When the final buzzer sounded in Game 7 of the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals, twenty-three retired numbers looked down at the parquet floor from the rafters of TD Garden. At the time, no one knew that that day would (probably) be the final time that Marcus Smart suited up with his #36 for the Boston Celtics.
Less than a month later, Smart was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of the three-team deal that sent Washington Wizards big man Kristaps Porzingis to the Celtics. It was a move that closed the book on his nine-year tenure in Boston — the longest of any player since Rajon Rondo.
Should the epilogue to Smart’s story in Boston include his number being raised to the rafters alongside the many legends who came before him?
Smart was one of ten players to spend over nine seasons in Boston and never miss the playoffs, according to longtime Celtics radio play-by-play man Sean Grande. The other nine all saw their numbers be raised to the rafters. But, they also saw their respective teams raise championship banners to the rafters as well — something Smart never accomplished in Boston.
“Not actually getting us one, that’s probably my only regret,” Smart said. “I love the journey that I’ve been a part of with this organization, with this team. I couldn’t ask for more. The only thing I regret is we didn’t get [the championship] when we had our chance when I was here. But other than that, I’ve enjoyed my run.”
Marcus Smart is the only Celtic in the last 30 years to play 9+ years/500 games and never miss the playoffs.— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) June 22, 2023
He's one of just 10 Celtics who has ever done it.
The 29-year-old has played the 19th most games for Boston in the team’s 76 seasons with 581 appearances. He also ranks 25th on the franchise’s all-time scoring list with 6,141 career points, right behind Kevin Garnett — whose No. 5 was retired back in 2022.
Smart being just behind Garnett on Boston’s all-time scoring list is pretty fitting. The two are consistently tied together in the minds of fans because of the unmatched heart and intensity that they each played with. They even shared a moment during Smart’s rookie season, when Garnett and Paul Pierce returned to Boston for the first time since being dealt to the Brooklyn Nets.
The young guard dove after a loose ball, beat Garnett to the floor, and won the Celtics possession. As Jeff Green slammed home a dunk on the opposite end, Garnett showed respect to Smart for his hustle.
Throwback to Kevin Garnett giving respect to rookie Marcus Smart.pic.twitter.com/GSbzt2tmYH— BostonCelticsForever (@BostonCelts4eva) August 17, 2021
Smart nearly went on to follow in Garnett’s footsteps in Boston. He captured the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award in the 2021-22 season, 14 years after KG had earned the same honor. Both Celtics went on to help their squads reach the NBA Finals after securing the award.
Boston’s defeat in the 2022 NBA Finals was frustrating for many, but didn’t necessarily reflect the Texas native’s play. He averaged 15.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 43.0% from the field and 41.2% from distance.
Plenty of Celtics fans were not only excited for the team’s first Finals berth since 2010, but also specifically for Smart to finally get to that big stage and have the opportunity win a title in Boston, after spending years with the team. The bond — built on love and trust — that he formed with the city over the course of his time there was special.
“I’ve been through some stuff, and it’s all been in Boston. Boston’s my second home,” Smart said of the city on July 7, per The Athletic’s Jay King. “So it’s been tough [since the trade]. They’re always going to have a place in my heart.”
His connection with the fans rivaled that of Paul Pierce — whose No. 34 is retired alongside Garnett’s at TD Garden.
Make no mistake, Pierce was much more than just a fan favorite for the Celtics. He was a 10-time All-Star, 2008 Finals MVP, and was named to the Hall of Fame in 2021. But, throughout the course of his 15 seasons with the Cs, he connected with the Garden faithful on another level. It wasn’t always perfect, but by the end, he became one of the most beloved players to take the floor in the team’s modern history.
Nothing encapsulated the love that supporters showed Pierce during his final appearance in Boston. He returned one final time as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, played for five minutes, sat the entire game, then checked in to sink one last three-pointer in front of the friendly crowd.
Of course, Smart hasn’t made his return to TD Garden as an opposing player yet. But, when he does sometime this upcoming season, it’ll likely be something special. There’s a fair amount of fans that just never bought into Smart, didn’t like his shot selection, and refused to admit that he had a positive impact on the team. That group is, for sure, outweighed by those who take the opposite side.
When Smart’s trade to Memphis was announced, he posted a heartfelt farewell message to his Twitter account.
Goodbyes are hard.— marcus smart (@smart_MS3) June 23, 2023
But the future is exciting. pic.twitter.com/hULgrVXkmi
Shortly after, a large chunk of the fanbase took to the replies to say goodbye and wish Smart well.
No clue if you’ll see this, but thank you for everything, Marcus!! You were the bridge that connected the Big 3 Era with the Jays Era. A true professional who always left it all on the court. Regardless of team performance, we could always count on you giving 100%!! We love you. pic.twitter.com/cXHeXFjoQm— Triston Casas Enjoyer (@CasasGOAT) June 23, 2023
We're gonna miss you so much Marcus. Just such an easy person to root for and hard person to watch leave. Glad you get to go to a team like the Grizz! Good luck and thanks for playing along with all our weird ish over the years!— Max Lederman (@Max_Lederman) June 23, 2023
On top of all of the great moments he had on the court, Smart was just as active off of it. Since entering the league in 2014, he’s built up his YoungGameChanger Foundation which aims to create access to opportunity for inner-city athletes and support pediatric cancer patients.
During his time with the Celtics, he made countless visits to Boston Children’s Hospital to spend time with children who were undergoing treatment for cancer.
“It stems from losing my mom, my brother, a couple of my aunts and uncles from cancer when I was growing up,” Smart said after winning the NBA Cares Community Assist Award in October of 2022. “I wish I had somebody to come in and take as much interest in helping me or helping my family in ways that we couldn’t even imagine, such as giving us hope, making us feel better, putting a smile on our faces, things like that. I think somebody that people look up to such as an NBA player, any type of athlete, entertainer, or any type of person that they idolize, for them to be able to come and show their support, means more than anything in the world.”
Many felt that Smart — much like Pierce — truly embodied what it means to be a Celtic. Some may even say that he was amongst the greatest Celtics ever.
This doesn’t mean that he was the most talented player, but rather that he gave everything he had for the franchise while wearing the classic green and white uniform.
“Everything I accomplished, I left everything I had wearing that jersey out on that court,” Smart told reporters in Las Vegas last month, “Although we didn’t win a championship in the big scheme of things, I don’t consider my time there a failure. I helped rebuild that team at the time when I came in. And I left it better. So I’m very ecstatic with my time there but I’m excited for the future and what it holds.”
Over the course of nine years, Smart averaged 10.6 points, 4.6 assists, and 1.6 steals per game while knocking down 38.6% of his attempts from the floor and 32.3% of those from deep.
Though he never did win a title, he always seemed to take his game to another level in the playoffs — especially in recent years. Since 2020, Smart posted an average of 15.2 points, 5.3 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per postseason contest.
With all of that being said, it’s difficult to envision a world where he receives the honor without that elusive NBA championship. Of the 23 retired numbers in Boston, all of them have won at least one title — except for Reggie Lewis, who tragically passed away in July of 1993.
It’s not impossible. Smart may have the best rafters resume of any non-championship-winning player in Celtics history. His sustained success, heart, and true connection with the fanbase make him a truly unique player.