In a 2019 game against the Charlotte Hornets, Marcus Smart made headlines for publicly yelling at head coach Brad Stevens. He had just picked up his fifth foul and in turn, was pulled out of the game, barking at Brad on his way to the bench.
We didn’t know it at the time, but with that heated exchange, the Love & Trust era was born.
“This is the part about Marcus that I love — his fire, his competitiveness,” Stevens said after the game. “If there’s a moment when he’s upset with us, that’s all part of it. We move on pretty quickly. We’ve been together a long time, and I’ve been yelled at before, and that’s okay. I love him and I trust him, and he’ll get every opportunity.”
I love him and I trust him.
Celtics fans have repeated that mantra countless times over the past four years, all while Smart earned the starting point guard position, helped lead the team to the 2022 Finals, and became one of the league’s most tenacious defenders.
It’s been nearly two months since the nine-year veteran was traded to Memphis, and many of you are probably rolling your eyes at yet another thought piece debriefing the trade and attempting to capture all that Marcus Smart meant to the Celtics franchise and city of Boston at large.
But, the passage of time is a gift when it comes to the art of reflection. I, a lifelong Celtics fan and a brand-new CelticsBlog writer, have had six weeks to reflect on the franchise-altering trade that brought Kristaps Porzingis to Boston, and while my emotions regarding the on-court implications of the move have somewhat muted, my appreciation for Marcus has only deepened.
The initial Shams tweet at 11:59pm on June 22nd announcing the shocking trade felt like a bullet shot to the chest. I impulsively swore off my Celtics allegiance, incredulous that Brad could make such a rash decision in the wee hours of the night.
The wound has since softened — in part, thanks to my mother, who had to actually remind me that Marcus is, in every sense, perfectly fine and healthy. There’s no shame in a 25-year-old adult dramatically mourning the exit of their favorite player, right?
“He’s not hurt, Noa. He’s not even retiring,” my mother texted me, a bit confused about my inconsolable devastation. The countless black-and-white, fan-made Marcus Smart tribute videos that immediately inundated the internet only increased her confusion: why was such a large portion of the fanbase grieving this trade in such dramatic fashion?
My answer to that question is longer than I could fit in a single article, but regardless, I’ll do my best. After all, I have had six weeks to ruminate on Smart’s departure, and to attempt to capture what he meant to the city of Boston.
This is an ode to Marcus Smart and to the passage of time — time in the form of nine years in a Celtics uniform, 581 tenacious games played, 914 emphatic steals, 911 “no-no-yes” three-pointers, and one 11:59pm tweet that put his captivating run in green to a sudden end.
First and foremost, Marcus Smart is a ferocious, gutsy competitor.
Drafted sixth by the Celtics in the 2014 NBA Draft, Marcus was described by scouts as having ‘Joakim Noah-style competitiveness,’ ‘a reputation for flopping’ and being ‘extremely effective on defense’ — descriptions that all aged well.
Smart’s plethora of on-court antics and memorable highlights, such as the back-to-back charges he drew against James Harden in a wild 2017 comeback against the Rockets, is what many fans will remember him for. The team had trailed by 26-points and capped off the run with Marcus drawing consecutive offensive fouls on Harden in the final 10 seconds, a quintessential defensive performance.
He was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2022, becoming the first guard to take home the honor since Gary Payton in 1996 (and only the second point guard all time). He finished his Celtics tenure 4th all time in steals.
Smart’s commitment to doing the little things on the court have not gone unnoticed. He is a three-time winner of the NBA Hustle Award, which recognizes effort plays that don’t appear in the traditional box score but impact winning, such as deflections, loose balls recovered, box-outs, screen assists, and contested shots. He won the award in three of the five past seasons, including in both 2022 and 2023.
Accolades don’t even begin to capture Smart’s unique competitive spirit. Oftentimes, he did it on defense, diving for a loose ball, getting under a big man’s skin, or locking down an opponent’s top scorer.
When it was needed, he did it on offense. In May, with the Celtics facing elimination in Game 6 at Philadelphia and Jayson Tatum struggling mightily for most of the game, Smart kept the season alive — finishing with 22 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals.
“I ain’t never played with nobody like Smart; I ain’t never met nobody like Smart,” Tatum said after the win. “He is one of a kind. Anybody that watches him play, knows him or ever plays with him knows there’s nobody like Smart. Any time I’m going to war, I’ll take him on my team every day of the week.”
We thought he had many more years in Boston.
Trades are an undeniable part of the business, and it’s unusual to see one player play out their entire career with one franchise. We watched the team ship out Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City in 2012, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn in 2013, and, perhaps most infamously, Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland in 2017.
Some of these trades aged better than others; in hindsight, an aging Pierce and Garnett were flipped for the draft picks that became Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and neither Pierce nor Garnett seem to have hard feelings about Danny Ainge’s decision.
On the flip side, the Perkins trade effectively marked the beginning of the end of the Big Three era. While Jeff Green, who the Celtics acquired, was (and is) a productive player, Perkins’ loss in the locker room, on the glass, and on defense was too big to overcome.
Marcus Smart had been a fixture of trade talks for the better part of a decade, but his name had not been linked to any rumors of late. Brad Stevens himself seemed to confirm he would keep the core together.
“We love our foundation,” Stevens told the media on June 1st, shortly after the Celtics were eliminated. “We love our core. And that’s really our focus and priority.”
Perhaps Marcus Smart was not viewed by management as part of that foundation. Or, more likely, a unique opportunity presented itself and what one day felt like a certainty was no longer one. Smart, speaking publicly at his basketball camp in Stoughton for the first time since the trade, revealed that Stevens previously assured him he wasn’t on the chopping block.
“It was definitely shocking to find out that way, especially because the week before, I was already told we were good, there were no trade talks with me and I was good,” Smart said.
Such is the cutthroat business of the NBA, with even the most loyal and beloved players getting shipped in the blink of an eye in the face of a move executives believe will upgrade the roster. Very few players are truly untouchable, particularly when championship expectations haven’t been met. As a fan, that reality doesn’t always make stomaching a trade any easier, particularly when a player’s impact extends far beyond the basketball court. Losing Marcus the player is one thing, losing Marcus the person is another.
Marcus prioritized charity work, giving his time to the city’s hospitals and kids.
Marcus Smart became a fixture of the Boston community in a way that few professional athletes have. His philanthropy with the YounGameChanger Foundation was core to his Boston tenure — and this incredible article detailing his hospital charity work shines light on the profound impact he had on sick kids across the city.
Marcus lost both his older brother, Todd, and mother, Camellia, to cancer, and in turn, spent the last decade in Boston visiting sick patients and putting a smile on their faces, particularly when they were in the thick of treatment.
With the goal of making the hospital experience a little less terrible for children, he launched the Smart Carts program, which provides medical facilities with mobile charging stations loaded with tablets and video game consoles designed to become entertainment hubs.
Katie Devine, the associate director of donor relations for Boston Children’s Hospital Trust, described Marcus as the most “genuine, kind and passionate person.” In the aftermath of the trade, Marcus offered reassurance that his charity work would continue in Boston, while also expanding to Memphis.
He loved being a Boston Celtic.
No other Celtic in this era has expressed his love for Boston in such an impassioned way, and undoubtedly, Smart’s allegiance to the city helped make him a fan favorite. He wanted to retire a Celtic, he dyed his hair green (in honor of his late mother), and he became well-known for his warm-up routine, which included a backwards, corner three right in front of fans. For years, his Twitter location read Greatest City in the World, and he often spoke about how no other fan base compared.
Marcus Smart can’t connect on his patented warmup trick shot but is all smiles either way pic.twitter.com/ngYtFxtkCe— Cameron Tabatabaie (@CTabatabaie) March 2, 2023
”It’s definitely hard to say goodbye,” Smart said at his camp. “I know talking to some of these fans, I definitely get emotional. They’re coming up to me and they are bawling.”
In his official introduction as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, he reflected on his early days in Boston and how he eventually made it a home. “When I got to Boston, I was a 19-year-old kid from Dallas, Texas,” Smart said. “It was a culture shock, it was a social shock, it was a shock to my whole life. Never been to the East Coast or anything like that, so it was all weird to me. But I grew up. I met some very wonderful people throughout my time there.”
In all, Marcus Smart helped lead the Celtics to nine consecutive playoff appearances. While he was never the team’s biggest star — he averaged 11.5 points per game on 41.5% shooting in the 2022-23 season — he was, by most accounts, the “heart and soul” of the locker room, as Jaylen Brown declared back in 2021.
His only regret? Not bringing the city a championship. And while the battle for Banner 18 will continue, it won’t look quite the same.
“My brother, my teammate, one of my best friends is not on the team anymore,” Jaylen Brown said upon signing his contract extension in July, the richest in NBA history. “Everybody knows it. I learned so much from Marcus. We butted heads at times, we fought, we did it all. Put each other in headlocks, etc. This journey won’t feel the same without him, to be honest.”
This article will probably open the floodgates on the exasperated “Celtics fans are so irrational they would have been mad if Marcus Smart was traded for Nikola Jokic” takes.
The truth is, we won’t know the full implications of this trade for months, if not years. Maybe the Porzingis acquisition will be what gets this group across the finish line to a championship, and Stevens will look like a genius.
Or, perhaps the loss of Smart will be too much to overcome, and the team’s inconsistent performance will become even more mercurial with the loss of its vocal leader. At this point, we’re all just speculating.
If there’s one thing I’m certain of: Marcus Smart will go down in history as one of the all-time Celtics greats — probably not in the official rankings, most likely not in the rafters. But in the minds of a certain, fiery subsection of the Celtics fan base that I, alongside thousands of others belong to, Marcus Smart is a true Celtics great.