Three of the most commonly used words in the English language are also three words that are oftentimes the hardest to use. One offers a feeling of gratitude for something, the other a salutation. Those words, goodbye and thank you, were never harder to utter than they were on Friday night.
The Boston Celtics lost Game 6 to the New York Knicks, a game that was a miracle in its own way considering how poorly the Celtics played in the first three games of the series. The Knicks staved off their own demons and, somehow, still beat Boston while reverting back to isolation basketball when the pressure was at its highest, a trait that could be damning as their playoff run continues.
But Friday night was so much more than just another loss in an overwhelmingly disappointing season. It was also, perhaps, the end of an era.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett exited the game during its waning moments on Friday night, and the questions began to arise. The uncertainty of their future with Boston, and basketball in general, brought tears to many eyes, myself included.
We cried because of what they've given to the Boston Celtics organization for so many years. Pierce, a guy once thought of as an immature small forward who just wasn't good enough to be a leader, stayed with the Celtics and helped lead them to a championship.
He endured so many bad seasons, so many rough situations, and yet he still stuck with Boston when he had every right to bail.
"He's one of the greatest Celtics to ever play. He's done so much for this franchise," Doc Rivers said on Friday. "Listen, we live in a day and time where guys are changing teams like socks. Paul has chosen to stay here throughout his career when clearly he had all rights to leave and he chose to stay here. I have so much respect for him for that. He wanted to get it done here. He made that choice. I hope he's remembered for that and obviously I hope he comes back."
Garnett, who played the majority of his career in a less-than-desirable situation in Minnesota, left for greener pastures and a chance at a championship when he was traded to Boston in 2007. He displayed grit, determination and embodied everything the Celtics have become known for over the past 50 to 60 years.
The Big Ticket seemed to barely make it into the arena on some days. He endured so many injuries -- aches and pains that would leave most people in a heap on their bed, reaching for the closest painkiller.
And he played through those aches and pains. He never complained, he never sulked. Garnett merely continued to do what he's always done -- give every game his absolute best, and leave everything on the court.
The Celtics fought back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to make it a game in the fourth quarter. As he checked out of the game and received an ovation on Friday, Garnett left everything he had on the parquet floor in the TD Garden.
The sad truth, though, is that Garnett and Pierce may not have much left to leave on the court.
Garnett has two years left on his contract, and Pierce's fate is in the hands of Danny Ainge. Both of them are bruised and old, but both of them would swear to you they can still compete in the league.
And who are we to doubt them.
Paul Pierce returning does not seem likely. And if he does, we'll be writing these same pieces again next season. Kevin Garnett was noncommittal about his future after Friday's game. He may not be back at all.
But as we begin to mull over the uncertainties and anticipate the rebuilding years that were inevitable for Boston, we can look back on what Pierce and Garnett gave to Boston and learn some valuable lessons.
Pierce's loyalty is a perfect picture of what most humans desire in love, in friendship or at work. Regardless of circumstances, he remained loyal to the organization that drafted him in 1998.
He also displayed what it looks like to grow as a person, not in stature, but in character. Pierce's early years were rough at times, and many doubts arose about his ability to be a leader. But he crushed those doubts, proving year after year that he was worth every penny the Celtics invested into him.
Garnett's work ethic and competitive drive is probably worthy of its own book, but it certainly provides many lessons to be learned. He worked so hard to keep his body in good enough shape to take the court.
And he never grumbled or complained. Rather, he continued working as hard as he could and trusted that the results would follow. That mindset and work ethic are just two of the many reasons that those who play on the Celtics have so much respect for Garnett. He worked hard for every bit of success he attained.
I can only hope to be able to work as hard as he does, night in and night out, and never succumb to grumbling and complaining.
So as the tears welled up in my eyes on Friday night, I began to think about Pierce, Garnett and everything they've meant to me as a person and fan these past few years. I couldn't help but be grateful. Not every fan is fortunate enough to be able to watch two surefire Hall of Famers give every ounce of effort they have for an organization.
It'll likely be weeks before we know the fate of Pierce and Garnett's future, but that doesn't make their departure on Friday night any less emotional and meaningful.
Goodbye, Paul and Kevin.
Thank you for everything.