The two high school players were thrashing, trying to keep up with the old-timer on the elliptical machine next to them. "We're going to beat you," wheezed one teen at a Hartford health club last summer.
"You won't," boomed the man, sounding like a Marine gunnery sergeant on Parris Island. "Because I'm the best in shape of anyone you'll ever find doing this."
After putting them through 30 increasingly dizzying minutes, Celtics shooting guard Ray Allen invited his new acquaintances to follow him to the treadmills. He had already taken one of the curious kids through his workout of bench presses, curls, shoulder lifts and push-ups—it happened to be an upper-body day for Allen—with little or no rest in between each set. Now the teenager's teammate had asked if they could join in for an hour of brutal cardio training, culminating in a half hour of sprinting in which Allen hiked up the speed in 30-second increments.
The Hartford Public High players were doubled over when Allen stepped off the treadmill. "I told them, 'How does that feel that I'm 20 years older than both of you guys and you can't keep up with me?'" recalls Allen. "I was giving them crap, but I wanted them to know if you guys want to be great you need to be in great condition. I said, 'I'm 35 years old—how am I beating you guys?'"
Allen will likely be asking that question of many an NBA two guard this season: The future Hall of Famer has extended his career by beating the league's most explosive athletes at their own game. Consider the fusion of athleticism and skill necessary for Allen to outrace younger defenders night after night, slaloming through an obstacle course of picks at full speed before coming to a complete stop just as the ball arrives, then catching and hoisting it up in one corkscrewing motion to release a three-pointer, a shot most players can't consistently hit during a game of H-O-R-S-E. "Every morning you come in the gym before practice, and Ray's already got a lather up because he's been out there shooting for an hour," says Boston coach Doc Rivers. "And you turn to your coaches and say, 'I wonder why he's a good shooter?'"
Sometime after the All-Star break Allen should convert his 117th three of the season to break the alltime record of 2,560, held by Reggie Miller. Allen has joined Miller and Michael Jordan as the only shooting guards in the last decade to play at an All-Star level in their mid-30s. At 6'5" and 205 pounds Allen takes pride in maintaining a 29-inch waist, noting that his face was "chubbier" in the late 1990s when he was an emerging All-Star with the Bucks. Though Allen averaged a 13-year low of 16.3 points last season, he was easily the most consistent member of Boston's Big Three while averaging 35.2 minutes over 80 starts, second on the team in both categories to 24-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo. "They say they're getting old, but our older guys take great care of their bodies," says Rondo. "Ray is always on the treadmill, he's always in the pool. He's in the best shape of his life, and he runs the most on the court of anybody on our team."
A rare sign of decline in Allen came in the championship series against the Lakers in June. After he set a Finals record by making eight threes (in only 11 attempts) to lead the Celtics to a 103--94 win in Game 2 at Los Angeles, he missed 24 of 28 from behind the arc, culminating in a 3-for-14 performance from the field in an 83--79 loss in Game 7. What went unrecognized—because the Celtics and Allen chose to keep it secret—was that his lift had been hampered by a right thigh bruise he picked up early in Game 3, when he darted into the lane and was kneed by the Lakers' Ron Artest. Allen says he should have known that L.A. would focus on him after his 32-point outburst the previous game. "I didn't have my wits about me like I should have," says Allen. "I know what type of reputation [Artest] has as far as being a guy that is willing to bang down there. I look at it and wish that I could have it back, because that's one cut that I would have avoided. Even at this stage of my career it was something [to learn], that you can't be too arrogant in your way of going about how you do your job, because the game will humble you."
Allen's response to the injury deepened his coach's respect for him. "Listen, I thought Ray had one of the best defensive games in history at the two guard the way he defended Kobe in Game 7 ... and he did it on that leg," says Rivers of Bryant's 6-of-24 performance from the field. "It showed me who he was: Ray couldn't do much at all—he couldn't jump—but he played and he never complained."
Rather than dismiss the age of their stars as a weakness, the Celtics chose to add more veterans. To fill in for center Kendrick Perkins, who isn't expected back until February after suffering a torn right ACL in Game 6 of the Finals, Boston signed a pair of behemoth O'Neals—38-year-old Shaquille and 32-year-old Jermaine. That should bolster the team's front line and its board work; the Celtics ranked 29th in rebounding last season. Instead of replacing Allen with a younger pair of legs, they re-signed him for $20 million over two years. "I hope that I'm an example," says Allen, "not only for my teammates, but for the kids who watch and even for the guys I play against."
The Celtics' conversion from losers to champs began in June 2007, when coming off a 24-win season, they traded for Allen, which in turn persuaded Kevin Garnett to accept a trade to Boston. That turnaround should serve as a model to the Celtics' ambitious rivals in this otherwise sorry division. The Atlantic is home to four of the eight largest TV markets in North America, and over the NBA's initial 40 years, 22 championships were won by Boston, Philadelphia and New York. But the Knicks and the 76ers have been woeful over the last decade, squandering their abundant resources on exorbitant contracts for mediocre talent. "There's never been a consistency in who runs the ship," Allen says of the impatience of Boston's rivals in the Atlantic, "so it's been hard to keep a consistent model."