BOSTON – They had been slapping hands and hugging in the Boston Celtics' practice facility, a team transformed with word out of the general manager's office that a trade had been agreed upon for Kevin Garnett. All around Paul Pierce, a forlorn franchise had been reborn. Finally, Pierce had the chance to have a historic Celtics legacy, a chance to be a champion.
As he walked into the locker room, Pierce discovered a familiar face ashen and shaken, slumping on a stool in a stunned silence.
Pierce walked over and asked Jamie Young: "What's wrong, man?"
For seven years Young had worked for the Celtics as a video coordinator until he was promoted to the endless road life of an advance scout. And now in this moment of organizational euphoria, he tried to make sense of the telephone call that had come hours earlier: Without warning, his 56-year-old father died of a heart attack in the small Indiana town where he had raised Young.
"I'm going to pay for his funeral," Pierce told Young. "I'm going to pay for everything."
And Pierce did, the way he quietly had always been so generous with staff members who worked the longest hours and made the most modest of salaries. So here was Young, an assistant coach on Brad Stevens' staff, standing and cheering Pierce in the middle of the Garden on Sunday night. This was a night when everyone came to deliver Pierce and Garnett the gratitude for hanging that championship banner in 2008, for making the Celtics matter again, making the Celtics the Celtics again.
Within the organization, Pierce's generosity was legendary. He fought for the lowest of assistants and basketball staff to get playoff bonuses, and he used to give the team's traveling party $1,000 each to spend on the annual trip to the Nike employee store outside of Portland. Inside and outside the organization, Pierce was generous with commitments of time and resources, relentlessly championing children's causes and charities.
This was one of the best nights you'll ever witness in sports. There's less and less left of this kind of connection, this kind of bond between ball players and cities. In these cynical and transient sports times, here was a night to believe in the power of these sporting relationships. "This was the toughest game I've ever had to play," Pierce confessed. "Tougher than any championship game, tougher than any Game 7."
After watching on a television in Milwaukee Sunday night, Doc Rivers told Yahoo Sports, "It was incredible. I have no idea how they're playing. The coolest part of the night was when they showed the lady crying in the crowd. Well, that lady was JoJo White's wife. It exemplifies what that franchise is about: a family."
Beyond the two trips to the NBA Finals – beyond the 2008 championship – perhaps the reason this city so fiercely loves these players is the way these players so fiercely loved this city, this franchise, the way they so deeply cherished its lore and history.
"People always say players can be too loyal, but I don't believe that," Garnett said. "A city like Boston is worth it."
To understand how deeply those six seasons as a Celtic burrowed themselves into Garnett's core, there was an indelible moment when the magnitude of his return impacted him on Sunday night: arriving at the Garden and seeing the Celtics longtime public relations director, Jeff Twiss.
"You come here, and Jeff takes you through the library where he shows you all the history – and you feel that responsibility," Garnett said.
From the morning of the news conference to introduce Garnett in the summer 2007, he began probing Twiss on the lore of the Celtics history and never, ever stopped. The queries weren't always about the Russells and Cousys, the Birds and McHales.
"He'd come to me asking: Tell me about Bailey Howell," Twiss said Sunday night. "Tell me about the '74 championship team. Tommy [Heinsohn] coached that team, right?"
The most forgettable Celtics – Art "Hambone" Williams and Eric Fernsten – would show up in the locker room in Miami and Golden State, and Garnett would search out Twiss and want to know all about them. "He was really fascinated with Hambone," Twiss said.
"I told Kevin this, and I still believe it: I only wish Red had been around here for Kevin. Oh, they would've loved each other. Red would've loved the way Kevin played, and Kevin would've sat there and listened to Red's philosophies all day long."
When Pierce and Garnett walked out of the visiting locker room and started down the corridor to the news conference, they stopped and stared at the freshly painted walls that included all the famous Celtics, all the famous teams.
"This is so cool," Garnett marveled.
One of the Celtics executives, Mike Zarren, walked up alongside Garnett and laughed, "They repainted it just for you guys."
In some ways, this was true. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were responsible for splashing a fresh coat of paint on a dusty old franchise, transforming two decades of decay into a champion again. Together, they hung the 17th NBA championship banner, and together someday they'll witness the Nos. 34 and 5 hanging in the rafters.
All these great Celtics teams, and all these great Celtics players, but here were the stars who brought them back again, brought them out of decades of darkness and into the championship light. As much as Pierce and Garnett had been beloved outside the locker room walls, the devotion had been deeper within them. They cared about the greatest to ever play here, and they cared about those in the shadows that no one knew had been important here. This had been a forever night for these forever Celtics and tears leaked out of eyes everywhere in the Garden.
Seven months after the trade, there was finally a chance to say goodbye inside the Boston Garden. It was loud and loving and unforgettable. Now, Pierce and Garnett are gone, the Celtics' rebuild has replaced them, and a most uneasy feeling had descended down out of those rafters and banners and retired jerseys: Would the likes of these two ever return again?