Shaquille O’Neal had dreams in his hardwood career’s early going of extending his considerable brand to Hollywood. This was, as the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “This Magic Moment” outlined, partly why he forced a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, but it was also why he appeared in so-called star vehicles from the 1990s like “Kazaam” and “Steel.” Of course, they were star vehicles because Shaq fancied himself more a star, less an actor. After all, acting is hard work, and Shaq came from the basketball school immortalized in “Airplane!” by little Joey – that is, Shaq mostly didn’t really try, except in the playoffs. That’s why Shaq never really got good acting notices, because he would have had to try, and why try when he could just fall back on playing himself.
Ray Allen, a Shaq contemporary, who officially announced his retirement from the NBA on Tuesday, was the opposite. He was a worker. He made the most three point shots in NBA history partly because his shot was so pure, yes, but also because he worked so diligently to ensure that shot’s purity, to maintain its upkeep, to ensure his release and footwork were flawless every single time so that he could be ready to shoot from absolutely anywhere on the court at any time. That is why in the immortal Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals he could improbably backpedal, without looking, to an exact spot in the corner where there is not an inch to spare and squeeze off a shot with a hand flying at him with not even half a second to spare and the championship on the line and watch the ball go swish. Ray Allen was always ready.
Ray Allen had never acted when in 1998 Spike Lee enlisted the 2nd year NBA player to portray the protagonist, Jesus Shuttlesworth, the most heavily recruited high school basketball player in the country, of his basketball opus “He Got Game” (1998). But Ray Allen got himself ready. I mean, just as Ray Allen the Basketball Player would never show up at some random January night in the Bradley Center unprepared and unfocused, Ray Allen the Novice Actor would not show up on set and expect to coast on his own charm. Indeed, Allen worked with an acting coach, Susan Batson, for several months in the lead up to filming.
Allen plays the part with backbone, though this is not mere posturing. No, Allen crucially connects that backbone to the character’s relationship with his father, Jake (Denzel Washington), serving time in jail for inadvertently killing his wife, Jesus’s mother. That backbone is a product of the wariness he feels toward Jake, wariness that now extends to essentially everyone else in his orbit, all the people snapping at Jesus’s heels to get a piece of the pie. Even in the moment where Jesus catches a ride from the very Spike Lee monikered Big Time Willie, who lectures Jesus about who he can and cannot trust, Allen makes clear in his demenaor that his character does not really trust Big Time Willie either. His guard is always up, except for moments with his sister (Zelda Harris) where he exudes stern warmth, and moments on his own where he allows space for a boyish modesty. The latter is never more true than the, uh, NC-17 scene where his character is, uh, erotically enticed by a pair of femals provided by the university is visiting as a recruiting tool. BroBible might fault me for such a reading, but the way Allen has Jesus sit quietly on the edge of the bed in this situation is a reminder his character remains a timid teenager at heart and proof that Allen thought about who he was playing.
He also thought about who he was playing in his scenes with Washington, whose character is released from prison for a few days at the governor’s behest to try and convince Jesus to attend a particular school. And it is in these scenes, which typically play as confrontations, quiet or otherwise, where the soul of “He Got Game” rests, and for which it would seem Batson was truly prepping Allen. “She was prodding at me every day,” Allen told Denene Millner of The New York Daily News of his experience with Batson. “We’d be sitting at the table and she’d ask me about my childhood, about my mother and father's relationship, who made me angry as a child. Those kinds of things are personal. I’m a very closed individual, and she started getting nosy and snooping around in my life and it was horrifying.”
It would only make sense that a man as methodical as Ray Allen would dig The Method. And reading that passage you can see how Allen might have taken those very feelings and grafted them onto Jesus. Because as the movie progresses the more Allen let us see how Jesus’s real thoughts and feelings about where he wants to go to school, and about who he can and cannot trust, are buried deep, and how each time he is challenged, most particularly by his father, those thoughts and feelings erupt to the surface and he just wants to shout them back down.
It’s one thing, though, for an actor to act and quite another for an actor to react, and that’s why Allen’s best moment is the sequence when Jake reveals that Jesus’s name comes not from Jesus but from Earl Monroe (“Black Jesus”). Here Allen plays Jesus in such a way that you can see him letting his dad in even as he is simultaneously suspicious a double motivation lurks, rendered in his cautiously inquisitive expressions. But when the other shoe drops, Allen lets the hurt spill out. Throughout the movie, Jesus calls Jake “Jake”, not “Dad”, and he does it again here. “Jake, you like everybody else.” And similar to all the other moments, Allen says “Jake” in such a way as to make it sound like Jesus is deliberately blaspheming, like all the hurt in the world is contained in that pronounciation. It probably is. Because in the end, Ray Allen decided that he wasn’t playing the world’s best basketball player; he was playing someone’s son.