On the bus after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Rajon Rondo sat next to his “closest friend on the team” and asked Kevin Garnett the obvious: “What are you going to do? I’d really like it if you would come back.”
“When he made the decision to come back,” said Rondo, “I was really excited.” Along with every other member of the organization — from the brass to the ball boys, who bring out a jovial side of Garnett in the locker room that few others often do — and the millions of Celtics fans who waited anxiously for his June 30 announcement.
“It was an absolute no-brainer,” said Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca of the decision to commit $36 million more to a 7-footer who will be 39 years old by contract’s end. “It was a very short conversation. We were just really hoping Kevin would want to come back and finish out his career here.”
You could argue whether Rondo is the head of the Celtics snake on the floor, as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Josh Smith all have, or whether Paul Pierce is the face of the franchise, but any debate about who embodies the heart and soul of the grit-and-balls mentality that has come to define these Celtics begins and ends with KG.
“When you heard whispers — I think there was a couple reports that he decided to retire — I just didn’t believe it,” said C’s coach Doc Rivers. “He just has too much passion. You don’t usually see guys with the fire burning high — and at the level that he’s played — that will just turn it off. It’s unnatural, and it’s definitely unnatural for Kevin.”
You’re either with Garnett or against him, illustrated by his “I don’t have Ray [Allen]’s number anymore” comment. Of course, that loyalty goes both ways, and his allegiance to Boston is further evidence.
“My No. 1 reason for coming back, obviously, was Doc,” said KG. “Doc being here is huge. I enjoy playing for him, the guys, the city — the fans here are by far the best fans that I’ve ever been a part of — and all that stuck with me. …
“You want to be in a position where you can still contribute and still give something. I don’t know how Danny talked me into three years. I’m enjoying my journey here. I know it sounds lame and kind of cheesy, but coming in here, preparing, doing what I love, all those put together is why I’m here.”
Things like the “Let’s go Celtics” chants down the stretch of the C’s Eastern Conference finals Game 6 blowout loss to the Heat go a long way in Garnett’s book. He feeds off a city like Boston, and in turn his Celtics teammates feed off him. That’s why so many of these current Celtics wouldn’t be here without Garnett.
He’s the reason for Pierce’s renewed faith in a franchise that tried to trade him after 13-plus loyal seasons.
“Hopefully, I can be around next year and the year after,” said Pierce. “The goal is to hopefully retire with Kevin. He just recently signed a three-year deal, so I see my career kind of ending along the path of his.”
How else do you explain Pierce — already a five-time NBA All-Star climbing the Celtics record books before the new Big Three era ever began in Boston — now aligning his career so closely with Garnett? In fact, if Garnett had retired, the Celtics captain considered doing the same, leaving $32 million on the table.
“I didn’t really want to go through a rebuilding phase,” said Pierce of possibly retiring this past summer. “That would’ve been difficult for me — mentally and being motivated — especially at this point in my career. It would’ve been something I would’ve had to really think hard and long about, and if there was another team out there for me: I don’t know. It’s something I really put consideration into if Kevin had retired.”
He’s the reason for Rondo’s confidence and maturation. It’s best to let the Celtics point guard explain.
“Kevin always wants to see me do well,” said Rondo. “From Day 1, I think my second year, when he first came in, he told me he would be disappointed if I wasn’t the MVP of the league one day and if I wasn’t considered one of the best point guards one day. So, he’s always pushed me and expected more out of me than a lot of people did.
“He’s always showed me how to become a better person each day. Whenever I mess up, Kevin’s always the one that would tell me: ‘You should do this. You should conduct yourself this way or handle it that way.’ So, he’s been kind of like a big brother/mentor, and he’s always wanted the best for me, so that’s how we gravitated towards each other. Obviously, off the court, we have a lot of things in common. We share the same interests.
“He’s been like a big brother to me, and the way he goes about the game, the way he approaches the game — he’s a future Hall of Famer,” added Rondo. “I consider him one of the greatest players to ever play the game, and that’s been in front of me, so he’s inspired me to work hard.”
He’s the reason veteran free agents like Jason Terry pick up the phone when Rivers calls.
“I didn’t know Kevin’s situation, but obviously when I talked to Doc at 11:58 and a half or 11:59 on July 1, I knew Kevin was coming back, so that really made it easy for me,” said Terry. “When Doc called, I answered. There’s no question that there’s about three teams in this league that, if you’re really thinking about winning a championship, and you’re serious, then those are the teams that you want to play for, and Boston obviously was No. 1 on my list.”
And he’s the reason the C’s can draft guys like Fab Melo and sign someone like Darko Milicic, whose potential and commitment to basketball have been questioned, but who also might find answers under Garnett’s tutelage.
“I’m excited to learn from him,” said Milicic, the NBA drifter whose ears have been opened to Garnett’s counsel for the time being this preseason after years spent tuning him out as an opponent.
“He’s a really good person,” added Melo, who met Garnett for the first time during the team’s trip to Los Angeles. “Sometimes, he can be a little bit tough, but you’ve just got to learn to deal with it. That’s the thing I’m looking forward to most: To be with him and to learn from all his experience. I can be good if I listen to him.”
He’s the reason the Celtics are still championship contenders, six years after his arrival and five years after he delivered their first title. Almost everything that happened after June 30 happened because of Garnett.
“I don’t know if it was ever a three-year plan,” said Celtics president Danny Ainge. “I don’t know who ever said the three-year plan. I’m not surprised that Kevin is still playing at the level that he’s playing.”
Put the questions about Garnett’s age to rest. After all, he’s embarking on a chapter of his career few players of his size and caliber have even opened. As Pierce said: “This is in his blood. This is what he was born to do.”
“I never, ever like to gauge myself from a talent standpoint,” said Garnett. “I just think of myself as a person who works very hard on his craft. I take what I do very seriously. I don’t play around with it. I don’t cruise. It’s all out or nothing. Obviously, I was hurt, I had surgery and I had some years where it wasn’t so pretty, but I’ve been working to get myself back into the shape that I want, as best as I can, or as best as Father Time will let me.
“And that’s where I’m at. I’m the same old guy. I watch film. I do the same old things that I’ve been doing since I’ve been in the league. I think just because I was getting older, people were looking for the drop-off, but what you’ve got to know is that I’m motivated and I work really hard.”
For every owner who calls him the dirtiest player in the NBA or every opponent who votes him the second-dirtiest, there’s a member of the Celtics organization who respects Garnett, and that’s all he really cares about.
“It’s amazing what a person like Kevin Garnett puts in to prepare himself for the year, and what he does day in and day out to go out on the court,” said Ainge. “I’m grateful that he chose to come back and play. I think a lot of it has to do with Paul and Rondo and Doc and what he believes that we can be this year.”
“I laugh when people say he’s old or he doesn’t do this or he can’t do that,” added Rondo, “because if you know the game of basketball, it’s one thing, but when you play with Kevin, he does so many little things that don’t show up in the stat book. Or, when you play with another big guy that isn’t Kevin Garnett, you know what you’re missing out there on the floor … so I don’t take Kevin for granted, and our team doesn’t as well. We value him very much, and he’ll be a big part of when we try to win a championship this year.”
And as long as Garnett’s heart still beats to the rhythm of a dribbling basketball, so too will these C’s title hopes.
(Have a question, concern or conception for the next Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach on Twitter.)