BOSTON — Bill Russell made clear, throughout his illustrious career that spanned 13 seasons with 11 championships, 12 All-Star game selections and five NBA Most Valuable Player trophies, that he did not play for Boston. He played for the Celtics.
The difference, Russell said, was that the Celtics were an admirable organization run by Walter Brown and Red Auerbach with a team-first ethos that still managed to respect each players’ individuality. Boston, by contrast, was the city in which he experienced racism and intolerance and was never truly embraced until his playing career was over.
More than 40 years later, another icon of the franchise came home for a day, in a much different era, without making any such distinction. Doc Rivers was visibly emotional in his first game back at TD Garden since departing for Los Angeles last summer, but it was clear the coach’s loyalties did not just lay with the Celtics, team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, co-owners Wyc Grousbeck and Stephen Pagliuca or with the players themselves.
Rivers loved all of it — the team, the city, the people — even if it was no longer his.
“I tell you, boy, this is such a neat place,” Rivers said, his eyes watering, after his Clippers overcame the Celtics 96-88. “I tell people all the time, people don’t get Boston. They really don’t. They don’t understand. I think you have to be part of it to get it, I really do. I don’t think you can get it from the outside. It’s just a special, different place and people that were born here, raised here, they cheer for their teams and they love their athletes. It’s just a great place to be.
“The best decision I ever made was 10 years ago when I decided to come. That was the best decisions I ever made.”
Before his emotional postgame press conference, Rivers nearly broke up after the first quarter, when the Celtics played an extended video tribute to the man who coached them for nine seasons, two trips to the NBA Finals and the 2007 title. Fans roared when Rivers walked out onto the parquet floor — through the visitor’s tunnel, for the first time in 10 years — and he waved, needing a moment to take it all in.
Actually, he needed more than a moment. Before the game, Rivers made no secret that he would have some difficulty focusing — “I’m an emotional guy,” he shrugged in his pregame media availability — but it was even tougher than he anticipated. Little things like Jeff Green inbounding the ball from in front of the Clippers’ bench tugged at Rivers’ heartstrings. His eyes lit up when he ran into Brandon Bass and Jeff Twiss, the Celtics’ vice president of media relations, in the hallway before the game.
The Clippers started slow and fell behind by nine points in the first half, and though it wasn’t because their coach was wrestling with his emotions on the sideline, it could have been.
“It was just a really nice day,” Rivers said. “It’s just such a classy place here. It was really nice. When I walked out, I’m not used to walking out on that side, and all those people lined up, I was basically useless for the first 18 minutes of the game, I thought.
“It didn’t surprise me. You’ve got to live here to understand. That’s just the way they are. They’re just an amazing fan base. It really is. I just want everything to go well for them.”
His former players claimed to feel no special emotions in the game. Green downplayed the reunion by noting the Celtics will see Rivers again eventually — later this season, in fact. Jared Sullinger pleaded “no emotional attachment” to any of the proceedings. They said it was just a game, but the connection other Celtics players have formed with Rivers in the past suggests the current Celtics might have been putting on brave faces.
If there were any added emotions going into the game, Brad Stevens didn’t try to change them. Rivers’ successor may have been the person in the building least affected emotionally by Rivers’ return, so he didn’t see the occasion as a reason to rein in or feed off any feelings his players might have.
“One thing I don’t think you can do is alter the world,” Stevens said. “There are going to be emotions, so how emotional they get will be up to each of them individually. You certainly talk about what we have to do to be successful, what we have to do to be our best, but that’s part of it. Every night, there’s something in this league because of the relationships people have with former teammates, as guys that played together in college, guys that played against each other growing up. So there’s always a relationship across the benches. I think guys are used to that a little bit by now. Certainly, though, the last two nights have been a big deal around here because of the people who were involved in each of these last two games.”
For Rivers, it wasn’t so easy. Winning a championship somewhere does that to a person, apparently. There’s no question Rivers’ bond is greater with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo because they won their rings together. Winning in Boston only strengthened their attachment to the city — and the city’s attachment with them.
That may be why Celtics fans were so hurt when Rivers spurned them last summer. By winning a championship here, by living here, he became a honorary citizen. It’s understandable if some people are bitter, Rivers admitted. He just chooses not to be.
“I don’t know if that’s fair or not, to be honest,” Rivers said. “At times, I really feel, as a coach you start to feel like your voice has been heard too much, and that was my feeling toward the end of last year. Whether it’s right or not, it’s whatever your perception of it is. It would have been very difficult for me to go through the whole rebuild of it again. Danny and I and all of us kind of worked together. I honestly never felt I would be anywhere else anytime soon and now I’m in this building, on the other side. It’s surreal in some ways.”
Some ways? Try all ways. He never envisioned leaving the city, the team or the fans, but he did. For one brief night, anyway, he got to live it again.