Celtics fans still picking up pieces from failed Kyrie Irving experiment

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Forsberg: Getting to the root of Kyrie's history with Celtics fans originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Twenty-two months after being left at the basketball altar, Boston Celtics fans will finally get their chance to vent some pent-up frustration when Kyrie Irving visits TD Garden this weekend.

For most, this is simply about a broken promise. In October 2018, standing beneath the banners he said he hoped his No. 11 would eventually join, Irving told Celtics fans, “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here.”

While a shocking declaration, this was not an off-the-cuff moment. Irving had started informing Celtics brass of his intention in the days before his announcement. He even huddled a select group of teammates at his home before going public.

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When Irving stepped in front of reporters shortly before his on-court decree during a team workout in front of season-ticket holders, a small herd of Boston brass and social media staffers scrambled into the visitor’s locker room expecting that Irving might let his intentions slip in that session.

We all know what happened from there. The 2018-19 Celtics labored through an extremely rocky season and didn’t come close to meeting lofty expectations. Irving grew disengaged and later suggested that, following the death of his grandfather in October, basketball was “the last thing on my mind.” Irving admitted he “failed” his teammates that season and it was obvious he was having second thoughts about his future during the season.

When speculation grew that he and buddy Kevin Durant were plotting a potential Brooklyn dash -- a social media video of the two chatting at All-Star weekend thrusting the possibility further into the spotlight -- Irving shut down. By the postseason, he had totally checked out as the Celtics lost four straight while being bounced by the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Along the way, Irving clashed with Boston’s young core and compounded matters with his often-sprawling media sessions. The talent, though, was undeniable. Alas, Boston's dreams of building its own super team with Irving as a centerpiece was left scrambling for a new path forward when both Irving and Al Horford elected to depart in free agency in the summer of 2019.

Kyrie the Celtic: In his own words

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Let’s be clear here: Irving, as an unrestricted free agent, had the right to sign wherever he wanted. The events of the 2018-19 season undoubtedly left him yearning for the comforts of home. (Irving hails from West Orange, N.J.) The Celtics were aware of his change of heart during the season.

But it’s the way the situation unfolded, and the general wrench Irving’s decision threw into the plans of a Celtics team that had made so many right moves while trying to position itself as a long-term title contender. The Celtics have still not fully recovered from Irving’s departure.

Most Boston fans simply remain upset that Irving broke his word. And, worse yet, he’s part of a super team in Brooklyn that might represent a long-term road block to Banner 18.

So on Friday night, with TD Garden expected to still be at 25 percent capacity, approximately 5,000 fans will boo Irving (probably every time he touches the ball) in Game 3. On Sunday, after COVID restrictions lift across the Commonwealth, the Celtics expect 17,226 fans inside the Garden.

Who knows how it all would have played out if Irving elected to stay in Boston. Would the Celtics have flipped Jayson Tatum to the New Orleans Pelicans in their quest for Anthony Davis? Would Horford have stuck around? Would the Celtics be better positioned for a title run, or would they have mortgaged the future for a more immediate shot?

It doesn’t help that Boston isn’t quite on the same level as Brooklyn at the moment. The first two games of this series have made that obvious. Even if Boston had a healthy Jaylen Brown, the Nets’ overall star power might differentiate them from other contenders. But the gap wouldn’t feel as big as it does at the moment.

Celtics need more from Jayson Tatum to have a shot vs. Nets

So Irving will hear boos this weekend. Lots of them.

Asked about playing in front of fans in Boston for the first time, Irving said, “Hopefully, we can just keep it strictly basketball.” The jeers he endures should all be tied to an ugly basketball divorce.

Irving also expressed hope that there would be "no belligerence or racism going on -- subtle racism -- people yelling s*** from the crowd. But, even if it is, it's part of the nature of the game and we're just going to focus on what we can control.” Asked if he’s experienced racism in Boston, Irving added, “I am not the only one who can attest to this.”

It’s unacceptable that Irving had to encounter any discrimination. There is no place for that and goes well beyond the nature of the game.

The jeers Irving hears this weekend in Boston should be rooted only in sports fandom and the often irrational emotional attachment we have with our teams. Celtics players and coaches have gone out of their way to stress how much they enjoyed their time with Irving and the big heart he often displayed. A long-term relationship simply wasn’t in the cards.

Celtics fans need to let out some of that sports emotion. especially after another rough season in which Boston’s lack of serviceable depth in the post-Kyrie era left them ripe for an early playoff exit. Fans inside the Garden will pull the masking tape with “Kanter” scribbled on it off the nameplate and replace it with a hand-written “Pritchard,” then go scoff at the point guard who made them buy that No. 11 jersey because of his offensive wizardry in the first place.

The Celtics knew the risks they were taking when they gambled in acquiring Irving, sending out a player who literally gave up his body trying to will the Celtics back to relevance in Isaiah Thomas. The Irving experiment blew up in Boston’s face and they are still dealing with the shrapnel.

Irving might not want to hear boos but they are coming. Maybe both sides can move on a bit in the aftermath. There is no good in lamenting what could have been.

After all, the Celtics have far more pressing issues than Irving right now. But if booing makes the fan base feel a little better -- and it’s done in a way that doesn’t cross the line -- then get it out of your systems.