The poignant returns of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to TD Garden Sunday night served two purposes: to pay respect to the contributions of two of the franchise's great players, and to offer Celtics fans one final goodbye to an era we all wish could have lasted a little longer.
On both counts, it's hard to imagine a more perfect tribute. The players were moved, and as always, Celtics fans were on point. Minutes after Pierce's video ran and play had resumed, Garden fans were still chanting "Thank-you-Paul-Pierce." Fans and players looking up at the Jumbotron saw a woman holding a Celtics flag and bawling.
“I did notice that," said Pierce. "It was tough, it was tough for me to swallow. I was probably about five seconds from shedding [tears]. I’ll admit to it. No words that can really describe the shower of love here.”
Credit both the team and Comcast SportsNet New England for getting it right. Garnett's tribute lasted for a timeout; Pierce was given the full break at the end of the first quarter. Both tributes were shown in full on the local broadcast.
It's easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, but in Pierce's case, no amount of hyperbole could be too much. The second-leading scorer in franchise history deserved the greater ovation and attention. Bob Ryan, who has seen a couple of Celtics games in his time, put Pierce's place in Celtics history perfectly in a tweet.
Hard to top the scene at the Garden tonight. KG and Pierce deserve it. Pierce is this generation's Bird or Havlicek. He's THEIR guy.— Bob Ryan (@GlobeBobRyan) January 27, 2014
At one point during Pierce's tribute, a spotlight pointed to the rafters and spaces where two future retired numbers could be. Pierce's case for a retired number is a slam dunk -- "not even worth two seconds of discussion," said Celtics play-by-play man Mike Gorman on 98.5's "Toucher & Rich" show. But what about Garnett?
At its core, hanging the banner of Player X in the rafters is a sign of personal respect to that individual, recognition that his years of hard work and exemplary performance did not go unnoticed by his employers. If you were to hang Garnett's "Outstanding Employee" plaque on the wall, it would read, "6 seasons, 6,233 points, 3,301 rebounds, and 1 championship."
That championship, which Garnett helped win along with Pierce, Ray Allen, Doc Rivers, Rajon Rondo, Eddie House, etc. is the reason we're having this discussion at all. Without the ring, Garnett is an exemplary player who made Boston one of a few stops in a Hall of Fame career. With it, he's one of ours, though not nearly as much as Pierce is.
Twenty players have had their numbers retired by the Celtics (Red Auerbach and the team's original owner, Walter Brown, also have their numbers retired). Those 20 played for the Celtics an average of 10.4 seasons. Garnett's six seasons would tie with center Ed Macauley (1950-56) for the fewest of any Celtic with his number retired.
Garnett does not factor into the top 10 all-time in any Celtics statistical category. Fewer than 25 percent of his career points came in a Celtics uniform.
Despite those numbers, there is precedent for a player with a large body of success elsewhere being honored with a retired number in Boston. Dennis Johnson played seven of his 14 seasons in Boston, helping the Celtics to two titles before ending his career here. Johnson made four of his five career All-Star teams elsewhere and may be the best comparison when it comes to deciding what to do with Garnett.
It's about more than the numbers, of course, and Garnett has several things going for him. His arrival signified a new era of Celtics basketball, heavy on defense and intent on winning. It's a good argument whether he or Pierce was more responsible for the team's 2008 title, but there's no debating it couldn't have been done without Garnett. KG's knee injury robbed the Celtics of one and possibly two more titles.
The will of the people is also at play here. He may have been dragged from Minnesota kicking and screaming, but once he got here, Garnett embraced Boston in the heart-on-his-sleeve way only he can produce on a nightly basis. Fans loved him and he loved them back, even accepting the insular way he went about his business and lived his life, because New Englanders at their core are that way, too. Garnett made it clear he'd like to be remembered as a Celtic Sunday night when he said this return meant "even more than Minnesota," and that can only help his chances.
If Sunday's banner-spotlighting was any indication, KG may not have needed to blow that one last kiss to Boston. Ownership has been smitten with the idea of keeping Garnett in the family for some time. In a radio interview before last February's trade deadline, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck told WEEI's "Mut & Merloni," "We're going to retire his number, whatever happens. He's an all-time great."
Keeping Garnett in the family makes sense for both sides. The Celtics get to claim one of the league's all-time greats as their own, and Garnett gets to be remembered for the best run of his career. With the Celtics' on-court future looking murky for a while, it doesn't hurt to hang another "W" in the win column.