Every Celtics home game has a script, prepared about two days in advance, usually 50-60 pages long. It choreographs every moment down to the minute — pregame, in-game, postgame, quarter breaks, timeouts, halftime, all of it.
“Basically, any time from doors open to doors close, we know exactly what’s going on,” says Sean Sullivan, the team’s senior director of event presentation.
There are 41 home games and thus 41 different scripts, as the team wants to give the fans a new experience in each one. The scripts aren’t rigid; everything is subject to change, depending on how the game unfolds. “It’s almost like air traffic control, because you have to adjust a lot,” Sullivan says.
But when the Celtics’ regular-season schedule was released before this season, those who work behind the scenes took special note of two games, knowing that they’d require more planning than others.
The first came in early December, when former Celtics coach Doc Rivers returned to TD Garden for the first time since leaving to become coach of the Los Angeles Clippers.
And the second comes Sunday, when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce return for the first time since the two Celtic icons were traded to the Brooklyn Nets.
The Celtics take pride in honoring their own, and it has become an even bigger emphasis in recent years whenever former Celtics make their first trip back.
“We sort of say, if we have one goal, it’s to say thank you to that player,” says team president Rich Gotham. “When these guys leave, you don’t always have time to do that. And if someone gets traded, you don’t get to say goodbye.”
Trades are indeed abrupt, and last summer’s blockbuster swap was certainly jarring.
Word broke one June afternoon that both Pierce and Garnett might be moved to Brooklyn. That evening, an agreement was reached. “It did come together fairly quickly,” says Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations.
Just like that, two long-time stars whose jerseys will one day hang from the Garden’s rafters were gone, shipped to an Atlantic Division rival.
But nearly seven months later, the Celtics organization and their fans can both say farewell and thank you, and there is a specific moment for just such an occasion.
Fans have come to expect it, and Garnett and Pierce know it’s coming. It will arrive early, perhaps during the game’s first timeout or at the end of the first quarter.
Necks will crane toward the sky as the music starts and the highlights begin to roll. Applause from a sellout crowd of 18,624 will build to a roaring crescendo. Fans will stand and their cheers will rain down, washing over their spotlighted hero.
This will happen not just once Sunday but twice, and separately for each player. And in each of those emotional moments, Pierce and Garnett will no doubt gaze up at the banner that they helped hang in 2008, and then around the sea of green-clad fans who were there, with them through everything.
They might fight back tears, or they might not fight at all.
“The emotions are going to be very high,” Garnett told reporters on Friday, “and I’ll react accordingly.”
Said Pierce: “I don’t know how I’ll react, what emotions are going to be going through my head.”
Former Celtics center Kendrick Perkins, who played with Pierce and Garnett on the 2008 title team, expects both to cry.
Even Kevin? “Yeah, even Kevin,” Perkins said recently.
The task of orchestrating such a moment so that it does each player justice falls to those who plan every Celtics home game. It’s their job to piece together the right memories in the proper order within a short window of time.
It’s their job to make the perfect tribute video.
Time of the essence
How do you choose from 1,498 combined games with the Celtics in 21 total seasons. How do you fit it all into a montage that lasts 60 to 90 seconds? How do you sum up in so little time what Pierce and Garnett meant to the Celtics?
“That’s our challenge, is not leaving anything out,” Sullivan says.
About four people help make the videos. None of the videos are pre-canned, and there is no formula for how they are constructed.
“Like everything we do, it’s a feel thing,” Sullivan says.
Ideas are tossed around as early as when the schedule is announced about what clips are essential, about what song might fit best. But work doesn’t begin in earnest until a few weeks leading up to the game.
At that point, Steven Gadsden, the Celtics’ digital media coordinator who, with Sullivan, helps edit the videos, begins sifting through all the footage. There’s nearly a dozen hours for Pierce, who played 15 seasons in Boston, and about eight hours for Garnett, who played six seasons.
Gadsden, 26, is in his second year with the Celtics. He first got into basketball and editing video when he attended Episcopal Academy outside Philadelphia and made a documentary of his classmates, future NBA players Gerald Henderson and Wayne Ellington.
Now, he works in a small editing suite on the fourth floor of the team offices on Causeway Street, near the Garden. Gadsden has only made one tribute video so far for the Celtics — the one when Ray Allen returned nearly a year ago — but Sullivan already calls him “the best editor we’ve had.”
Gadsden says, for his part, he doesn’t feel any pressure throughout the process.
“You just lay the music track and make it look nice and include all the big moments and people will enjoy it,” Gadsden says. “I mean, videos like this, it’s hard to mess up. I just make sure all the essentials are in there and then let it rip.”
Among the initial challenges for making the video, beyond searching through the best highlights to select the very best, is finding the right blend of footage from the player on the court, in the community, and their engagement with the fans.
Those are the three areas the group focuses on because, Gotham says, “It’s about trying to capture the essence of that player’s contribution.”
From there, sequencing is crucial, especially at the start of the video, as the first few clips almost always run in slow motion for dramatic effect, meaning they eat up a lot of time. There is still plenty to add from there, but the key is not to cram everything in, which might affect the pacing, making the video feel rushed.
The videos could be longer, sure, but they’re kept around a minute to a minute and a half in length for a couple of reasons.
“Frankly, anything over 60 seconds, people tend to lose attention,” Sullivan says.
The second reason? The videos are played during a break in game action — a timeout or at the end of the quarter — and the staff doesn’t want the video to last that entire break. Instead, they want it to be short enough so that the fans, if they so choose, have enough time to give an ovation before play eventually resumes.
“I think a lot of teams, unfortunately, tend to overkill and overproduce those moments,” Sullivan says. “And you tend to lose the generic, natural beauty of a crowd going crazy.
“So we just try to keep it as organic as we can. I just don’t think you have to fill every second with noise. It’s OK to just let it ride and let the crowd take it.”
Yet another factor: Pierce and Garnett are coming back on the same night. Usually, the Celtics’ staff would plan for one player to have his own moment.
“That adds a challenge of, how do we honor both guys adequately on the same night for their contributions?” Gotham says. “But we’ll figure that out.”
Finding a song with lyrics that fit the personality of whomever they’re honoring is also paramount. When Rivers returned, they played a country song by Dierks Bentley that was titled “Home.” A few of the lyrics: “It’s been a long hard ride/Got a ways to go/But this is still the place/That we all call home.”
Videos can go through as many as 10 different variations before one is selected. Most of the people within the organization want to experience it along with the fans, so they won’t watch until it airs on the Jumbotron.
But when a final product is ready — or is close to being ready — a few staff members will review it. The hope is that it passes an informal process that they call “the goosebump test.”
“If we get the goosebumps and the feel off it,” said Shawn Sullivan, the Celtics’ chief marketing officer, “then we’re like, all right.”
Then they know, it’s ready.
Some players are caught off guard.
Eddie House, a reserve from the 2008 title team, didn’t know that he’d get a tribute video. Neither did former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau, now the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Forward Brian Scalabrine, something of a cult hero with the Celtics, was also taken aback.
A video isn’t made for every player, of course. Just as there’s no formula for how a tribute video is made, there isn’t a formula for which player or coach receives one. As the Celtics say, it’s a case-by-case basis — a feel thing.
Most of those involved from the 2008 title team, such as Thibodeau and Scalabrine, have been honored, because it’s just different when you win a championship with the Celtics, who have a league-high 17 titles.
“It’s really become something that’s a part of our culture, to really recognize the players,” Gotham says.
While the Rivers tribute video played, the coach who spent nine years in Boston fought back tears as he waved to the crowd while fans gave him a deafening ovation.
Later that night, Rivers sent Shawn Sullivan a text message. “Thank you so much for that,” Rivers wrote. “That was a great moment, something I’ll always remember.”
Indeed, reunions are hard to forget.
“I remember the people gave me a great ovation,” Ainge says of his first game back as a player. “I don’t really remember much about the game.”
It was a bit different for Allen, who left the Celtics to sign with rival Miami.
“I got booed every time I touched the ball, so I think that stands out the most,” Allen says. “But from the video perspective, organizationally, the people who I worked with on a daily basis, the relationships there were forged with such a great foundation that I know what I meant to them — and that’s what mattered the most.”
And for Perkins, “It gave me chills. It’s hard to kind of play through that when you get a ceremony like that. It was good. It was great.”
Garnett said that “Bostonians and New Englanders . . . never forget their favorites.” He added, “Some things are forever, man.”
He also recounted an anecdote from his Celtics days: “Larry Bird said, ‘You can’t fool the people of Boston. They know when you’re working hard. They know pure basketball.’ And that’s right. When you go all out, they understand that, they root for that, and that’s what they remember.”
Rivers requested a copy of the video, as have others.
“That’s when we know we did a good job,” Sean Sullivan says. “The fans, 18,000 cheering their heads off is great, but to get Doc or Eddie or anybody to say, ‘Hey, can I get a copy of that?’ That’s cool.”
Then they know that the moment was just right, an emotion-rich but proper farewell, a thank you from the Celtics and their fans to one of their own.