NBA Lifestyle

1996 NBA Draft 25th Anniversary: Ray Allen reflects on his iconic Jordan sneaker legacy that very nearly never was

The 1996 NBA Draft will go down as one of, if not the best drafts in NBA history.

From the late Kobe Bryant, to Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Antoine Walker, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Ray Allen, that night in Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey spawned a class of hoopers that would go on to define a generation.

25 years on, Allen, a two-time NBA champion, 10x All-Star and all-time 3-point record holder was fresh off his third season at the University of Connecticut, starring in college in legendary battles with Kerry Kittles (Villanova), Allen Iverson (Georgetown) and John Wallace (Syracuse), all of whom would be selected in the draft, alongside his UConn teammate Travis Knight.

"The special thing about that draft, just knowing myself, Kerry Kittles and Allen Iverson had come out of the Big East, we had competed against each other and nothing else mattered other than just winning. We wanted to win, we wanted to be the best," Allen said on NBA Australia's Courtside Huddle.

Four MVP awards, 37 All-NBA selections, 11 All-Stars, six scoring titles and four Hall of Famers later, Allen says the '96 class came into the league with a chip on their shoulder, ready to prove themselves, and when you look back at the long list of accolades, they did just that and then some.

"You got a Steve Nash in that draft who's fighting for respect and he's carrying Canada on his back and he wants to prove that he belongs. You have a young kid in Shareef Abdur-Rahim that wants to prove that he belongs and at the back end of the draft you have Ben Wallace who wants to prove that he was snubbed because he was a rookie that year in 96-97," Allen continued.

It's amazing to think Wallace went undrafted in 1996, such was the talent in the class. The former Detroit Pistons big man would go on to win an NBA championship, four Defensive Player of the Year awards and earn four All-Star selections, adding even more accolades to the star-studded class of '96.

The iconic SLAM Magazine cover featuring the '96 class read "Ready or Not here they come!" and no player embodied that more than the late Kobe Bryant, the second player to jump straight to the league, bypassing college, following Kevin Garnett, the year prior.

"Kobe, he wants to prove that he belongs coming out of high school, so I think the stage was set because these kids that were coming in in '96, it wasn't about money, it wasn't about fame, we knew what was in the league," Allen continued.

"We're coming to league thinking MJ is in the league, we all grew up as fans, now it was just about the work, we got to play."

The MJ effect

Winning rings with the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, draining more 3-pointers than anyone else in NBA history, making it to the Hall of Fame... Ray Allen's basketball legacy is in rare air, but his impact on culture is on another level.

Starring in Spike Lee's iconic film He Got Game, opposite Oscar winner Denzel Washington, Ray 'Jesus Shuttlesworth' Allen has done it all, but what will perhaps live on beyond anything he did on the court is his impact in the sneaker world.

Allen was one of the first members of Team Jordan, alongside, Derek Anderson, Eddie Jones, Vin Baker and Michael Finley. Five young stars Michael Jordan picked to launch his brand with Nike in 1997, a brand that would go on to become one of the biggest culture shifters of all time.

Allen's Jordan PEs are some of the most legendary in the game, getting the custom treatment from Jordan Brand throughout his career.

But it very nearly wasn't the case.

"If you look at the SLAM magazine cover, you look at it in its entirety, you look on my feet and you realise that I have on FILA. That was rookie orientation, so we're still jockeying for position with shoe companies and I was kind of going down this pathway to sign a deal with FILA. I was very hesitant and reluctant to do it and a Nike deal that I had, it kind of went away, but it came back and we were talking about it and they told me, 'hey, you know, there's a potential that we're starting a new line, a Jordan line, and you're one of the players that we would consider adding you to this line,'" Allen said.

"So as I'd realised FILA wasn't for me, I signed my contract for Nike, and they said they were going to put me on the Jordan line and I asked them, I said 'so how do you decide who you want to be on his line?' and he said that MJ is picking his players specifically and so I thought to myself, 'man, how does MJ know me?'"

"To be picked out like that, I didn't know or think that Jordan knew who I was and when they said that I thought maybe that was just lip service to make me sign with them but it was actually the truth, he handpicked the guys that he thought [should be] his inaugural players that he wanted to represent his brand and kind of move in his likeness."

Being personally chosen by the best player to ever pick up a basketball, to represent him on court is the ultimate co-sign of your game, but nothing prepared Allen for his first meeting with Jordan, lining up against 'His Airness' in a preseason game shortly after being selected with the No. 5 pick in the draft by the Milwaukee Bucks.

"It's October 15, 1996 and I'm on the floor at the United Center and I'm stretching and then all of a sudden I hear "and now your Chicago Bulls" and he comes running down, the team runs out, I'm stretching, I'm kind of looking up and I'm almost afraid to look," Allen said.

"This would be the best thing in the world because I'm still a fan, just still in awe of who this man has been for me and the groundwork that he's laid for so many people and not just basketball and not just in sports. Just the way he's gone about doing his job, his competitiveness, it still lives with all of us today and so he was the last one on the court and I couldn't believe it.

"I needed a measuring stick because my whole life, I didn't know whether I was tall enough, if I jumped high enough, if I'm strong enough and so here I am playing against Michael Jordan, October 15 and I'm a rookie and the first thing he said to me, when we were at the centre for jump ball, he said, 'welcome to the NBA'.

"He said, 'Hey, Ray, welcome to the NBA' and I was stammered because I couldn't believe he knew my name one, and two he was that respectful and humble, that he welcomed me into the NBA and that was just a sign of respect for me and it gave me a sense of understanding to know that this is just about competition, it's not personal and for all of the kids that got drafted that year, it was about just learning the game and getting better and nothing else matters."

The foundation laid by the original starting five of Team Jordan has carried on through the league since 1996, with today's crop of young stars headlined by Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal and Bam Adebayo, while last week Jordan announced a groundbreaking deal with 11 WNBA players.

25 years on, it's safe to say the Team Jordan legacy is only going to even greater heights.

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