Ray Allen knew starting his own foundation would be difficult. He didn't know it could be dangerous — until he fired his executive...
Ray Allen knew starting his own foundation would be difficult. He didn’t know it could be dangerous — until he fired his executive director in 1999.
That director, Mark Christie, took the news at home over the phone. He didn’t take it well.
“I remember him saying he was going to kill everybody,” says Allen, the former Sonics star.
Christie admits he threatened Allen, but says he was venting and wasn’t serious. Although Allen didn’t expect Christie to follow through, he wasn’t taking any chances. He hired bodyguards for himself and his mother, who worked at the charity.
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Allen can laugh about it now, the low point in a decade of charity work. Hindsight provides a clear view of what went wrong. They aimed high. Too high. They hosted lavish events that cost more than they raised for charity. They grew fast. Too fast. And then they fell hard.
Allen’s goodwill threatened to stain his good name.
“It taught me a lot,” Allen says. “Now, I won’t allow anyone to have that control.”
Allen was a rising basketball star from the University of Connecticut with a well-rounded image and a perfect jump shot. The guy with so much charisma he played the lead role of Jesus Shuttlesworth in the feature film “He Got Game” and later negotiated his own $71 million NBA contract.
Christie was the star’s manager, a credit analyst who once worked on Wall Street and took graduate business classes at Columbia University. He saw Allen not as a player, or even a superstar, but as a brand.
Allen brought the star power, Christie the financial pedigree.
They both admit what happened next.
“I’m the employee that’s always written about who threatened Ray’s life,” Christie says. “I’m not that kind of guy. Never have been. I’m not a criminal.”
The end of their partnership seems far removed from their beginning, when they opened an office on the 14th floor of a building in Hartford, Conn. Christie could see beyond the insurance companies clustered downtown. No longer would Hartford be considered as sexy as a filing cabinet.
“I was in a position,” Christie says, “where I could combine Ray’s notoriety and his desire to do good, with my heartbeat for the people, for the city of Hartford.”
He had dreams. Big dreams. He would throw an event that turned Hartford into Hollywood, if only for one weekend.
Weekend goes awry
The Ray of Hope Foundation held the Connecticut Classic one weekend in August 1998. It included a golf tournament and a softball game at a minor-league ballpark, and culminated in a charity basketball game.
Movie director Spike Lee coached one team. Oprah Winfrey’s beau, Stedman Graham, coached the other. NBA stars Paul Pierce, Allen Iverson and Gary Payton all played. Dinner was served aboard a cruise on the Connecticut River at $250 a plate. Limos ferried guests to casinos an hour away.
Christie had turned Hartford into Hollywood. For that weekend, Christie says, “the city lit up.” The perfect ending came when Allen made the winning shot at the Hartford Civic Center.
The bill arrived soon after.
Total foundation fundraising expenses reported in 1998: $532,518
Cost to Ray Allen, out of his personal bank account? Far from priceless
The foundation spent $88,970 on charitable programs in 1998 — about one-fifth of what it spent on fundraising. That same year the foundation lost $60,036. That made the lavish spending look even worse.
The event failed to cover the $50,000 commitment made to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. The giant check Allen presented at halftime of the game might as well have been made of rubber. Allen made the donation out of his own pocket.
And he says that weekend wasn’t his only financial woe.
“If you don’t raise money,” Allen says, “and you don’t put the money in the right place, then people will be quick to say that your foundation is a fraud. Not that they said my foundation is a fraud, but I don’t want to do things just to show people a good time.”
Events are tricky investments for nonprofits. Charities pay to host events, then wait for the return. But when donations don’t measure up, it can look like the sponsor has thrown one heck of a party for dozens of his closest friends.
Allen’s event lost money. Getting the celebrities wasn’t the problem — “I have a lot of friends,” Allen says — but the cost of attracting them to Hartford in the middle of the summer, combined with the limited pool of local sponsors, left Allen knowing he would foot the bill.
“Nobody was bending over backwards for me,” Allen says. “Ultimately, that’s what led to me not doing it anymore. I was spending too much money.”
Christie got the ax. Allen got the bodyguards.
The mayor of Hartford eventually steered Allen toward a consultant to help reorganize his charity.
NBA’s model citizen
Ray Allen plays the piano, collects art and wore a suit long before the NBA enacted its dress code two years ago. He’s something of a Ray-naissance Man.
The NBA wishes every one of its players projected that kind of image.
Before last season, each team presented a version of the same slide show. The first slide depicts rap mogul Jay-Z seated courtside in an oxford shirt, sweater and necktie. “I’m not a businessman,” a caption on the slide show reads, “I’m a business, man.”
The slide show preaches the importance of image and the need to change the public perception of NBA players. It also emphasizes how community service is good for business. The NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement mandates 12 player appearances per season. The Sonics keep track on a spreadsheet.
At league meetings, Allen is always tagged the prototype.
“What you want in public perception is Ray,” says Rick DuPree, Sonics director of player resources. “There’s so much brand value in his name.”
Allen’s charity allows him to show a different side, something deeper. His humanity.
It all started back in college, when Allen met Andre James, a teenager with a brain tumor. Allen showed up one afternoon, unannounced. They quickly became friends. Allen even invited James to his house for dinner.
Allen had visited sick kids before, but this felt different. More personal. More inspiring.
“He was one of the first people that I saw that I affected directly,” Allen says. “You send jerseys and balls, and you realize you touched somebody. But I physically saw him affected by my presence.”
After James died, their friendship became the genesis for Allen’s foundation.
Allen left his mark on the community at every stop, even Hartford. He hosted a night golf tournament for kids there and refurbished a local basketball court.
He brought singer Brian McKnight to Seattle for a Karaoke event benefiting Children’s Hospital & Medical Center. He paid about $40,000 to help middle-school students learn algebra.
More recently, the foundation lost momentum. In 2005, it spent $21,502 on charitable programs, its smallest total. The charity became even less active the past two years, something Allen partly blames on uncertainty over the Sonics’ future in Seattle.
“It doesn’t really matter what the foundation is doing,” Allen says, “as much as [whether] I’m affecting change.”
Allen doesn’t hold any grudges against Christie for the early missteps. He calls Christie “fun” and “passionate” and credits him for setting Allen up financially.
Christie lives in Texas now. He found God, runs a development company and doesn’t have one bad thing to say about Allen.
The former partners don’t talk anymore. But they will always be linked by the weekend they turned Hartford into Hollywood — and ended up with more drama than box-office receipts, costing Christie his job and denting Allen’s reputation.
“What we were able to do together for those couple of years was significant,” Christie says, “and had much more value than whatever the accountants could say was the loss.
“A lot of people were affected.”
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or email@example.com