BOSTON -- Paul Pierce was like a blood relative. It was as if he was born into the franchise the night the Celtics drafted him in 1998. Kevin Garnett, who arrived later, was a Celtic as if by marriage. On Sunday they were welcomed back to their true home.
"I was telling Kevin and everybody this was the toughest game I ever had to play," Pierce said after he and Garnett had helped their new team, the Brooklyn Nets, beat the Celtics 85-79 in Boston. "Tougher than any championship game or any Game 7. At the end of the day we had a game to play, but it was so hard to really focus. I saw so many friends, so many people I've known for years. It was hard to really get into my routine. You thought about the time, the friendships, the relationships; you get showered with love the whole game."
The contrast between the past and the present was jarring to the sellout crowd that had been targeting this game since Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry were traded last June to the Nets for a trio of first-round picks. When the mish-mash of players wearing the home white uniforms ran single-file into the arena before the game, they were greeted with a cheer loud and brief; when the visitors arrived, the cheering lingered on. Pierce and Garnett wore uniforms of black as if they were dressed up as the enemy, but that could never be.
"Unbelievable," said Garnett. "I didn't expect anything like that for myself ... By far the hardest day that I've had to focus. This is bigger than Minnesota, even when I went back to Minnesota. Minnesota wasn't like this."
During the formal introductions, the first three Nets players were booed per usual. Then came a deep-breathed pause. "At center ..." and the negatives turned into gratitude as Garnett hopped onto the court and slapped at his heart, raising a hand and flipping a salute. The welcome rang louder as Pierce ran out, and the cheers continued as Pierce waved in his new teammates for their pregame scrum and a semblance of their normal routine.
How many hundreds of times had they been cheered before on this court by these fans? But the perspective was different this time. All of those other nights had been spent looking forward. For this one night they were looking back.
"I couldn't think about anything but today, really," said Pierce. "It was even hard for me to sleep. Laying in a downtown hotel in Boston when I'm used to being at my house. Getting into the arena, coming in the backside, and making a left (into the visitors locker room) instead of a right. Everything was so different. And it was great."
The local anthem "Shipping Up To Boston" is meant to inspire the home team and intimidate the visitors, but for Pierce and Garnett it was like "Auld Lang Syne" on this night of unexpected consequences.
Garnett won the tip and tapped it back to Pierce. The Celtics former small forward was matched up against Gerald Wallace, a casualty of the trade who has been fuming all year that he was cast off by the Nets last summer in favor of Pierce. Wallace, a Celtic, was the foil. In spite of his uniform, he was the opponent tonight.
The arena was oddly quiet for much of the opening quarter, as if the fans arrived with no agenda -- no hatred for the visitors they loved, no investment in this team of holdovers meant to bridge for the next era of contention. The only certain building block for the Celtics is rookie coach Brad Stevens; everyone else may be gone in a year or two.
What was lasting were the memories. Garnett and Pierce each received his own video tribute in the opening quarter, and each revealed the unique relationships that have not been weakened by distance or time.
"I looked up," said Garnett of his musical video, "and then I had to compose myself."
Garnett was standing on the edge of the floor near the visitors bench as he pulled a towel over his head as a kind of helmet for privacy. The video was a celebration of his energy. It showed him leaping and sweating and banging his head against the stanchion and then banging the ball against his head. He was riling up fans in his former gym all over again. At the end his hand was raised on the video screens and on the court. There was nothing sentimental about it. A song by the Bee Gees made him laugh now, the same as he laughed when it had been played with his favorite video over the years.
Garnett and Pierce would each finish with six anticlimactic points. Pierce (2 for 10) especially could not get on with the game until he had experienced the emotional highlight video that was waiting to be played for him. The 800 pounds of his past had to moved out of the room first.
"I have relationships with organizations in the community that I built, and a lot of that you thought about," said Pierce. "I've seen a lot of the kids I brought to games, and that's what I think matters the most to me, the lives you can change. The basketball is great, and understanding you're a role model, and [the video] made me think of being an inspiration in the community here."
Last May, when Pierce was substituted out of his final game as a Celtic, in Game 6 of their first-round loss to the Knicks, the Celtics fans failed to give him the farewell he deserved. Maybe they never really believed he would play for anyone else; in any case they made up for it this time.
"Coming Home" was the musical theme for Pierce. His tribute was the emotional one. There were cheers from the audience all over again as thefy revisited David Stern announcing his name at the draft so long ago, and the clip of Jack Nicholson ("You can't handle the Truth!") and the years of community service and the running out of the tunnel to hit the threes against the Lakers and the parade that came after. Some of the hoarse-throated fans who have longed to make opposing players cry were themselves crying as they relived his past. The ceremony lingered on, postponing the restart of the game, the in-house cameras focusing on a pair of banners -- one with two empty spaces left open for Pierce's 34 and Garnett's 5, and then the other celebrating the 2007-08 championship that they and the departed Doc Rivers and Ray Allen had brought to Boston.
"It was just a special thing for me, through my bad times, through my immature times, through my growing up, becoming a man for this city and winning a championship, everybody sticking with me," said Pierce of that moment. "I would just like to tell them thank you."
"Thank you, Paul Pierce," the fans chanted, with a local sincerity that made the R in his name almost disappear. Pierce sat on the visitors bench next to Garnett, staring out at the game and thinking about everything but.
With 2:38 remaining in the game, Pierce drove to his right into the top of the key, pulled up smooth and drilled a jumper to put his old team in a 78-70 hole. The Celtics had slashed that deficit to three points inside the final minute when holdover point guard Rajon Rondo, who is rusty after a year of rehab and absent the Hall-of-Famers he grew up playing with, watched Garnett intercept his handoff and flee with it for the breakaway dunk that secured the outcome. These were two plays, *drawn from their past, that didn't reflect what Pierce and Garnett had been doing for **most of this utterly unwatchable game. They were the only plays that mattered.
On Saturday night, Pierce and Garnett had dined in Boston with Rondo, and shared with him their advice on how to deal with the pressures of leadership. Rondo is 27.
"I think he's ready now," said Pierce, who is 36. "He's got to understand that this is his team to lead through good and through bad. I think he understands that and he is ready for that role."
"We stressed that you need to lead by example, even when he doesn't want to," said Garnett, who is 37. "I also talked to him about being professional, and you don't get to pick and choose when you get to do that. Just understand the pedigree of a champion. You don't let losing become something usual. Keep the mentality tough and not all are going to follow, but most will. Do it by example. Rondo is ready."
They could see everything so much more clearly now from this other side of the arena. On the run, uncertain of the outcome, it had all been an exciting blur. To look back from the other end was to see why it all went down the way it did, and to appreciate what you had, now that it was gone.