BOSTON — Kevin Garnett came close to breaking first, but only because his tribute was listed before Paul Pierce‘s in the program. Had the schedule been set up differently, it would have been the other way around.
Before the two longtime friends and teammates took the court for Sunday’s game, their first in Boston since the trade that sent them to the Brooklyn Nets last summer, they laughed about who would shed the first tear. It was a joke, they said afterward, playing tough on what would inevitably be an emotional night.
Then the ovations started and the memories played out on the video board, and they realized this would be even more difficult than they imagined.
“This is the toughest game I ever had to play,” Pierce said after an 85-79 Nets win that was almost secondary to the reception for two legendary players coming home. “Tougher than any championship game, any Game 7. This game, [it] was just so hard to focus and concentrate on what was at hand. At the end of the day, we had a game to play, but it was so hard to get into a routine. You have a routine when you come in to get ready for a game, and I just never settled in.”
Pierce never settled in because every time he started to get focused on the game, another familiar face popped up to say hello. Head athletic trainer Ed Lacerte. Public relations vice president Jeff Twiss. Strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo. The entire equipment staff. As Garnett called them, “all those people who a lot of people don’t know but make this whole thing go ’round.”
People like those made it so difficult for Pierce to talk Garnett into accepting the trade last June, when Garnett had a no-trade clause he needed to waive to allow the deal to go through. He didn’t take his return to Boston to see them again lightly.
“There were a lot of distractions, but they were good distractions,” Garnett said. “It felt good to be showered and for the city to show their appreciation, not to mention the organization, who you gave yourself. People always say players can be too loyal. I don’t believe that. I really believe a city like Boston is worth it. This is just the epitome of all that.”
It was clear from the start that Pierce and Garnett, for all their experience dealing with playing on the game’s biggest stages, were a little shaken up. They finished with just six points each, Pierce on a paltry 2-for-10 shooting, as their team misfired on more than 60 percent of its field goal attempts. They were bailed out by the Celtics’ clankerific 38 percent shooting overall and 7-for-26 mark from long range.
When Garnett’s highlight reel played midway through the first quarter, he briefly looked up before covering his head with a towel to hide the emotion on his face. When Pierce’s video played between the first and second quarters, the crowd gave the former captain a four-minute ovation, followed by chants like “Thank you, Paul Pierce!” while the game was going on.
They missed “Gino Time,” the American Bandstand clip that would play toward the end of now-rare Celtics blowouts, although the team claimed it was included. Apparently, Pierce and Garnett just had a hard time seeing Gino through the mist in their eyes.
“We’re always going to bleed green,” Garnett said. “As long as we’re playing, as long as we’re playing basketball, until we’re six feet deep, that’s pretty much what it’s going to be.”
Most refreshingly, they were honest. They didn’t downplay what their return and the reception meant to them. Garnett admitted to feeling a lump in his throat more than once. Pierce didn’t shed tears, but he didn’t try to fight them, either. It might get a little easier the next time they come back in March, but Pierce isn’t so sure.
The Garden was his building. He might never get used to turning left, into the visitor’s locker room, instead of right, into the home locker room, in the bowels of the arena. He will see the adults and children he touched through his work in the community get a little bit older every time he visits. He has a championship banner he helped hang there, not too far from where his No. 34 will one day join the digits of other Celtics greats in the rafters.
Mostly, though, the thing that got Pierce and Garnett on Sunday, that they didn’t anticipate, was the people. So many people, who were a part of their lives for years and became part of them, without them ever realizing it until they left and came back.
“Through my bad times, through my immature times, through growing up and becoming a man in this city to winning a championship, everybody stuck with me,” Pierce said. “They stayed behind me. I just want to tell them: Thank you.”