MIAMI -- Ray Allen is winning. But does it mean he won?
This is one of the great questions of these NBA Finals and it won't be answered if Miami wins the title. This is not that simple. When Allen left the Celtics for the Heat last summer, we all knew he would probably win another championship. Maybe two. Maybe three.
But he lost out on something, too. If Allen had stayed in Boston and retired as a Celtic, he would have been beloved there for decades. Now ... well, I'm not sure he'll be beloved in any NBA city. Admired, yes. Remembered fondly. But not beloved.
I don't fault him for leaving. Players are entitled to make career decisions for themselves. Pro sports are a strange enterprise for many reasons. One of them is that most of the time, employers get to choose employees. Sometimes without even consulting said employees. They can then, in turn, trade them to other employers. Free agency is the athlete's only chance to control the remote.
Garnett can be an angry man and he never heard of a mind game he wouldn't try, so you could have dismissed that as another Garnett ploy. I don't think it was, though. Garnett is also intensely loyal and he has never bought into the short road to a championship. Even when the Timberwolves filled their roster with mannequins and crash-test dummies, he didn't really want to leave Minnesota. Once he got to Boston, he never considered leaving. For Garnett, competing is more important than winning. The Celtics took the Heat to seven games last spring. I think Garnett believes Allen didn't just leave, he conceded.
Now Allen wakes up to warmer weather, but plays for less passionate fans. He has a much better chance at a ring, but a smaller chance at a legacy. Allen was a star at the University of Connecticut. A pivotal player in the growth of that program. He could have been a New England icon.
Would you have done what Allen did?
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Ray Allen is a worrier. This sounds strange, since he is one of the best shooters in NBA history, and so much of shooting is confidence. But Allen is a worrier. His pregame jump-shooting routines are legendary -- he shoots away his worries until confidence emerges.
When he signed with Miami, though, Allen made a promise to himself: Stop worrying.
"I did," he said Sunday night. "You never know what tomorrow brings. Stay in the moment and not live in the future or in the past. Just in the past. You become a better teammate. You become a better player and a better person because you just enjoy what is in front of you. And that's the most important. When I was younger, I was always worried about what wasn't in front of me. I was always worried about the future: 'I can't wait until I do this.'"
He says he appreciates these Finals more than in 2008, when the Celtics won, or 2010, when they took the Lakers to seven games.
"When there are a couple of years between you being here, you think about how you never really enjoyed it," he said. "You just worried about the end result. This time, I'm not really worried about the end result. Take care of the things in between and then you get to that. Just enjoying the moment. Enjoying the laughs and the camaraderie with the guys. In two weeks we'll be off on our own."
That doesn't sound like a guy who just wanted to take the short path to a title. He has won a championship, but he did not enjoy winning a championship. And now he can. That is a chance he would not have had with the Celtics this season. The Garnett-Paul Pierce-Rajon Rondo-Allen Celtics expired last year. (Rondo may win there again, but he'll have new stars around him.)
Does the enjoyment make it worth it? Or a decade from now, will Allen wonder what would have happened if he didn't win another title? Will he wish he had stayed in Boston?
Allen should go to the Hall of Fame. But he may be the rare Hall of Famer who doesn't get his number retired anywhere.
He won a title in Boston, but the Celtics have already retired so many numbers -- 21 in all, including No. 1 for founder Walter Brown and No. 2 for monarch Red Auerbach. Allen only played five seasons in Boston. Even if the Celtics ignore how he ditched them, that's a pretty short tenure to retire a number. Reggie Lewis only played six years in Boston and the Celtics retired his number, but his shocking death at a young age makes him an exceptional case. Garnett has only played six years in Boston and he might retire this summer -- but Garnett was the soul of the team and never thought about leaving. He is way, way ahead of Allen on the ceremony line.
Allen played six and one half years in Milwaukee, but he only made three All-Star teams there and won two playoff series. He was not considered a likely Hall of Famer when he got traded to Seattle. He had his best years in Seattle, but Seattle no longer has a team.
I think this would bother me if I were Allen -- not because it would hurt my feelings, but because I would wonder what my career really meant. He should retire with a special connection to a fan base and I don't think he will. His career belongs to everybody and nobody.
I think about that and I think if it were me, I would have stayed in Boston.
Thursday night, I chatted for a few minutes with Chauncey Billups. He is one of my favorite people in sports. He was in town to receive the NBA's first ever Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year award. Billups completely deserved the honor -- he is one of the best teammates I've ever covered. And earlier in his career he was, of course, an outstanding player.
But look at Billups' career. The Celtics and Raptors and Nuggets gave up on him before he had shown he could be a good NBA player. He established himself with the Timberwolves and they let him leave via free agency. (If Minnesota had kept him, Garnett might still be there.)
He won a title with the Pistons and nearly won one or two more. Then Pistons general manager Joe Dumars (another of my favorite people in sports) underestimated Billups' importance to the winning culture in Detroit and he dealt him to Denver. Billups was a great teammate there, but Denver dealt him to New York. He was a great teammate in New York and the Knicks released him to avoid paying a big luxury-tax bill. He ended up with the Clippers. Next year he may play somewhere else.
That's a lot of teams, and a lot of teammates, for the best teammate in the NBA.
I don't know if Ray Allen simply wanted to enjoy another title run. But I think he has learned two valuable lessons in the NBA. Trust nobody. And keep shooting jump shots until your worries disappear -- for a little while.