February 22, 2024

‘Fan favorite’ Marcus Smart showered with love, appreciation in return to Boston

BOSTON — The love for Marcus Smart didn’t stop at the final buzzer Sunday night.

While Smart handed out hugs and greetings, the crowd, which had just watched Boston beat Smart’s Memphis Grizzlies 131-91, appeared to be biding its time until it could deliver a proper sendoff. Finally, after Smart was done chatting up old friends, including catching  briefly with Jayson Tatum’s family, the fans let him hear another roar. People lining the tunnel showered him with cheers until the moment he disappeared from sight.

TD Garden isn’t Smart’s home arena anymore, yet it always will be. The fans made that abundantly clear Sunday. Over an emotional evening, Smart received a video tribute, a “Hero Among Us” award and a number of loving chants. Though the basketball always promised to be one-sided, with the Celtics nearly at full strength while the Grizzlies were comically short-handed, the rest of the show delivered in full.

“I’m surprised he didn’t cry,” Tatum said, “because that was special.”

It sure was.

“He was the fan favorite,” Tatum said, “and everybody knew that. The way he played, he wore his heart on his sleeve and every night, he gave it his all. We have some very smart fans, right, and they saw that and they appreciated that. So, it was just really cool to see. I’m happy for him.”

Tatum needed just three quarters to score 34 points. The Celtics pounded the Grizzlies, who only had two standard contract players available in Luke Kennard and David Roddy. With a nearly impossible 13 players out, Memphis used mostly players on two-way contracts and hardship exception contracts. It was almost as if Shane Falco and his lovable band of replacements made their way to the hardwood for their chance to knock down the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team. The Grizzlies kept the game close for a quarter and a half, but the Celtics eventually proved far superior. Joe Mazzulla said they did their job.

The Boston fans did, too, making Smart’s return memorable. About 15 minutes before tipoff, he stepped onto the parquet floor to a big ovation. He held up one arm to acknowledge the fans, then walked around giving hugs to old friends.

The Celtics later celebrated Smart with that video tribute during the first timeout. Highlights from his Boston tenure were played on the giant video screen, including one of the charges drawn against James Harden, the series-saving block against Norman Powell, and clip after clip of Smart outhustling opponents by diving after loose balls. He might hold the record for most floor burns earned on the TD Garden floor and the fans won’t forget it. They stood throughout the tribute, growing louder as he responded to the cheers by touching his hand to his chest.

Smart’s raw emotion, both on and off the court, always connected him to the crowd. He played harder. He loved harder. He fought harder, even sometimes with teammates, but his big heart always served as a magnet drawing everyone back to him. Through it all, the Celtics didn’t question that he just wanted to win.

“My time with Marcus here was very special,” Al Horford said. “And I said this before, but one of the reasons why I came here initially in ’16 was Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart. I had a lot of respect for Smart even when he was a really young player, and how he cared about winning. Just a very special person and somebody that I really appreciated when he was here with us throughout the years.”

Smart embraced everyone from security guards to ball boys to the team’s mascot, Lucky the Leprechaun. It was a reminder that Smart always had time for all sorts of people. A person didn’t need to be famous or powerful for him to care. Heck, he might have been even more drawn to the unfortunate, as all of his work with local cancer patients showed. He dedicated time and energy to helping out the Boston community, using his greatest gift to make a difference.

“One of the best ways I know is with my personality,” Smart said, “and me being me and helping in any way I can.”

That’s why the Celtics gave him a unique celebration, naming him the night’s “Hero Among Us.” The award typically goes to a citizen who has positively impacted the community. Smart certainly qualified for the latter part. He may not live locally anymore but said he considers Boston a second home.

“Whew,” Smart said. “I could go on all day about everything I’ve experienced here, but just the way Boston took me in. We all know playing in this city isn’t the easiest and there’s plenty of times they let us know about it, especially me. But everything is always great here and I speak for everybody, (including) the opposing team and guys that have played here, that there’s nothing like playing in this place and this city with these fans. They allowed me to grow. They allowed me to see a different side of myself, and they watched me become a man. So my favorite things will always be here, but they definitely have shaped my life in more ways than one.”

Smart isn’t any old guest. As if he still played for the Celtics, he addressed the media in the home team’s press conference room Sunday. He then walked across the hall to the Boston locker room, where he popped inside to say hello to some of his former teammates, or, as he still calls them, his brothers. It was still a different experience for him as a member of the road team. He suggested he has had some trouble grasping the idea of the Celtics chasing a championship without him.

“When you come that close and then you have to leave this, anybody in this position would definitely — it would be hard to try to wrap your head around it,” Smart said. “But at the end of the day, like I said, it doesn’t stop how I feel about good guys. And just as much as I think I deserve it, they deserve it as much as well. So that’s why I say I am ecstatic for those guys, because they work just as hard and they deserve it just as much as I do.”

Even in this city, championships aren’t the only mark of a legacy. The Celtics went 25-57 the season before drafting Smart but never missed the playoffs with him. He helped them reach the conference finals five times and the NBA Finals once. He had flaws as a player, but nobody competed harder. He didn’t always win, but he never backed down.

Celtics fans cherished his attitude. As his return underlined, their love won’t stop just because he works for another franchise.

“It was special to be able to share those moments with him,” Horford said. “I knew that the crowd was gonna be very grateful and appreciative and they were. They were great. They really showed their appreciation. And it was nice to see not only Marcus but also his wife and the people that were along with them. They were kind of taking everything in, appreciating the moment, and feeling the love. Boston has real love for Marcus. And even though he’s on another team, it doesn’t change, you know, how we feel about him, our guys, and also the fans showed how they feel about him as well.”

(Photo: Eric Canha / USA Today)