Why We Watch: Ray Allen, A Life

Ray Allen's brilliance is built on what seems like a simple act of repetition: the same shot, over and over, for years. It's that, but not just that.
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The Zeitgeist gallery is located on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, maybe a half mile from a baseball diamond where Tiger Stadium used to be, and a long, long, long home run from the Michigan Central Railroad depot, the hulking ruin abandoned by the city fathers to pigeons, the homeless, graffiti artists, decay tourists and the assorted bricoleurs who would pilfer its high-end, mid-century building materials for a black market in construction materials to make new buildings, I suppose, out in the suburbs somewhere. It is fitting, given the bitter satire that inheres just in its geographic location, that Zeitgeist specializes in art brut, or outsider art.
It was at an opening there some years ago that I found myself standing between two men, all of us facing a work of uncommonly brut-ish art brut.

The piece was executed with what appeared to be a ball point pen on a sheet of notebook paper and presented in the sort of cheap frame you might find at CVS.  It was more or less a doodle: a human figure standing alone amidst other chaotic, sparsely scattered doodles. After a few minutes, the man to my left said, “What the hell?  How is this art?  I could do that.” I didn’t say anything. The man to my right, after a brief pause, replied, “Yeah. But you didn’t.”

***

Ray Allen has enjoyed, by pretty much any measure, a remarkable career. I don’t think anybody has missed it, but it’s worth recapitulating some of the basic facts. As a collegiate star at the University of Connecticut he was a first team All-American, set the school’s single season scoring record, and was subsequently named honorary captain of the Huskies’ All-Century Team. Drafted fifth and traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, Allen went on to help lead the Bucks to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2000-2001 season, when he averaged 22 points per game. Moved in a trade to Seattle, Allen upped his production, averaging between 23 and, in 2006-2007, 26.4 points per game. He was, during that period, probably the premier perimeter scorer in the NBA.

Allen’s scoring numbers dropped off after the trade that sent him to Boston and helped create the team’s championship-winning Big Three, but nobody would argue that his performance was anything but critical in the Celtics remarkable 42-game turnaround. In his first year in Boston, the Celtics compiled a 66-16 regular season record en route to the franchise’s first championship since 1986. Allen’s seven three-pointers in the clinching Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals set a record for the Finals.  

Allen and the Celtics would make it back to the Finals in 2010, but this time lost to the Lakers in the tight seventh game of a hard-fought series.  By this time, Allen’s scoring average had dropped to 16.3 points per game, and, by the end of the 2012 season, it would drop still further, to just 14.2.  Despite the evident decline in Allen’s scoring production and so his centrality to his team’s fortunes, Allen nonetheless put up the best three point shooting percentages of his career in his last two seasons in Boston, connecting on 44% and 45% of his attempts from beyond the arc and becoming the league’s all time leader in three-point field goals made. It was not all that, though: there were assists and rebounds and points, especially, on slashing fluid layups and pull up jumpers, and some free throw and all those three pointers; individual accolades and records, and championships. A full and varied basketball life, well-lived and not over just yet.

As a 36 year-old free agent, apparently frustrated with his role on the Celtics, Allen joined the defending champion Miami Heat. Now a 37-year-old role player, Allen averages just 26 minutes and around 10 points a game for a Heat team with other, more powerful weapons. Allen now only puts up around four three-pointers per game now, the lowest figure since his third season in the league; during his two best seasons in Seattle, he averaged twice as many attempts from distance.  

This is not a surprise: Allen was hired to support LeBron James, who is after all the greatest player alive and playing the best basketball of his life. If there's a single reason to watch the Heat, it's James. There are another two good ones rounding out Miami's own Big Three, and then there's Allen down the depth chart. As a whole, the Heat are thrillingly great; individually, there is James and the inspirational and indomitable Dwyane Wade. These are all good reasons to watch, but not the reason why I watch the Heat. Even now, even given that Allen now orbits other, brighter stars, I watch and wait for Ray Allen to take a three-pointer. I'll watch to see one of the four jump shots that Ray Allen might attempt in any given game. Just jump shots, just four of them.

***

There's a kind of distillation of self that comes with aging. This sounds more dramatic than it is; in reality, it's more a simple process of shedding the facets of our personalities developed in response to various external imperatives: get through school, make friends and families, succeed in our work lives. As these imperatives fall away, our primary purpose is winnowed down to simply persisting, continuing to be with dignity. We retain only what is essential to our being.

Nietzsche described himself as “well-disposed toward those moralities that impel me to do something again and again, from morning 'til evening, and to dream of it at night, and to think of nothing else but doing this well, as well as Ialone can! When one lives that way, one thing after another that does not belong to such a life drops off: without hate or reluctance, one sees this take its leave today and that tomorrow, like the yellow leaves that every faint wisp of wind carries off a tree.”

Ray Allen’s once diverse and spectacular game as a scorer has been distilled to what perhaps was always its essence: that beautifully smooth, remarkably consistent, three-point shot, the residue and object of a lifetime spent in dedicated repetition. And in so enduring, or embracing, this distillation, Allen stands for me also for a distillation of the game itself to its simplest individual play: an individual tossing the ball into the hoop. It doesn’t look so hard or complicated, it doesn’t seem to depend on some transcendent combination of athletic power and complex skills. It’s just a jump shot, and we might be tempted to look away, thinking, like the would-be art appreciator at Zeitgeist, “What the hell? I could do that.”  

The answer, here is the same: you didn't, we didn't, even those of us who have taken a great many jumpshots over the course of our lives didn't make developing the perfect jump shot into a pursuit at the very core of our beings. We didn’t shoot tens of thousands of them over the course of tens of thousands of hours with the certainty—unvoiced, perhaps even unconscious—that each and every one of those shots had value in and of itself. And maybe Ray Allen didn’t, either; I don't know him. But when he gets open and a teammate finds him, when he shoots up quick and in one motion the ball is gone on its long graceful arc towards where it wants to be, I feel certain that Ray Allen did do that. And I didn’t. And you didn’t.

***

Remarking that “every day we slaughter our finest impulses,” Henry Miller, once explained that “that is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers.” That is the heartbreak to be found in watching the distilled simplicity of each Ray Allen jump shot, each one unmistakably written by the hand of a master, each one a testament to his belief in his powers, each one a reminder of the myriad moments of self-doubt that trampled the tender shoots of my own possibilities and maybe yours. We were probably never going to be Ray Allen, of course. But he is Ray Allen, and we're not.

Ray’s shots are not only reminders—in their haunting combination of proximity and impossible distance to what I myself have done thousands of time—of what I have failed to accomplish, or even to attempt, for lack of faith. They are also, from another vantage point, utterly simple expressions of the extraordinary beauty lurking in the mundane.  

When I teach my students the fragment of William Carlos Williams poem “Spring and All” that is known as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” their first response is bewilderment: “What the hell? How is that literature? I could’ve written that.” You know the poem:

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

You could’ve written that.  I could’ve written that.  But I didn’t and you didn’t. But if Williams’ poem—like the art at Zeitgeist, like Miller’s lines written by the hand of a master, like Ray Allen’s jumper—seems like just another occasion for self-punishing regret, it is not, or not only or primarily that. Because there's something else in Williams' poem, and in all of it: a celebration, and an invitation, and then another celebration.

It is to be sure a celebration of the beauty and importance of the simple and the mundane. But it is also an invitation to see—to see the red wheel barrow, to see the glaze of rain, to see the white chickens and to see that so much, all of existence, depends on them and, crucially, depends upon our seeing them. And when we pause long enough to focus and to see with these ordinary words these ordinary things and all that depends on them we may celebrate with Williams not just these things, but our own ever-present powers to see them and, by seeing them, to participate in them by bringing them forth again and again.

Every Ray Allen jump shot for me is that. Every one is ordinary, every one extraordinary. And every one is an invitation to watch and so to participate in bringing forth what is life. For every one—like the items in Williams’ poem—contains all of a life; all of a trajectory that each and every shot mimics in its powerful emergence, in its hopeful rising and its graceful falling, finally, towards home.


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