Hidden Husky Hero

March 22, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

He came out of high school relatively unknown and totally undaunted. He wasn't invited to the prestigious summer camps until right before his senior year and didn't have his breakthrough performance until the summer before his freshman year in college.

Now, he's a sophomore star for a Top 10 team in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. He's one of the best players at his position in the country, a prodigy and future NBA lottery pick. College coaches all over the country wonder why they didn't look at him during the recruiting process.

This story might sound familiar to Maryland fans. But this is not about an All-American named Joe Smith. It's about an All-American-to-be named Ray Allen. A 6-foot-5 swingman for Connecticut, Allen hasn't attained nearly the stature of Smith, a favorite for national Player of the Year and a legend back in College Park.

But Allen is the Huskies' answer to Maryland's extraordinary Joe.

"Both kids were at the bottom of the list of great players going into their senior year of high school. They weren't McDonald's All-Americans," recalled Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, whose eighth-ranked Huskies, the No. 2 seed in the NCAA West Regional, play the 10th-ranked Terrapins, the No. 3 seed, in the regional semifinals tomorrow night at the Oakland (Calif.) Coliseum.

"The first time I saw Ray, I said to one of my assistants, 'We're going to have a tough time getting a kid as good as this,' " Calhoun recalled. "Kentucky and Alabama wanted him, as well as the state schools -- Clemson and South Carolina. I thought the first time I saw him that he was a very special player. I think he had something like 39 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists. I knew we had to get him."

Getting Allen wasn't as difficult as Calhoun envisioned. Both of the state schools -- Allen is from Dalzell, S.C. -- were going through turmoil with their respective coaches. After Allen eliminated Alabama, it came down to Kentucky and Connecticut. Many figured he was headed to Lexington when he chose to go there for Midnight Madness, a made-for-television event that packs Rupp Arena.

"I told his mother that I hoped he had a good time, but not that good a time," said Calhoun.

Said Allen: "I told Coach Calhoun that I was going to visit Kentucky for Midnight Madness, and he was kind of nervous. But in the back of my mind, I knew I would always go to Connecticut."

The rest could be Connecticut and Big East history, if Allen plays all four seasons with the Huskies. He finished second in scoring with a 12.6 average last season as a freshman behind All-American Donyell Marshall, despite not starting a game. He leads the Huskies this year with 20.7 points a game, in steals with 1.5 and is second in rebounding with 6.6.

Though there hasn't been nearly the same kind of focus on Allen's decision whether to leave early for the NBA as there has been for Smith's, the possibility exists. Allen, 19, is the father of a 2-year-old daughter, Tiera, who lives with her mother in Allen's hometown.

Allen helped out financially last summer by selling cars at a dealership in Mansfield, Conn. After being hired to wash cars, Allen persuaded the owner to let him try selling them. He wound up selling five cars, and it gave him confidence that he could make a living at something other than basketball. Or try both.

"I've always wanted to do two things -- play in the NBA and own my own business," Allen said in an interview with the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin before this season.

Allen's future in the NBA is as a shooting guard, but for now he's comfortable rotating between there and small forward. He has scored more than 20 points in 22 games this season, including the past five, reaching a career-high 31 three times. He is shooting 49.0 percent from the field overall, including 80 of 177 from three-point range.

As his background mirrors Smith's, so does Allen's personality. Perhaps it comes from growing up out of the spotlight. Confident, but far from cocky. Humble, but far from shy about his talent.

"I knew coming out of high school what I could do," said Allen. "When I got here, some of the guys thought of me only as a slashing-type player. They didn't know I could shoot the three."

Many big-time coaches didn't know either, because most never made it to Dalzell. By the time Allen exploded by breaking Shaquille O'Neal's scoring record at the Olympic Festival, it was too late. He was headed to Storrs to become part of a statewide phenomenon called Huskymania.

Unlike Smith, Allen played a secondary role to junior Donyell Marshall last season. He played only 21.6 minutes a game, but still managed double figures 24 times. He finished second to teammate Doron Sheffer for the Big East's Rookie of the Year.

With the spotlight focused on Marshall, who would forgo his senior year for the NBA, Allen quietly developed into a star.

"If you could pick the perfect situation for a young player with a lot of talent to mature, that was it," said Calhoun. "Ray was terrific as a secondary offensive player, and he's been even better as the primary player."

Allen is looking forward to meeting up with his old friend Smith in Oakland. The two became acquainted on a trip to the Nike summer camp in Indianapolis before their respective senior years in high school. After taking connecting flights through Charlotte, N.C., they wound up sitting next to each other.

"We had a seat between us, and they wanted to put a blind family together," recalled Allen. "They moved us into first class. We hadn't traveled much, so we thought we had to put the tickets in the pocket in back of the seats in front of us. When we got to Indianapolis, I thought he had my ticket and he thought I had his. They ended up having to give us new tickets."

A friendship was born.

Shortly thereafter, so were two college basketball stars with similar stories.

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