a sophomore, I should enter my name into the draft,” he said. “I started having people approaching me saying ‘You’re good enough, you can get drafted in the first round’ and I just thought a lot of that had to do with my tournament and how I played going into that game.
Just like he did in high school, Allen didn’t believe in himself enough to make the jump to the next level. He also treasured his time in college and wasn’t ready to give that up quite yet.
“I didn’t believe it myself yet,” he said. “I wanted to be able to see if I could do it for a whole year so [the 1995 NCAA Tournament] was a great indicator at the time but it still wasn’t enough to convince me to drop everything because college at the time was still too fun for me. I wanted to make sure I gave it everything I could before I was ready to move on.”
The decision paid off for Allen as he flourished into one of the nation’s top players. After the graduation of stars Donyell Marshall and Kevin Ollie, the weight on the team was put on Allen’s shoulders.
“In my junior year, when you’re going through the Big East and you’re taking the brunt of everything and I’m the preseason player of the year going into the year, I knew there was a lot of pressure,” he said.
“I wanted to see if I could live up to who I believed I could be but for me it was never about the NBA at that moment, it was about me winning an NCAA championship and helping get to the tournament and winning the Big East Tournament. It was these small goals that were in front of me everyday that kept me focused.”
Behind their star, the Huskies won both the Big East regular season and tournament titles. Allen was named the Big East Player of the Year and consensus All-American. However, UConn fell short of their ultimate goal, a national championship, after losing to Mississippi State in the Sweet 16.
After his junior season, Allen proved his performance during the 1995 NCAA Tournament was no fluke and he was ready for the NBA. He declared for the draft and was picked No. 5 overall by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Allen went on to play 20 seasons in the league with four different teams and played a critical role in two NBA titles. He spent two decades as a star playing against the best players in the world. He’ll go down as one of the greatest 3-point shooters of all-time.