BOSTON -- The chants started in the balcony, of course. Before the video montage and the standing ovations, there was a loud, throaty chant of Paul Pierce that echoed throughout the Garden. This was the tribute before the main event and for a generation of Bostonians, Pierce was their guy.
Not Larry Bird or John Havlicek or Bill Russell, but the kid from Inglewood, California, who landed on their doorstep after more than a decade of irrelevance and gave them a reason to come to the Garden again. They watched him grow up, quite literally in many respects, and become just not the best Celtics player they ever saw but one of the best in franchise history, period.
There were two tributes at the Garden on Sunday night. One was for Pierce, who became an iconic figure in an organization that was built on them. The other was for an era that was personified by Kevin Garnett. It was a time of toughness and camaraderie forged with half-crazed intensity and seething emotion that was marked by both overachievement and bitter disappointment.
The Celtics have had better eras to be sure. They've had better players, although not as many as you might think. But few teams made as much of a mark on a city as those Celtics. They reflected all those things that Bostonians see in themselves in that they stuck together and didn't give a damn about anyone else.
"This town gets it," Celtics coach Brad Stevens told his team while their fans were screaming for the two guys in the black jerseys. He talked fast in those huddles because he wanted his team to appreciate what was happening. Only a handful had ever experienced anything like this and even fewer had actually gone through it with Pierce and Garnett.
The fans chanted K-G and Thank you, Paul Pierce. They cheered for Garnett's blocks and Pierce's jumpers. In an otherwise dreadful basketball game, it was Garnett who sealed the win like he had so many times in that building by reading a passing lane and making a key defensive stop. That it came at Rajon Rondo's expense brought an eerie finality to a time none of them will ever forget.
"I think we'll always bleed green as long as we're playing basketball and as long as we're living," Garnett said. "Even when they bury us six feet, this is what it's gonna be."
To understand what Pierce and Garnett meant to Boston, you first have to understand what they mean to each other. Long before they happened to be on the same team, Pierce and Garnett had history as far back as high school. Their chemistry was real and it went way deeper than just trying to win basketball games.
"I like to call him -- even though we're the same age -- he's like a big brother to me," Pierce said.
"I am your big brother," Garnett interjected playfully and for a moment it was just like old times. The two of them up there on the podium, playing to the press but really playing to each other.
You can throw Doc Rivers and Rondo into that conversation, as well as Ray Allen, whose name was once again conspicuously absent but was a big part of this, no matter how much ill feeling still exists. They came together at a specific point in their personal history, when the money and the All-Star appearances didn't really matter all that much anymore.
They had experienced and achieved all they could on their own and through that they understood that they needed each other even more. Rivers used to always say that it was easier to coach them as grown men than if they had all been 20-something and trying to prove themselves in the league.
They held tight to each other through all of it. The first year was a 66-win dream that ended with Garnett screaming "Anything is possible," but the remaining years were hard. They were always at the mercy of injuries and time. Just give us one more stand, one more impossible run through the playoffs. Sure enough they nearly pulled it off a couple more times.
They never wanted it to end either. A half-hour after the Pierce/Garnett Celtics had been eliminated for the final time last spring, Garnett could be heard through the locker room walls yelling that they had to run it back one more time. It wasn't their choice to make, which was the hardest reality of them all, but you can bet they would have willingly come back for more.
How do you sum up six years? There was a time during the first round of the playoffs in 2008 when the Celtics were locked in a weirdly competitive series with the Atlanta Hawks. The press was hounding them. Sports talk radio was killing them.
I was talking to Brian Scalabrine off to the side after practice trying to gather material for a magazine piece about Garnett, who I didn't know at all at the time. I asked Scalabrine if they were worried that this was slipping away from them. No, he said. Kevin won't let that happen. I must have looked skeptical because Scalabrine just shook his head and told me that I couldn't possibly understand what it meant to be around Garnett.
They ran the Hawks right out of the Garden in Game 7 and then outlasted the Cavs and Pistons before getting to the Lakers in the Finals. Garnett was great, but Pierce was sublime capturing the Finals MVP and getting to cast his name alongside the other Celtics legends with no caveats or asterisks.
It was the culmination of everything and it happened so quickly there was almost no time to appreciate the achievement. Garnett got hurt the next year and after that it was about survival. One more year, one more chance to do it again.
They made it back to the Finals in 2010 even as KG was a shell of his former self. They almost did it again in 2012 when he was somehow, inexplicably, once again one of the best players on the planet. That was the "grit and balls" season and good lord did Boston love that one. Four years after winning a championship, they were finally a beloved civic institution.
"When you look at the body of work we've done here 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. We're just going to be. Thank you, Boston."
If Garnett's time in Boston was neat and tidy, Pierce's relationship with Boston was far more complex. He arrived during the Rick Pitino era and was around for all the chaos and madness that followed.
Pierce was there with Antoine Walker raining down threes all the way to an unlikely conference finals appearance against Jason Kidd's Nets. (The Garden crowd didn't forget that one, by the way. They lustily booed Kidd seconds after giving Garnett and Pierce a rousing ovation during player introductions).
The purists hated it, but Pierce somehow survived. He endured through Pitino and Jim O'Brien, right through Danny Ainge's initial roster purge and the early days of Doc's tenure as coach with the two butting heads all the way. He was all but traded at one point and then he uttered the phrase that seemingly would be affixed to his basketball tombstone: "I'm the classic case of a great player on a bad team." He was right, of course, but a lot of people didn't see it that way.
Then Garnett and Allen showed up and the story changed. Somewhere along the way, Pierce became a Bostonian and a beloved one at that. His tics and mannerisms became as much a part of the Boston winters as Red Line delays and January Nor'easters. The Captain. The Truth. Elbow jumper with the game on the line. Paul Pierce from Inglewood became one of us.
When it was his turn in the spotlight, all pretense was lost. The Celtics have done a masterful job of honoring their past heroes over the years, but the Pierce tribute was more than a decade in the making. They could have put anything up on the Garden's Jumbotron and the place would have gone bonkers, but it was perfect right down to the Jack Nicholson line: "You can't handle the truth."
Pierce bowed to all four corners and said, "I love you guys. Thank you."
Yet there was one moment that summed it up better than any highlight package could have ever done. A woman in the crowd was holding up a Pierce jersey and fighting back tears.
"I did notice that," Pierce said later. "It was tough. It was tough for me to swallow. I was probably about five seconds from shedding (tears). Five seconds, I'll admit to it. No words that can really describe the shower of love here."
After the press conference was over, Pierce and Garnett made their way down the hallway from the media room. Every five or 10 feet there was another set of friends from the media relations people to the security guards to the ballboys. Garnett slipped away into the night as Garnett does, but as as Pierce rounded the corner a group of Celtics fans were waiting.
They cheered and chanted his name again and he stopped and signed autographs and posed for pictures with all of them. You can cover this sport and be around it as long you want, but you will never see a more sincere moment than that.
It's over now. Truly, finally over. After all the games, all the moments and all the video montages, Paul Pierce left the Garden on someone else's team.