By now, you will have heard about the basketball game that took place on Sunday, January 26th—if you’re any sort of a basketball fan, that is. In an otherwise unspectacular matchup between a disinterested bunch and a motley crew of underachievers, the Boston Celtics went head to head with Brooklyn Nets on a nippy Sunday evening.
But, it wasn’t really about the current rosters or the division records or pretty much anything in the contemporary. The chilly affair at the tail end of January was all about the glorious achievements in the past, about the better days that won’t soon be forgotten by the faithful in green and white. It was about the return of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to TD Garden for the first time since the midsummer trade that sent the two packing. Two legends, making their heralded return to the arena filled with championship banners, retired numbers and all other indications of glory way back when. Two legends, returning to the city in which they cemented their own marvelous legacies with one marvelous string of successes.
Two legends, showing their faces to the crowd that cheered, cursed and grew teary-eyed right alongside them — a faithful band of supporters that gave it their all, for as long as #34 and #5 could do the same on the parquet.
By now, you most likely have read the moving column by Adrian Wojnarowski or the stirring reflection piece by Zach Lowe, two of the best in the business. Those well-versed in the flowing sentences of basketball jargon offered their thoughts to the rest of us because it needed to be done in the week of January 26th; the basketball writers came out in full force for good reason, giving perspective on a spectacle that wasn’t about statistics or highlights or posturing for the postseason.
With Pierce and Garnett, Paul and Kevin, it was, and always will be, about raw emotion, the sort of heartrending display of passion that sticks with you even after the final buzzer sounds. Only those who closely followed the Celtics that made a wounded franchise whole once more can truly understand the meaning of that night. Lumps in my throat, I almost shed tear after tear before composing beside my fellow viewers. I got up for each and every one of their games, regular season or whatever — quarter after quarter, game after game, year after year. I watched it all, when those two gladiators competed against the game’s best with the steely resolve that only they could invoke so consistently. They weren’t always healthy and they weren’t always superior against the likes of Miami and New York and Los Angeles, but #34 and #5 did reward you for watching. Night in and night out.
It wasn’t only the midrange jumpers and post moves either, but the little things that came together in the end. The pregame video montages that hyped you up and the sighs of exasperation that made you doubt, and then the on-court embraces that picked you up once more. I ate it all up because that team — with that cagey core of legendary personalities — fostered a cult-like mentality, against all comers and against all cities and the roaring river of doubt that flowed so strong.
I often ask myself: why do I still root against LeBron James? Why do I still root against Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol? Why do I still long for their timely demise, season after disappointing season? Then it hits me: Pierce and Garnett, Paul and Kevin, had instilled that sense of provincial loyalty–which Grantland’s Bill Simmons always goes on about–long ago in some faraway time. Maybe it happened during some regular season contest against the Houston Rockets. Perhaps I adopted the us-against-them mantra during that chippy third quarter in the Eastern Conference Finals. Whenever it happened, I grew so close to #34 and #5 that it seemed like I shared the Garden parquet with them as they battled the competition and fought their way from the brink.
Those days were the best, simple as that. Not only did “Boston Celtics” mean something more than a rebuilding project, but two steely competitors led the charge. I followed them into the mysterious unknown.
The Garden faithful followed them, when they scored and when they rallied and when they scuffled with the opposition.
That’s precisely why the return to TD meant so much. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett didn’t make their return to just any other city on the Atlantic, rife with supportive fans and some cheery old memories. Those two treated every single game like a fight to the death, and we believed them. We were fighting with them and it took a lot out of us — when they won and when they lost, those dressed in green and white were left worn and deflated, in need of a sudden reboot.
So, it wasn’t just any visit. We were welcoming our very own gladiators back into the stadium of old, and memory after memory strung together to form a spectacle that still sticks in the mind of so many. That’s the story behind the sea of respectful applause, when 18,624 loyal subjects rose to their feet and acknowledged the two graybeards bowing humbly before them. The claps and the chants, they signified both a return to a time much better and a recognition of the blood, sweat and tears that made it all matter so much.
The same blood, sweat and tears that won this historic franchise one more title, in the words of one Paul Pierce. “It takes a lot of blood, a lot of sweat, and a lot of tears to get the job done,” he would say.
Fast forward to the night of January 26th, when an at capacity crowd showed its uniquely Bostonian appreciation of that ultimate dedication. For all of the work, the Boston faithful clapped and cheered and congratulated the legends who had come full circle, donning the black and white of Brooklyn garb. I was right there with them, taking videos on my phone and watching in silent admiration. I was right there with the lot, welcoming the two gladiators who had come back home after some time away. May they never be forgotten.