Kevin Garnett has been through this before, on Feb. 8, 2008, when he returned to Minnesota for the first time after toiling for 12 years with the Timberwolves, establishing himself as the face of the franchise, their most popular and identifiable player, and a bona fide superstar.
The difference between then and Sunday night at TD Garden was that Garnett was ready to leave Minnesota, angry that owner Glen Taylor did not want to sign the cornerstone to a contract extension. So Garnett, who missed that game in Minnesota because of an abdominal strain, walked onto the court at Target Center and politely waved to the fans.
Garnett was admittedly angry, feeling he was made the scapegoat for the Timberwolves’ playoff failures. Minnesota wasn’t home anymore, and Garnett did not hide his disdain, seemingly going through the motions in his return.
On Sunday, Garnett was back home, fully understanding his exit from Boston, harboring no hard feelings, fully appreciative of the fact the city embraced him, accepted him for his idiosyncrasies, and respected his privacy.
So when the Celtics showed their appreciation with a video montage with 2:25 remaining in the first quarter, condensing six years into 60 seconds, he initially only peeked at the Garden video board, then became glued to the tribute. And when “You Should Be Dancing” by the Bee Gees played, the music played during “Gino” videos in the waning minutes of Celtics blowouts, Garnett broke into a smile.
“This is bigger than Minnesota,” he said. “Even when I went back to Minnesota, Minnesota wasn’t like this.”
There were times in Boston when Garnett did not want to embrace the moment and adulation. When there would be a line of kids waiting for the Celtics to come out for the second half, their little hands waiting for a slap, Garnett would sprint past, his face stoic, the kids looking stunned.
And then there were times when Garnett would spur the crowd, skipping to each side of the Garden before games to acknowledge the faithful. He was silent about his return to Boston until recently, when he began to allow his emotions to flow about the place that essentially defines him as a winner.
“When you look at the body of work we’ve done in the six years that I was here, no one can ever take that away from us,” Garnett said. “That was our era, that’s what we embedded in history, and that’s forever. We take that to the grave with us. Thank you, Boston.”
Garnett was a superstar when he came here, the Big Ticket, a versatile forward-center who epitomized the league’s influx of talented youth. But not until he stepped onto the floor here with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo was he considered a winner. And that was not lost on him.
“What comes to mind is unbelievable, I didn’t expect anything like that for myself,” Garnett said after the Nets’ 85-79 win. “Shows the first class, shows the type of organization that this is and the appreciation from this organization for you. And I couldn’t put it into words. Paul and I were joking before the game who was going to tear up and drop a tear.
“I had lumps in my throat and I kept them under control and I focused as much as I could on the game and not take away from it but, man, this was over the top. I couldn’t put that into words.”
Another indication of the Celtics’ appreciation for Garnett was the video screen displaying the two empty spots on the most recently hung banner of retired numbers. Obviously, Pierce’s 34 will eventually be there, but there has been a question about whether Garnett’s 5 would join him after he spent just six years in Boston.
Dennis Johnson spent seven years in Boston, was part of two NBA title teams, and his No. 3 was raised, and Garnett deserves to follow. Not only was he part of the 2008 title team, but he helped change the culture and bring respectability back to Celtics basketball.
Boston was a hollow place for basketball when he arrived. It was a Patriots and Red Sox town. Doc Rivers was on the hot seat. The future was the duo of Kendrick Perkins and Al Jefferson. Gerald Green was a potential cornerstone.
When Garnett, Pierce, and Allen donned the Green, the faith returned. There was a swagger they carried. They expected to come into your arena and dominate. Garnett was the central figure of that mentality.
And he understands his place in Celtics history. He didn’t want to leave, having to be talked into waiving his no-trade clause by Pierce on the night the trade was consummated.
Garnett was asked whether this night was comparable to a playoff game, and he opted for this moment.
“This is not even close,” he said. “It’s not even close. The impact of people and how much we’ve impacted their lives, not just kids but grown-ups, just the culture here. You come here and one of the first things [vice president of media relations] Jeff Twiss tells you, he takes you through the library where he shows you all the history here, and you feel that responsibility. To come back here and be showed like this, it’s not even close, not even close.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.