Thanks to Spike Lee, Ray Allen Has Got Game and Movie Fame
Ray Allen doesn’t look like a movie star. Comfortable in baggy black jeans, a rumpled white V-neck T-shirt and white athletic socks on shoeless feet, he barely resembles an NBA millionaire, either.
But director Spike Lee didn’t want a star to play Jesus Shuttlesworth, America’s No. 1 high school recruit, in the new movie “He Got Game.” He sought a talented basketball player who looked young enough to portray an 18-year-old, and Allen, the Milwaukee Bucks’ second-year guard, fit the bill.
Lee approached Allen about auditioning for the part when the Bucks were in New York to play the Knicks. Unlike a lot of athletes eager for show business careers, Allen hadn’t considered any other stage than a basketball court.
“I can’t do any movies,” Allen recalled of his initial reaction. “It was great for him to just ask me. That was my first year in the league and I was still trying to get used to meeting all these celebrities, so I was amused by it.”
His only previous experience was as narrator of a third-grade school play, so he worked with an acting coach for eight weeks before shooting began in Brooklyn last summer.
“He did not want to be just a jock on screen,” Lee said. “He was focused and determined, and not many players would be willing to make that kind of commitment and dedicated effort in their offseason.”
In the movie, opening this weekend, Oscar winner Denzel Washington portrays Jake Shuttlesworth, a prisoner paroled for one week to persuade his estranged son, Jesus, to sign with the governor’s alma mater. If Jake is successful, the governor promises to commute the sentence he’s serving for the murder of Jesus’ mother.
With Jake in jail, Jesus had to raise himself and his younger sister in a Coney Island housing project. He’s facing the biggest decision of his life, whether to accept one of hundreds of college scholarship offers or jump from Lincoln High School to the NBA.
In some ways, the movie is not unlike Allen’s recruiting experience. As a talented prep guard from South Carolina, he was wooed by Kentucky, Alabama, Wake Forest, North Carolina State, Clemson and Florida. (The story also has similarities to Stephon Marbury’s career. The Minnesota Timberwolves guard grew up in Coney Island and went to Lincoln High).
“The phone rang all the time,” Allen said. “My sister stopped answering the phone, then my mom started telling people she wasn’t home. I wanted everybody to leave me alone. I just wanted them to stop bothering me.”
Eventually, they did after he chose Connecticut, where he starred for the Huskies.
“I wasn’t offered anything coming out of high school. A lot of guys get things, but I wasn’t high on the totem pole for most colleges,” he said. “Nobody came to me and said, ‘Here’s a car,’ and I’m thankful for that.”
Not so for Jesus.
His coach flashes $10,000 cash in exchange for early word on his decision. An agent invites Jesus over to ogle expensive cars and a platinum and diamond Rolex for signing with the agent.
It’s a lot like today’s real-life recruiting, much to the chagrin of the NCAA, which has rules prohibiting contacts with agents in order to retain eligibility.
“You get recruited by agents, you get recruited by coaches, you get recruited by girls, too,” Allen said. “These are people you probably never had relationships with in the past. The agents want money and coaches want to win, and they’re trying to get the best available talent.”
Allen has already told some of his young fans they’ll have to wait until they’re older to watch the R-rated movie, which has some nudity and sex scenes.
“I know a lot of kids will get their hands on it,” he said. “It’s just important, in case they do see it, that they look at it for the story it’s telling, and not just for the sneakers that are in the movie and the pretty girls in the movie. It’s about something.”
The movie also features a real one-on-one game between Allen and Washington. Washington played as a freshman at Fordham University, and although his skills were rusty, he scored some points on Allen, which wasn’t in the script.
“Most of the scenes that Ray and I did together took place on or around the basketball court, which was a great environment for him because it’s where he can be instinctively more relaxed and confident,” Washington said.
Milwaukee wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs, leaving Allen free to talk up “He Got Game.” He’s already thinking of future roles he’d like to play.
“I would say secret agent-type films, something that people would really like to see with fun gadgets and things blowing up, espionage and all that good stuff,” said Allen, a James Bond fan.
But he’d rather accept the NBA championship trophy than an Academy Award.
“The Oscar, they call your name and you win an award,” Allen said. “It just doesn’t have the elation to me that after zero seconds on the clock, you just won a championship and everybody is hooting and hollering for you. The whole world is drawn in on those [NBA] finals.”