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It’s a landmark signing for Celtics and for Boston

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Al Horford, trying to block Isaiah Thomas during the playoffs, is now teammates with the Celtics’ All-Star guard.Maddie Meyer

It's been more than 30 years since the Celtics faithful can recall a day like this, when a premium free agent, a multi-time All-Star willfully chose to join Boston in his prime years.

The surrealism of Saturday for the Celtics cannot be understated. It began with Horford informing teams that he was down to the Celtics and Wizards, each offering a four-year, maximum contract at an estimated $113 million.

It kicked into Venom GT gear when Patriots quarterback, four-time Super Bowl champion, Deflategate defendant, and all-around man of Boston Tom Brady was spotted in the Hamptons as the Celtics were about to meet with Kevin Durant in their attempt to recruit the former MVP.


As the Celtics contingent that included Brady, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, owners Steve Pagliuca and Wyc Grousbeck, guard Isaiah Thomas, and forward Jae Crowder concluded their meeting with Durant, Horford chose to accept the Celtics' offer.

He becomes the first major free agent in generations to sign with the Celtics. Boston has carried a rather stale reputation for being a city that is difficult to play in for players of color. But while the Red Sox, Patriots, and even the Bruins have been able to attract African-American players, the Celtics struggled mightily in luring high-caliber free agents of color.

It had little to do with the city and more to do with the perception. But a funny thing occurred during the Celtics' first-round playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks this spring. The fans who hang out hours before the game around the tunnel to the visiting locker room began recruiting Horford after workouts, telling him how they would love to see him in green.

While they catcalled Dennis Schroder and booed every other Hawk, the fans slyly kept their remarks to a minimum with Horford, knowing he would be a free agent target.


The signing indicates that the Celtics no longer have a stigma when it comes to major free agents. That had become apparent over the last few years, but Horford agreeing to a deal — not just considering — shows that the city and team are capable of being a destination for players in their prime.

Horford was taken one pick after Durant in the 2007 draft. Horford is 30 and missed parts of two seasons with torn pectoral muscles, but he was reliable, steady, and vastly improved offensively during nine seasons with the Hawks.

He is not going to amass monster games, but in NBA circles his value was unquestioned to the Hawks. He was great in the community, a sparkling teammate, and he cared enough about his game to improve his shooting over the years after it was a major weakness when he left the University of Florida.

Ainge had saved his assets, scraped up resources and salary cap space to make legitimate offers to players such as Horford. With the shocking contracts being agreed upon over the past 48 hours, he knew it would take a maximum contract to attract Horford. The $113 million deal over four years is of market value. The Celtics did not get cheated.

The ownership group has sought to bring high-caliber players to Boston voluntarily, without having to sacrifice assets. There was major disappointment on draft night when the Celtics did not spin a big trade for a player such as Jimmy Butler, but that would have likely required giving up two first-round draft picks and veterans.


It would have been a heavy price.

Ainge managed the team's salary cap — helped greatly by the $20 million increase this summer with the influx of television money — in order to chase big-time free agents with cash in hand and a roster ready to take the next step.

It also helped greatly that players such as Thomas (age 27) and Jae Crowder (who turns 26 on Wednesday) signed off on Boston as a comfortable city for which to play. These millennials like Boston, and Thomas acknowledged he had conversations with Horford over the past few days after Horford expressed interest in the Celtics experience.

Saturday was a landmark day for the Celtics, an organization that carried the tag of being unable to attract a major free agent like a scarlet letter. It was an embarrassing tag, even though no one in the organization had anything to do with the city's perception and sometimes soiled racial history.

But the acquisition of Kevin Garnett nine years ago — has it been that long? — began an ascension for the reputation of this city and the Celtics. The Celtics were closing in on bringing these types of players here, but instead of making foolish trades that would have damaged the team's long-term future, Ainge waited — sometimes impatiently — to make the astute move that would improve the organization immediately and secure assets for the future.


It was a landmark day for Ainge, the Celtics, and the city.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.