Their journey out of the darkness - a 22-year championship famine marked by deaths (Len Bias and Reggie Lewis), dumb luck (missing out on Tim Duncan in the 1997 lottery), and managerial mediocrity (hello, Rick Pitino) - began in an Italian renaissance city of hope and glory.
At a Roman barbershop, where Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Kendrick Perkins shaved their domes to honor their new star teammates, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
At a Roman basketball court, where the Celtics embraced “ubuntu,” an African word for unity, as the watchword for their new brotherhood.
At the Vatican, where Pierce marveled at Michelangelo’s masterwork on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and said, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Or does it?
Eight months after the Celtics launched their historic campaign for redemption with a preseason opener in the Eternal City, they are NBA champions.
The franchise’s 17th championship banner - an NBA record - will adorn the rafters on Causeway Street, and Pierce, upon further reflection, will take a view of the Garden’s ceiling over Michelangelo’s fresco any day.
For the Celtics and generations of fans, it doesn’t get any better than this.
From the wild streets of Rome, where a tiny car crashed into Glen “Big Baby” Davis and the driver jumped out to make sure his vehicle was OK, Boston’s Shamrocked Wonders steamrolled back to NBA supremacy, ultimately pancaking the Lakers in a six-game championship series rich with memorable moments.
All hail the triumvirate: Pierce, Garnett, and Allen. For a combined 32 seasons, they had strived in vain to call themselves champions until Celtics mastermind Danny Ainge, channeling the late, great Red Auerbach, gave them a chance to do it together.
In a season of milestones, none sweeter for long-suffering fans than the Celtics cathartically clinching the title Tuesday on Legends Way, the New Big Three wasted little time after their Roman holiday sending a message to the league and silencing the skeptics.
Would they let their egos get in the way of greatness? Not these paisans.
Would they respect Doc Rivers enough for him to prove he could coach with the best? Check.
Would they help a few relatively unproven bench players become vital members of a championship-caliber team? Affirmative.
Together they wrote history, orchestrating the NBA’s greatest one-year turnaround by remaking a tottering team that staggered to a 24-58 finish the previous season into a 66-16 supershredder.
The new Celtics made basketball at the Garden fun again. They also made their alumni proud by preventing Lakers coach Phil Jackson from capturing his 10th NBA title, which would have eclipsed Auerbach.
”There was a man who sat in Section 12, Row 7, Seat 1 [at the Garden] who is smiling down from heaven above at all of this,” former Celtic M.L. Carr said of Auerbach. “He has got to be very happy.”
Auerbach would have loved Garnett, who played with the wingspan of a condor, the heart of a gladiator, and the vocabulary of a drunken stevedore. Garnett proved anew, in the spirit of Celtics great Bill Russell, that defense wins championships.
From the Big Ticket’s first blocked shot in Rome to his menacing the Lakers in the Finals, he earned every bit of his honor as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. He was the first Celtic to win the award. He also was the first Celtic named to the NBA’s All-Defensive first team since Kevin McHale 20 years earlier.
Garnett was Boston’s main man, its tower of power, while Pierce evolved into a finer incarnation of the Truth.
Other than flashing a purported gang sign at the Atlanta bench in the first round of the playoffs, Pierce put his distracting juvenile shenanigans behind him and emerged as the MVP of the championship series.
No more embarrassing the franchise and its fans by showing up at a postgame press conference with his head wrapped in bandages, as he did in 2005 to protest the officiating.
No more pouting. No more me-firstism.
This season more than any other, Pierce ensured that his No. 34 will hang from the Garden rafters as he advanced a giant step closer to the Hall of Fame. Though he led the Celtics in scoring during the regular season, Pierce averaged fewer points (19.6) than he had in eight years and attempted fewer shots (13.7 per game) than he had since his rookie season (1998-99). He sacrificed for the team’s greater good, as did Garnett and Allen.
Sure, Pierce looked silly when he all but hopscotched back onto the court in Game 1 of the Finals just minutes after he appeared to injure his right knee so badly that he was carried off the floor by teammates and rolled to the locker room in a wheelchair. But the joke turned out to be on Kobe Bryant and the rest of Jack Nicholson’s binkies as Pierce completed a 22-point performance in a tone-setting 98-88 victory. The Truth then bedeviled the Lakers the rest of the way, particularly while defending Bryant in Boston’s breathtaking comeback from a 24-point deficit in Game 4.
Had Pierce’s visit to the Sistine Chapel paid off?
”I think God just sent the angel down and said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be all right, you need to get back in there,’ “ he said after Game 1.
As it turned out, Allen was an angel for the Celtics. Once the young Jesus (Shuttlesworth) of “He Got Game,” Allen helped lead the Celtics to basketball salvation, his silky shot confounding the Lakers while his unflappable demeanor helped calm his teammates in times of trouble, none more perilous than their 24-point disadvantage in Game 4.
From Allen’s 33-point effort in a 98-95 overtime victory at Toronto in the second game of the season to his 29-point contribution in a 106-102 triumph over Detroit in the pivotal fifth game of the Eastern Conference finals, he helped generate the momentum the Celtics carried into the championship series.
Then he provided a lasting image of how wrong the oddsmakers were - they heavily favored the Lakers to win the series - when he blew by Sasha Vujacic to help cap Boston’s historic comeback victory in Game 4 and leave the Phil Jackson Five looking like the saddest act in Tinseltown.
Ten years after his film debut, Allen proved he still got game. Not bad for a 32-year-old playing with surgically repaired ankles.
All the ingredients
But for all the love and confetti that showered over KG and his Sunshine Band of Pierce and Allen in the euphoric aftermath of their indelible achievement, respect also was paid to a supporting cast led by a couple of kids who made a mighty difference in elevating the Celtics from regular-season wonders to champions.
Rondo, 22, went from a question mark to the point guard of the moment in Boston, while Perkins, 23, provided the muscle and grit the Celtics needed to complement their star-laden starting five.
Celtics fans also will not soon forget the likes of James Posey, Leon Powe, Eddie House, P.J. Brown, Sam Cassell, Big Baby, and Tony Allen, each of whom contributed to the postseason run. They helped Rivers join Hall of Famers Auerbach, Russell, Tom Heinsohn, and K.C. Jones, as well as Bill Fitch, as the only coaches to guide the Celtics to NBA titles.
”I’m glad to see him get one,” Fitch said, 40 years after he briefly baby-sat Rivers while recruiting Doc’s uncle, Jim Brewer, to play at the University of Minnesota.
As sweet as the feat was for Rivers, it came too late for him to share with his father, Grady, a former Chicago police lieutenant who died Nov. 4, two days after the Celtics opened their championship season. Grady Rivers would have turned 75 Wednesday, the day after the Celtics clinched the title.
As a memorial, Doc and his team won the trophy for Grady Rivers, Auerbach, Dennis Johnson, Lewis, Bias, Walter Brown, Johnny Most, and the other souls who for 62 years have helped to make the Celtics a family.
They enriched the legacy of Boston’s most decorated sports franchise (the team’s 17 titles dwarf the Red Sox’ seven, the Bruins’ five, and the Patriots’ three). Six years after a group of investors led by Irv and Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca bought the team and vowed to reverse its fortunes, they hit the jackpot, boosting not only the franchise’s value but their prestige throughout New England and the NBA.
The new bosses joined in the champagne showers and celebratory cigar puffing as Boston once again became Title Town. But Rivers and the players who won the biggest prize of their lives could trace the roots of their golden achievement to the streets of Rome, where they began to emerge from the darkness amid the inspiration of the Sistine Chapel and the spirit of ubuntu.
As Paul Pierce can attest, it doesn’t get any better than this.