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GLOBE MAGAZINE

The origin story of the 2008 Boston Celtics’ Big Three

In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, Michael Holley reveals what it took for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen to come together as champions.

Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce were being called the Big Three even before playing their first game together.
Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce were being called the Big Three even before playing their first game together.NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Kevin Garnett’s car pulled into the back of the TD Banknorth Garden, and as soon as he stepped out of it, his new franchise changed. It was the last day of July 2007. It was also the last day of low energy, low volume, and lowered expectations for the Celtics.

It was fitting that a simple thing made Garnett late for his introductory press conference: looking up. He was ushered through the Garden, and that was the only exercise that slowed his heart rate. He gazed up at the 16 championship banners and 21 retired numbers. He asked questions and absorbed all the details.

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Writer Michael Holley's book "The Big Three" goes on sale Dec. 1.
Writer Michael Holley's book "The Big Three" goes on sale Dec. 1.

There was an awakening in him and in the city. He could see evidence of the Celtics’ story, hanging there for all to see. And now he, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen were going to be stitched into this championship quilt. Rich Gotham and Shawn Sullivan, the team’s president and chief marketing officer, respectively, met him for the first time. Gotham thought, This guy is like a nuclear reactor. His intensity and excitability animated the arena, and everyone there that day caught it.

Gotham, in his fifth season with the organization, had often spoken of a day when the Celtics’ raised business floor would in turn raise their business roof. Well, this was that day. They were going to love working with him. There wasn’t anyone in the entire organization like him.

Garnett, Pierce, and Allen hadn’t played a game together yet, but Celtics fans were already calling them the Big Three. Those same fans, for the first time in years, joyfully went to websites and mobile phones and virtual ticket windows, making sure they’d have the best seats for the best games of the winter and spring.

Coach Doc Rivers was as excited as everyone else, but he also had to do things that no one else did. He’d be the one managing egos. He’d be the designer of an offense that would, realistically, require sacrifices from each of them. He’d push them. He’d piss them off.

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Those things couldn’t wait until camp or even two weeks from now. At the press conference, full of gleaming smiles and summer laughter, Pierce, Garnett, and Allen all said encouraging things. Now Rivers had to make sure those things happened.

“We’re going to win the championship this year,” he told them that day in his Garden office. “I want you to know that. But I’m going to need you guys to buy into me, and I’m going to need you guys to sacrifice stuff. We’ll talk about it later, but I need that on record now. I need you to know that you’re not going to be able to do things the way you’ve done them.”

They all said they understood and agreed with the coach. He wanted to plant the seed then because he knew he wouldn’t see them again until September. He also realized that saying yes in the summer was easy. The challenge would be doing it in the fall.

A few weeks after the press conference, Rivers sat near the window of a restaurant with a view of Boston’s busy Newbury Street. He learned that it was always good to have a notebook nearby because ideas come at odd times and from odd things. As he looked outside, he saw a group of tourists riding in a vehicle that millions of New Englanders knew by its shorthand: It was a duck boat.

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He immediately jotted down “duck boat talk.” Locally, duck boats weren’t associated with tourists. Anyone in the region knew them as the official transportation of championship parades.

When the Big Three returned to town just before the official start of training camp, Rivers told them all to meet him one morning at his condo downtown, which was in the same neighborhood where those elaborate championship parties snaked through the city streets.

Pierce knew what the boat symbolized, but he had no idea what his coach had in mind. And why he was doing it at 8 a.m.? Garnett, forever plugged in and unfiltered, had them all laughing with his skepticism.

“What the [expletive] is this thing? I’m not getting on that. Where are we going? Are we going in the water? Seriously, Coach. What are we doing?”

Rivers looked at the three stars of his team, already comfortable and enjoying each other’s company. He liked that. But they needed to hear what he had to say first, a more in-depth version of the talk he’d begun the day of the press conference.

“This is the parade route,” he said. “When you win the title, this is the route we will go on. I want you guys to imagine this. Think about the parade.”

The laughter stopped. The players got quiet and the four of them boarded the empty boat. Allen was 33, Garnett 32, and Pierce a few weeks away from 31. They’d never played in the NBA Finals.

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“Listen, I’m going to name you some players in a minute. These are players that I’m saying will never win. You guys are not on the list. But you could be if we don’t win. The reason we won’t win is the reason these players are on the list — great individual players, but everything about them is what they want to do. And they will not do something different to win.

“They want to win, but they want to win on their terms. You can’t win on your terms; you win on the team’s terms. If you’re willing to understand that, we are going to win it.”

Celtics' coach Doc Rivers courtside during Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers June 17, 2008, at TD Banknorth Garden.
Celtics' coach Doc Rivers courtside during Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers June 17, 2008, at TD Banknorth Garden. Barry Chin/Globe staff/File

Rivers pointed to the Boston Public Library and the spacious area around it. Boston wasn’t a city where people lived their lives and loved their sports. No, Boston was more like a city where people loved their sports and then realized they also needed to have a local government and businesses in order to function. If this Celtics team won here, their stories and quirks and jersey numbers — everything — would be honored forever.

“Let’s talk about sacrifice,” Rivers said. “What would you give up to win?”

“Whatever is needed,” Garnett answered.

“OK, what about shots?”

“How many do you need, Coach?”

“I need all your shots, Kevin,” Rivers joked.

“You can have all of them,” Garnett replied.

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“Really, I don’t need them all. But think about it: You’ve all averaged 18, 19 shots per game. That’s not going to happen. It’s not possible. Your scoring averages will go down. People might say, ‘Ray Allen isn’t playing as well because he’s not averaging 20, he’s at 16.’ Can your ego take that? Because if you can’t, we can’t win.”

They could all visualize how it was going to unfold. This was their team map, their blueprint, being detailed on a boat. Rivers had already gotten them to agree to offensive sacrifices, but he wanted to instill a ferocious defensive ethic, too.

Rivers had persuaded a top defensive assistant, Tom Thibodeau, to join his staff even after Thibodeau had signed a contract with the Washington Wizards. Thibs, as he was called, was known for improving any defense. Now he would have one captained by the force and acumen of Garnett.

“I’m not asking anyone, other than Kevin, to be great on defense,” Rivers told his star players. “I’m asking that you do it right. Be there. Play team defense. We will cover for you if you need help, but I’m not going to cover for you if you won’t help yourself.”

Allen had never been known for his defense, and he said that he wished he’d paid more attention to it earlier in his career.

“I’m at the point in my life where I need to win,” he said. “I’m going to do what I need to do to win.”

After hearing that, Rivers was convinced: Whenever they next rode in a duck boat, these nearly empty streets would be jammed for them.

Five years earlier, while at an event in New York, Rivers had met a South African man named Kita Matungulu. They had a great conversation that night, and Matungulu told Rivers about a philosophy that had been referenced by Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and many others across Africa. It could be summarized in a single word: Ubuntu. Tutu described the concept as the height of interdependence and interconnectedness. It was one person’s acceptance that their success, their very personhood, was linked to another’s. As Tutu described it, “A person is a person through other persons.”

It was a way of being that didn’t ask the individuals to lose themselves. Rather, the idea was that individuality could thrive when it was tied to a collective. That outlook could be applied to education, politics, the economy . . . and basketball. Ubuntu. Rivers had Matungulu speak to the team about it, and its essence became the foundation on which they’d build their season.

The Celtics were one of four teams selected for global exhibition games, which meant they’d be practicing and eating and socializing for two weeks in Rome and London.

Rivers enjoyed getaway training camps. He often spoke of peripheral opponents — hometown buddies, moms and dads, wives and girlfriends, agents, flunkies — who were sometimes more formidable than on-court opposition. The coach let everyone know his first rule: No family and friends on this two-week trip. It was for the team only.

Anyone who was around the Celtics in Rome could see how naturally they interacted. They ate meals together and took tours together. They were all unashamedly in awe together as they roamed the Vatican and looked up at the Sistine Chapel.

They toured the Colosseum and reimagined gladiators fighting before 50,000 Romans. They all decided to shave their heads in honor of the new bald stars, Garnett and Allen. They all kicked soccer balls and tried to learn about fútbol from Italian star Alessandro Del Piero.

And, like those gladiators, they fought hard. Their first practice was intense. They were brothers, indeed, but passionate ballers, too. They nearly came to blows in that first practice. Afterward, they got on a bus — without cell service — and talked with each other as the vehicle moved slowly through Rome’s traffic.

By the time they arrived back in Boston, they were a transformed team, immersed in the Ubuntu ethic. They’d begun saying the word as they broke their huddle and approached the court. But as timing would have it, they had to wait before they could present their case to the public.

They returned to a city that was riveted by historic postseason baseball. Again. Three years earlier, in 2004, the Red Sox were the first team in baseball history to rally from a 0-3 deficit to win a series against their hated rivals, the New York Yankees. While the Celtics were away in London and Rome, the Sox had rallied from a 1-3 American League Championship Series deficit to win a series once more. Afterward, they swept Colorado in the World Series. And so three days before the Celtics’ home opener, another million-person party celebrated in Rivers’ neighborhood.

And that wasn’t the only competition. The Patriots were undefeated, 8-0, and crushing opponents by an average score of 41 to 15.

If the Celtics were a dud, they’d be ignored in this market. Rivers and the players were confident that wouldn’t happen, and they’d begin to prove it on the second day of November.

July 31, 2007 - Garnett introduced as the newest member of the Celtics at the TD Banknorth Garden.
July 31, 2007 - Garnett introduced as the newest member of the Celtics at the TD Banknorth Garden.Jim Davis/Globe staff / File

Everything about their first game at the Garden was different from the recent past, including tip-off time. It was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., a sure sign that it was locally and nationally televised. The ESPN/ABC cameras had skipped the Celtics the previous year, so this felt like a league reentry.

Winners, and symbols of winning, were around them and even under them. Before the game, Celtics ownership officially renamed the team’s famous parquet floor after Red Auerbach. The franchise architect’s signature was neatly inscribed onto the court.

Even the game introduction was different. The marketing team had been busy in August and September, creating new campaigns and hype videos that focused on the now. The arena went dark, and the screens above the court showed the recognizable eyes of Allen first, then Garnett, and, finally, Pierce. There were vignettes from the weight room and the court. There were celebrations and screams. This was going to be fun.

The night really couldn’t have gone any better. The opponent, Washington, contributed by giving the fans a fun storyline to follow. The Wizards’ leading scorer, Gilbert Arenas, wrote a blog in which he guaranteed that the Celtics would lose their first game. There was already enough emotion in the building, but Arenas’s words provided a bonus.

It was over early. And it played out just as Rivers had described as they took their tour of the parade route. In the first few minutes, for example, Allen drove in the lane and immediately drew a double-team. He could have put up a shot but found Kendrick Perkins alone by the hoop, and the big center converted an easy score. Garnett collected 4 rebounds in the first three minutes and could be heard shouting defensive instructions nonstop.

Pierce, meanwhile, played at his usual cool pace and didn’t force any shots early. He made a couple of shots in the first quarter of what he used as a feeling-out process. In the second quarter, he and his teammates buried Washington. The ball movement and chemistry were too much for the Wizards, so Pierce had 15 points in the quarter and the Celtics surged to a 22-point halftime lead.

The Garden hadn’t been this alive on a Friday night in years. The final was 103 to 83, and even then, each member of the Big Three said the team could be a lot better. As it was, Pierce had 28 points, and he made them all look easy. Garnett showed his diversity with 22 points, 20 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocked shots. No Celtic since Bill Russell had defended like this. Allen knew he had to sacrifice more of his offensive game than the other two to accommodate the other stars on the court, but he showed his willingness to do it. He took just 10 shots, nine fewer than Pierce and seven fewer than Garnett, but he still had 17 points and 4 rebounds. He was good defensively, too.

A sign in the stands read, “Too early to predict 82-0?”

June 17, 2008 - Garnett, Allen, and Pierce celebrate after winning the NBA championship.
June 17, 2008 - Garnett, Allen, and Pierce celebrate after winning the NBA championship.Winslow Townson/AP/FIle

The next game was in Toronto on Sunday afternoon. As the team’s chartered plane traveled there late Friday night, the players had what was now their routine: loud music, entertaining stories, poker games in which the stakes steadily rose. Rivers and his assistants sat in the front, the team’s media occupied the back, and everything else belonged to the players. It wasn’t just a physical space. Rivers was adamant that he wanted the players to be as authentic as possible.

The Celtics played well enough against the Raptors to win. This was the luxury, though, of having three stars. With Pierce having an off game, Allen was there with a 33-point afternoon, including a game-winning 3 in the final seconds.

The season was off to a winning start. The expectation had been set, and they played as if they were Olympic sprinters trying to outrun the target. They had a dizzying pattern. They’d win in 8- to 10-game clusters, lose a close game, and then begin the winning cluster again.

They began the season with an eight-game winning streak, lost, and then ran off 12 wins in 13 games. Before you thought of asking how legitimate their defense was, they held the Knicks to 30 percent shooting and 59 points for an entire game. Before you could wonder if anyone outside of the three could carry the team for a night, there was Perkins tying Garnett for a team-high 21 points — along with 9 rebounds — in a win over the Lakers. How about the bench? Got it: In back-to-back games, James Posey went for 17 and 4 and then a nice 10 and 10.

They rolled past the Lakers twice, took out both of the previous season’s Eastern Conference finalists, the Cavaliers and Pistons, and got an 8-point win against the champion Spurs.

Slowly, with no reflection on it or self-awareness of it, Rivers was doing some of the same things as the coaches he admired. Pat Riley and Phil Jackson would have loved the idea and execution of the duck boat talk. Rivers talked about his team so much that it was easy to forget that this was also the best team he’d been a part of. The players had something to prove, and so did he. They heard insatiable critics in their ears, and so did he.

He still didn’t want to be part of an analysis on his own coaching. He just woke up and started to move, thinking about some task or another that he had to do. Then he checked it off. His team played basketball in the same way. There was a task, at home or somewhere across North America, and they went to it. Then they checked it off.

Their collective personality was tied into their style of play, fearless and complete. They must have known that teams coming together so suddenly didn’t usually win so soon like this. They kept sprinting to that expectation and beyond.

At their best, there didn’t appear to be a team anywhere that could stop them.

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This story was adapted from the forthcoming book “The Big Three: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Rebirth of the Boston Celtics” by Michael Holley. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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Michael Holley is a former Globe columnist, host at NBC Sports Boston, and associate professor of journalism at Boston University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.