It had been seven years since Ray Allen walked into TD Garden. After leaving the Celtics for the Miami Heat in 2012, he didn’t feel welcomed as a player, and he didn’t feel comfortable coming back after retirement.
He considered returning for Paul Pierce’s jersey retirement four years ago but decided against it. The issues with Kevin Garnett were still simmering and despite efforts from Doc Rivers to bring the band back together for that occasion, Garnett wasn’t interested.
Sunday, at Garnett’s jersey retirement ceremony, seemed like the right time. Three weeks ago, Allen, Garnett, and Pierce were in Cleveland, members of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team honored at All-Star Weekend. In a large room adjacent to the playing floor at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the honorees who were present were mingling and taking pictures.
The Lakers legends, the former 76ers stars, the Oakland point guards — Jason Kidd, Damian Lillard, and Gary Payton — were among the groups gathering for photo opportunities. One photo that made it to only Pierce’s phone was one of himself, Garnett, and Allen, all smiling.
On Feb. 21, Pierce posted 10 photos from the event on Instagram. Pierce included the Big Three photo sixth, forcing his followers to look through nearly the entire gallery before finding the gem.
“That was intentional,” Pierce said. “I wanted to warm everybody up and then when they got to that one, they [were] like, ‘oh! Wow!’ That was the one everybody commented about.”
It was the first sign that the division was dissipating, that Garnett was warming up. The 15-time All-Star doesn’t do anything by accident or just to be polite; he took that photo, and smiled, because he knew how important the reunification was to Celtics fans and even themselves.
Allen admitted he was hurt by all the friction. He signed with the Heat as a business decision. He felt it was time to move on after it appeared he would be playing behind Avery Bradley and Jason Terry if he accepted that two-year contract offer at the 11th hour from Danny Ainge.
“That was a good moment for us, All-Star Weekend,” Allen said. “[Garnett] and I actually exchanged messages the week after. I knew at least he was moving in the direction of letting bygones be bygones. Once I knew we were talking and I was going to be on his show, when I had time. I wasn’t worried about it.”
Those moments of disregard after Allen signed with Miami affected him, including when he attempted to slap hands with the Celtics’ bench players in their opening night matchup in October 2012. Rivers cooperated. Garnett ignored him.
“The first game that we played, when he wouldn’t shake my hand in Miami, I didn’t want that feeling anymore,” Allen said. “That was a terrible feeling. [But] I wasn’t worried about that anymore. I knew that once we got to the [the back room at TD Garden], this was a moment to celebrate him, let him know I was here to support him.”
Allen and Garnett didn’t meet during their years in the NBA. They were both prep standouts in South Carolina, and met as teenagers.
“I don’t think about 2009, 2010, ‘11, any of those years, I think about ‘93, ‘92, I still remember him as Kevin, the kid that was trying to hit on my sister and ask her out on a date,” Allen said. “And we used to go up to Columbia and practice against the kids from [the University of South Carolina]. That’s the guy I always remember.
“For me, to have some sense of humility and of normalcy, you can’t ever think about these great moments like this because you have to think where you come from. That has allowed us to get to this level.”
A few years ago, Allen and Pierce, who were never really at odds but had been icy since Allen’s Boston departure, made up and discussed their issues. Pierce said after that he made it his purpose to reunite the Big Three, but Garnett would take time to convince.
“Any time after that, Paul and I when we saw each other, it was like nothing has changed; we were trying to raise our kids and make them productive members of society, I just had never had that opportunity around Kevin, I hadn’t seen him at all,” Allen said. “It took All-Star Weekend and then being here [to make it happen].”
Allen said he felt left out not only by the feud with Garnett, but with the Celtics, because of the unsavory receptions he received as a member of the Heat, getting booed every time he touched the ball in his comeback game.
“I don’t like being on the outside,” he said. “There’s so many people here that I love, that I spent time with, that have been part of the family. The people that you know in this building, I see them on TV. They’re etched in my mind, when it comes to my time spent here in Boston. To not be able to connect with them, it was tough for me.
“Just because I moved away doesn’t mean that relationship, that friendship ends. It did center around Kevin and myself because I did get the sense that the people here [in Boston] felt how Kevin felt. Once he accepted me, then the people accept me, that was the sense. I was glad that we could do that and people could see and people could say we won with this guy in 2008, and that’s what matters most.”