As Marcus Smart’s tribute video started winding down, Jayson Tatum urged the crowd to get louder. As Smart saluted the fans, the Celtics star stood up from his seat and motioned up and down with his left arm for them to raise their level.
As Smart, who spent nine unforgettable years in Boston, returned on Sunday for the first time since being traded, the crowd at TD Garden erupted like they had just seen one of his iconic winning plays again.
”It was an incredible moment,” Tatum said. “You know what he meant to the team, what he meant to the organization, what he meant to the city. He was loved.”
Loved by his teammates, too. Even if it wasn’t easy sometimes. When Jaylen Brown first met Smart, he admitted earlier this season he couldn’t stand him. Personalities clashed with Smart, who was never afraid to speak his mind.
But over time, Brown and his Celtics teammates learned to love Smart and what he stood for. They watched his constant hustle plays, diving on the floor for loose balls, fighting through injuries to play and risking it all to win as he wore his heart on his sleeve and endeared himself to the fanbase. And there was no choice but to follow his lead.
“I spent six years with Smart and that’s like a brother to me,” Tatum said. “There were some tough days and we had a lot of great days. Some tough conversations that we had and there were some great conversations. You just learn, being around Smart long enough, everything that he did and everything he said came from a place of love, him just wanting to win. And everybody voices their opinions and emotions differently. Smart wasn’t going to bite his tongue for nobody and that’s what you learn to appreciate about him.”
It’s part of what attracted Al Horford to Boston in the first place. When he considered leaving Atlanta in 2016 after spending the first nine seasons of his career there, Boston was a destination for him, in part, because of Smart. Even though Smart had only played two NBA seasons to that point, Horford saw the potential.
“One of the reasons why I came here initially in ’16 was Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart,” Horford said. “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.”
There was no message from Smart that convinced Horford to come. Just actions.
“He didn’t really have to say anything,” Horford said. “For him, it was just how hard he played, how hard he competed and really try to go out there and put his body on the line night in and night out, and it’s something that as an opponent, you respected, and as a teammate, you always appreciate.”
Tatum, Brown and Horford are the remaining Celtics who learned to appreciate Smart’s contributions so deeply over his years. His impact knew no bounds, both on and off the court. He was, in many ways, a perfect Celtic. It’s what made the news that he was suddenly traded in June so shocking to process.
“It was tough. It was shocking to see that,” Tatum said. “And I’ve said it that the business of the NBA, losing your teammates that, up until now I had spent every season with Smart, been through so many ups and downs with him. So it’s tough. It’s not just losing a teammate, it’s losing a friend, a brother. So obviously you welcome the new guys with open arms but you just spend so much time over the course of six years with somebody that it was tough to see him get traded.”
The irony is that Smart needed to go, in some ways, for Tatum to fully grow and flourish into his role as the leader of the Celtics and face of the franchise. But Tatum and Brown wouldn’t have reached this point, ready to be those leaders without Smart’s guidance.
They also know Smart is not replaceable, at least not in his style.
‘It’s a collective effort,” Tatum said. “We all have to play a part in that. I think that as the years go by, you get more comfortable in your role, in your position, your voice gets louder and louder. You become more of a leader through experiences, and I think that’s what’s happened.”
While Smart was and still is excited for his next chapter and opportunity in Memphis, he again expressed disappointment that he’s still not with the Celtics to finish what he started with them in their pursuit of a championship this season. But he can take solace in being one of the key early builders in what the Celtics have become. They likely wouldn’t be in the position they’re in without the standard Smart set, both in the locker room and on the defensive end of the floor.
“Marcus is just a big competitor and for him, what I saw from him was, really saying things kind of how they were and holding people accountable in different ways,” Horford said. “And defensively, always trying to lead us. So that influence is something that he brought to our group. That physicality, the emotion, the wit defensively, anticipation a lot of the times, things like that.
“I think that we all benefited from it and I feel like we all definitely have taken things from some of the things that he did defensively and kind of been able to turn it. He would always talk, I would always talk with him about defensive stuff. And I know Jaylen did as well. And that influence … it has left its mark here.”
First appeared on www.bostonherald.com