Strip off the tan suit, replace it with a No. 34 jersey and Ray Allen would have been the first selection of any pickup game at Colonial Life Arena on Monday afternoon. By the looks of it, the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-pointers is still in prime playing shape.
Allen is four years removed from his final NBA game. Excellence on that level is why he’ll soon be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. It’s there where he made 10 All-Star appearances and won two championships.
But on Monday, some 25 years after he led Dazell’s Hillcrest High School to a state title, Allen entered the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame. He spoke from Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, just a long-range jumper from USC’s campus.
Naturally, the conversation – initiated by both reporters and fellow inductees – turned to “What if?”
“Ray told us the story about how he ended up at UConn,” said Drew Meyer, a former All-American shortstop for the Gamecocks. “The short end of it was he wasn’t really recruited by the in-state schools.”
Allen, a military child, came to Sumter County as an eighth-grader. His father was stationed at Shaw Air Force Base. As Allen was blossoming into a prep star in the early 1990s, USC was going through a coaching transition (George Felton to Steve Newton to Eddie Fogler in a span of four years) while Clemson was put on probation.
He chose Connecticut – over Kentucky and others – and went on to become Big East Player of the Year and the No. 5 pick in the 1996 NBA draft.
“Coach Newton had just come in,” said former Hillcrest coach James Smith, “and somebody asked him, ‘Have you recruited Ray Allen?’ And he said, ‘Who’s Ray Allen?’ And then he called me and asked if I could get him a home visit.
“I said, ‘I can get you a home visit, but I can’t promise you he’ll go to Carolina,’ because he was so late coming in. He had already talked to Connecticut, Kentucky, Alabama’s coach and North Carolina State.”
Coach Jim Calhoun and the Huskies won the battle, taking Allen some 800 miles north. Allen said Monday he hasn’t returned much to the Palmetto State (and Hillcrest High no longer exists), but the connection remains.
When Allen officially retired from the NBA in 2016, he penned a letter to his 13-year-old self. The piece, published in the Players’ Tribune, detailed Allen’s difficult adjustment to Dalzell.
"I wish I could tell you that it will get easier, and that you’re going to blend in, and that it’s going to be alright," Allen wrote. "But you’re not going to fit in with the white kids, or the black kids … or the nerds … or even the jocks.
"You’ll be the enemy to a lot of people simply because you’re not from around there. This will be both the toughest and the best thing that will ever happen to you."
Prior to South Carolina, Allen had spent time on military bases in California, Germany, Oklahoma and England.
“At the time, as a kid, it was the toughest place for me to exist because everything up to that point had been so easy,” Allen said Monday. “Being on military bases, people are rooting for you and everything is so easy and set up for you. When I got here, it wasn’t the case. And I thought it was the worst thing for me because now I had to go to school off-base and I was going to school with kids who were civilian,s and it was like my world was somewhat kind of flipped off-kilter.
“And it was the best thing to happen for me and to me because I had to learn to be tougher, I had to learn to fight. I had to learn to deal with the uneasiness that goes on with being a young person. If I didn’t go through that adversity, then I wouldn’t know how to stand up now for whatever’s going on wrong in the world and the things around me and my family.”
Allen, 42, is married and has five children. The ex-Boston Celtic and former teammate of LeBron James missed Sunday’s game one of the Eastern Conference finals because he was traveling back from an NBA-promoting trip in China.
He made it to Columbia, though, joining Gamecock greats Meyer and Casey Manning in the Hall of Fame.
It’s not his alma mater, but Allen has kept an eye on USC.
“I think one the greatest sources now that you see in the state is the USC women’s program,” Allen said. “Just them hiring Dawn Staley and bringing her into the fold, and her having the success that she’s had certainly brings a lot of notoriety to the university.
“And the men’s program having that success as well, you just keep on that projection. As you have success, you just keep pushing in the right direction and kids want to grow up and be Gamecocks.
“When I was here, there was no culture like that that existed. And it seems like it’s starting to be built.”
2018 South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame Class
Bobby Richardson Sportsmanship Award: Tim Bourret
Willie Jeffries Ambassador for Sports Action Award: Sam Wyche
Felix “Doc” Blanchard Citizen for Sports Award: Louis Sossamon
Herman Helms Excellence in Media Award: Phil Kornblut
Dom Fusci Leadership in Action Award: Paul Kennemore