Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen helps lead a youth program in his hometown of Philadelphia, and in the summer of 2018 he decided to take the group to an opening weekend showing of ‘Uncle Drew,’ the movie starring the Celtics point guard Allen coached at the time.
He and Kyrie Irving were co-workers and friends, and that week Allen told Irving he had bought tickets to bring about 20 children to see his new film.
“And none of them would probably believe me when I say that I get in shouting matches with you on the court,” Allen jokingly told Irving then. “They’ll probably look at me like I’m lying.”
Irving was touched by the gesture and wanted to add to the treat. He asked Allen to get the shirt and shoe sizes of all of the children. Soon after, a massive care package arrived in Philadelphia filled with Celtics gear and pairs of Irving’s signature Nike sneakers.
“As a human being, I know people have takes on him from afar because of some of the things he says,” Allen said by phone Thursday. “But I know he has a giving spirit.”
The Celtics face Irving and the Nets in an opening-round playoff series beginning Saturday in Brooklyn. In Boston, the sour grapes from Irving’s departure two years ago remain.
In the waning moments of the Celtics’ play-in tournament win over the Wizards on Tuesday night, fans at TD Garden started a loud and expletive-laced chant directed at Irving, and it will likely be recreated when the Nets come to Boston for Game 3 next week.
When the Celtics traded for Irving in the summer of 2017 and eventually teamed him up with Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, there was reason to believe he would lead a championship contender for years to come.
At an event for season-ticket holders prior to the 2018-19 season, Irving stood on the TD Garden floor, picked up a microphone and said he intended to re-sign with the Celtics at season’s end. That year, he also filmed a Nike commercial in which he referenced his No. 11 hanging in the Garden rafters someday. Then a frustrating year ended with Boston being bounced by the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Less than two months later, Irving was gone.
Allen acknowledges that Boston is one of the most fiercely loyal and passionate sports cities in the world. He understands why fans were hurt by Irving’s departure and how it unfolded. He understands the frustration.
“But, I’ve also said things before and ended up doing something completely different,” Allen said. “I don’t think Kyrie had any malicious intent to try to deceive or manipulate the situation. It’s just that sometimes those things happen.
“I work for the Celtics, but the bottom line is I wanted for him the things that were going to make him happy, and if leaving was going to make him happy and if the relationship is genuine, then you support that. That’s what I tried to stand on. Would I have loved for him to stay? Yeah, he’s a generational talent. But ultimately, that wasn’t my call, and I wanted what was best for him.”
Despite a few speed bumps, Irving’s return home to the New York area has mostly been a rousing success. With Kevin Durant and James Harden each missing half of the season due to injuries, Irving helped lead Brooklyn to a 48-24 record and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
He averaged 26.9 points, 6 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game and became just the ninth player in NBA history to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the foul line over a full season.
“I coach and study the sport, but I’m also a fan of the sport,” Allen said. “Some of the things he’s done and some of the shots he’s made, I would just chuckle, like, I had the opportunity to see those things on a daily basis. So for him to have the success he’s having, I’m happy for him. Obviously, I’m rooting against him in this series on every possession. But outside of that, he’s a special player.”
Allen said he and Irving still exchange text messages and find time to talk when their teams are facing each other. The conversations are usually about their families rather than their professions.
Sometimes, Allen thinks about what it would have been like to coach Irving longer. He thinks about what might have been possible. But he’s also grateful for their two years together, which ensured that he would always be one of the people in Boston without a bad word to say about the talented point guard.
“God-willingly as I get older and am fortunate enough to have grandchildren,” Allen said, “I’ll be able to say to them that I had a front-row seat to watch this man night in and night out.”