He cannot remember what was in the contest jar - balls or jellybeans or other objects - but
“I won three books,’’ Allen said with a smile. “I remember I felt so proud that I won those three books, those books were mine.’’
Allen traces his love of reading to that moment, and it continues today, as he uses the pleasures of a good book to ease the boredom of long road trips or soothe a particularly bad loss. To the world, Allen’s identity is as an NBA superstar with a smooth 3-point shot. But in the locker room, on the road, or waiting for a game to start, he is the guy with his nose in a book.
“I’ve always been a reader,’’ Allen said. “Once I got to the NBA, I picked it up again because I had so many lonely nights where I was on a plane, we lost, my mind just kind of was blank. So I started reading books more then, started reading things, going to different places in my mind.’’
He found favorites, like Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,’’ which led to others, which led to still more. On one recent Tuesday, he sat on a bench in the Celtics’ Waltham practice facility describing, in detail, the narrative of “Unbroken,’’ the story of World War II lieutenant Louis Zamperini by Laura Hillenbrand. He went on and on, twists and amazing moments.
“You’ve got to read that book,’’ he said. “That book is killer.’’
“Flyboys’’ was another one that fascinated him with its military history, adventures, and survival.
Allen prefers real books, the paper-and-ink variety, but bows to the convenience of his iPad, recalling the difficulty of stuffing three or four volumes in a travel bag. Still, “it’s like you’re cheating on a book now,’’ he mused.
The library in his office holds 400 or 500 books. There are levels and sections. There is a set of encyclopedias, books about black legends, and books about the military, the Air Force and Navy and Marines.
He suggests books, or sometimes passages, sentences, anything he thinks will interest friends or family or teammates. Like “Sniper,’’ shared with teammate Keyon Dooling, the discussion focused on the comparisons between the sniper’s need to slow his heart rate before shooting and the free-throw shooter’s need to do the same.
It used to be self-help tomes, books he would pass along as gifts to teammates at Christmas - “Who Moved My Cheese?’’ and “Well Done,’’ anything that he thought would aid or interest them.
Have his teammates been receptive? “Um,’’ he said, “pretty much, no.’’
“That’s a shame, too, because there’s so much happening around the world,’’ he said, of athletes not being known as readers. “What we do here is we understand the idea of basketball and we stay on top of it and our basketball knowledge is so important. And you can explain the game to everybody.
“But everything else in the world we become dumb toward. Just pick up a newspaper to understand what’s going on around the world, watch the news. When we were in college it was a different story . . . we learned something every day. Around here you’re not learning anything. So it’s important that you read, because you understand what’s going on with the world, you understand the economy. . . . There’s so much that we need to know, and we’re not getting it from playing basketball.’’
Right now, he is reading two books: “American Sniper’’ and “Rock the Casbah,’’ the stories of Navy Seals and Islamic rage playing off each other, informing each other, reminding Allen just how far basketball is from actual war.
The need to read, he says, hit him one day in the trainer’s room, looking at all the books around the place, the latest knowledge on this injury or that issue, the latest research. The trainers were always reading, learning, keeping up on the newest information. Why should he be different?
And while his teammates are not always the best audience for his book discussions - there is not likely to be a Celtics book club any time soon - there are some who share his love.
“If you want to learn something, television isn’t the most reliable source,’’ said Dooling, who estimated he has read 20 books in the last two years. “Newspapers sometimes have political affiliations, and you don’t necessarily get the true essence of a story. So if you want to seek information or awareness you’ve got to go and find it yourself.
“What better way than books?’’
Allen knows that reading builds on itself, that one book leads to another recommendation, leads to another story, leads to another journey. He checks the books bought and read by others who have loved his favorites, and finds new ones.
“It’s like a date,’’ he said. “Like you’ve got a great date and you can look forward to it.’’
There is, however, a caution.
As Allen said, “Once you start reading you won’t have any other choice but to read, and continue to read.’’
He finds the time, finds books with stories of greatness, tales that make him want to work harder and better at his own job.
“It almost seems like time just blinks,’’ Allen said. “Because when you have a great book, that’s the first thing you want to do. No matter what’s happened in my day, I want to get back to that book.’’