Preparing for a fan-free Celtics experience

Basketball card of Kevin GarnettIn the midst of looking back on sports past, sports present is basically upon us. The NHL is packing up for the safer environment of Canada. MLS is down two teams but still moving forward with their tournament in Orlando. And their Florida neighbor, the NBA, is getting ready to figure out the end of its season and finalize seeding for the playoffs.

For someone who follows the Celtics, this is an especially intriguing period. Kemba Walker had been slowed by a knee injury when the coronavirus put a sudden halt to the season, just as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were continuing their respective coming-out parties — the latter shaping into one of the better two-way players in the game, the former solidifying into a deadly scorer. With all these guys reasonably healthy, this could be an engaging run for Boston.

It’s still going to be weird, though. All the games will be played on a uniform court for the benefit of ESPN’s cameras but without fans. And it’s not hard to think about how long this is all going to last, and when some sense of normalcy returns to the game.

With that, I thought ahead to next season, when the Celtics are planning to retire Kevin Garnett’s number, and hopefully doing so safely in front of 18,000 cheering fans in the Garden.

When Paul Pierce returned with Kevin Garnett to the Celtics for the first time after their 2013 trade to Brooklyn, they were greeted with video tributes and emotional ovations, with the camera eventually settling on two vacant squares where Boston’s retired numbers reside. The not-so-subtle hint was that one day, Pierce’s 34 and Garnett’s 5 would live there.

There was some grumbling that Garnett wasn’t a Celtic long enough to deserve to be honored in the same space as Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird, but to focus on the six seasons is to dismiss the impact he had in that time. [1] With Garnett came an immediate transformation of the franchise. Joining forces with Pierce and Ray Allen and buoyed by the emergence of Rajon Rondo, the team won their 17th championship in 2008 and came within a few agonizing minutes of adding an 18th two seasons later.

But with Garnett, beyond the numbers and the playoff success, I think of him and the crowds. He was a mainstay on the Celtics’ hype videos, and the fans reacted in kind. TD Garden transformed from a lifeless vault to a rollicking thunderdome overnight. Garnett’s relationship with the fans — the way he fed off the crowd and galvanized the faithful in kind — may be one of the greater examples of the power sports can have in front of a live, energized audience. And when Gino danced, KG smiled.

That won’t be present in the NBA’s Orlando bubble. Instead, it’ll be basketball in a vacuum, engaging in its own right and a spectacle we’ve never quite seen before. And it’ll be entertaining in that respect. But I’m looking forward to when we can congregate again, and when Garnett can get the ovation that the occasion deserves.

1. It comes with no small sense of pride that the Celtics are retiring Garnett’s no. 5 before the Minnesota Timberwolves can hang his no. 21. Despite repeated overtures, Garnett is still furious at Minnesota for being treated unfairly by owner Glen Taylor — his “I don’t do business with snake motherfuckers” quote should be explanation enough there.

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