Ray Allen is a lot of things: A Hall of Famer. An Olympian. An NBA champion. Now, you can add University of Connecticut graduate to that list.
Ray Allen is royalty in Storrs, Connecticut. His jersey hangs in the rafters at Gampel Pavilion as the only UConn Huskies men’s basketball player to have his number retired. To this day, he holds the school record for three-point percentage (.448), threes made in a season (115), and consecutive games scoring in double figures (67). He’s also, for now, the program’s only men’s player currently in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
So, you’d be forgiven for thinking Allen had accomplished it all at UConn when he left in the mid-90s.
In reality, he had one thing gnawing at him all the way from his NBA transition in 1996 all the way into 2021: He didn’t have his degree, and he hated being reminded of that.
“I served on the board at the University of Connecticut, and every time I went to a board meeting, you’re sitting at this table with all these other board members, and it had my name and I’d see other people’s names, and it had their name and their class year, but I wasn’t official alumni,” Allen told Boardroom. “So, it’s those little things that over time ate away at me.”
It’s the Same Brain
Today, Ray Allen is a college graduate. You may have seen him over the weekend finally walking at UConn’s commencement exercises for the Class of 2023 at the age of 47.
He completed his degree in general studies in 2021, taking online classes during the height of the pandemic to get his remaining credits. Though he doesn’t need that college degree for anything — the guy made over $180 million in NBA salary alone — it’s now forever a line on his resume.
Allen never doubted whether he could accomplish this feat. As he put it, elite athletes are wired in a way that helps them succeed in the classroom.
“You don’t use your brain in one form of your existence and then don’t use it anymore,” he said. “It’s the same brain. So you compete in sports, so then you have to compete in academics.”
Only the opponent in the classroom isn’t a team of NBA players. It’s not even the professor, really. It’s the subject matter — the thing he has to break down like game tape — to digest, analyze, and respond to.
Aside from his proficiency from three, Allen is known on the court as a tireless worker. He was never one to half-ass a workout or to decide he was good enough at his craft. Talking to him about his studies, it’s apparent that he takes the same approach in the classroom.
“You understand what it takes to break something down to its finest parts,” he said, “and understand it from top to bottom and be great at it. Dominate it.”
Allen doesn’t believe that mindset has to be unique to him, either. Anyone good enough to reach the NBA is among the best in the world. They all have that same ability for greatness in academics.
“If you show me an intense competitor, I’ll show you somebody who can be good at anything,” he said. “Most people will brand an athlete as somebody who’s blessed to do that very sport or have a skill for that sport. But actually being great at a sport just means that you had the ability to focus and practice on that very thing.”
A Modern Approach
Ray Allen isn’t walking the streets, handing out resumes, and hoping to land some steady work. His road to a degree was his personal journey, all stemming from that sense of unfinished business at UConn and spurred on by his own curiosity.
This time around at the university, he was able to take a class on the 2020 presidential election as it unfolded. The university also offered a class on hip-hop, exploring its origins and how it’s enjoyed groundbreaking success around the world.
Ask Allen’s college coach, and he’ll tell you that range of classes fits his former player perfectly.
“Ray always wanted to know everything about everything and he always thought maybe a little different than a lot of guys,” Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, who coached the Huskies to three national titles, told Boardroom. “He’s a basketball player who was dedicated — I mean shooting, doing all those things — but his mind was always working and he always wanted to know more.”
Regardless of the subject matter, Allen took the opportunity to learn from his professors and classmates. Most of his peers were of traditional college age, born when he was already an established NBA star in his prime years. Those were the people he discussed coursework with in group texts and on class message boards.
Those are interactions Allen was thankful for, and they were not possible when he was of college age — and that’s not just because it was before the era of online classes and distance learning. UConn, as Allen points out, is far more diverse today than it was in the 90s, with the success of its basketball programs creating a more global profile for the university. Allen enjoyed meeting young peers from all walks of life, bringing a far wider range of life experiences to his discussions than he tended to witness on campus more than a quarter-century ago.
As Calhoun can attest, Allen would not shy away from someone with a different perspective. He tells a story of Allen getting to know his Israeli-born college teammate, Doron Sheffer, and learning about the horrors of the Holocaust. It led Allen to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and then eventually to travel to Poland to see Auschwitz firsthand.
“Ray is one of the most inquisitive guys I’ve ever met in my life,” Calhoun said. “He always wanted to know why.”
Allen doesn’t hesitate to share what he learns, either. During the 2022 US midterm elections, he was active on Instagram, voicing support of his chosen candidates. Now, he often shares his Word of the Day or a photo of whatever book he’s reading.
Setting an Example
Allen ranks fifth in NBA history with 385 made threes, so in the modern Association, it’s easy to see why young players would want to learn from the two-time NBA champion and 10-time All-Star’s game.
Just as importantly, however, he hopes current and future players can follow his example and go back and earn their degrees if they didn’t do so the first time around.
“Whenever you hear the story about somebody getting their degree 30 years after they left college, I think it sets a positive tone throughout the atmosphere where [people] say, ‘oh, man, I can do that too. It’s not too late for me. It’s not too difficult,'” Allen said, “and those are the stories I think we need to share, to talk about more in the public domain, because those are things that inspire people to be their best self.”
JR Smith is a living example. The two were traveling together when Smith caught Allen on the computer working on a paper. It was then that Allen explained he was working toward his degree and suggested Smith, who did not play college basketball, try to get his as well.
Smith’s path doesn’t have to be unique, either. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement allows for a $125,000 tuition reimbursement for athletes pursuing a college degree through the league and union’s joint Education Trust. While many will make enough money to pay for credits themselves, the tuition reimbursement is about more than covering costs.
“It’s the idea that your league is so concerned with your education and you furthering your education and focusing on making sure that you have the opportunity to go back and get your degree,” Allen explained. “Retired and current players, we understand that there’s some guys that are well-rounded and multifaceted, and it’s important that people understand [that] we didn’t finish school not because we couldn’t; it was just because the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. So now, as a league, [the goal is] to make sure that we have all of our players continue to better themselves, continue to grow, and add to their person.”
Allen’s approach to academics isn’t going to be universal, but he does want players to know how simple the process really is — and he believes that once players get a taste of furthering their own education, they’ll be hungry for more.
“It takes just that one opportunity to get your juices flowing,” he said. “Once you take that one class, you’re like, ‘oh, I want more.'”
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