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Marcus Smart’s Boston return highlighted by fan love, cemented by teammates’ respect

The former Celtic drew cheers from the crowd and admiration from his ex-teammates on Sunday night.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

BOSTON – When the Boston Celtics lost Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Miami Heat in the 2020 Bubble, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown had to be separated in the locker room. Tensions were high, blood was boiling, and the competitive fire that echoes through each of them spilled over into real-world confrontation.

When Smart called out Jayson Tatum and Brown on November 1, 2021, after a loss to the Chicago Bulls brought Boston’s record to 2-5, Tatum was shocked. “It caught me off guard for sure,” Tatum revealed months later. Boston was fresh off a .500 season, and losing bore frustration.

Tatum and Brown. Boston’s two All-Stars. They were, and are, the best players on the team. Yet Smart was always comfortable speaking his mind. Always comfortable leading.

“I feel like he had an understanding at times. If he needed to do it, he did it,” Al Horford said after the Celtics’ win over the Memphis Grizzlies. “But the only thing you can respect with him was just how he came in to play. How he got out there even if he wasn’t 100%. And that’s why he was able to talk to anybody and stand up to anybody, and people would have to listen to him and respect him.”

Smart was fearless, he was passionate, and he wore his heart on his sleeve. And when the blood that flowed through his heart spilled out onto the canvas after diving for a loose ball or taking a charge, it was green.

That’s why TD Garden erupted on Sunday night.

Memphis Grizzlies v Boston Celtics Photo by Paul Rutherford/Getty Images

“Marcus Smart, he was the fan-favorite,” Tatum said. “Everybody knew that. The way he played, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and every night, he gave it his all. We have some very smart fans, and they saw that. They appreciated that. So it was just really cool to see. [I’m] happy for him. I’m surprised he didn’t cry because that was special.”

In his first time back at TD Garden since getting traded, Smart was honored with a tribute video and the Heroes Among Us award for his work with the YounGameChanger Foundation.

As the crowd roared and the air filled with dust, Tatum stood by the Celtics bench waving his hands through the air, urging the Boston faithful to give all of their energy and then some to the former Celtic.

Smart stared up at the jumbotron with a huge smile on his face, reminiscing about the time he spent in Boston.

During his nine-year stint with the team, Smart made the postseason every year. He helped Tatum and Brown become the players they are today, adapted to the roles Boston asked him to play, and led the team with an unmatched vigor that made him one of the most well-respected figures in the league.

“My time with Marcus here was very special. And I’ve said this before, but 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 very young player and just kind of how he cared about winning. So, just a very special person and somebody that I really appreciated when he was here with us throughout the years.”

The love Celtics fans have for Smart filled an entire building on Sunday night, but it comes nowhere close to the bond he formed with his teammates.

“I spent six years with Smart. That’s like a brother to me,” Tatum said. “ And there were tough days. And we had a lot of great days, right? You know, some tough conversations that we had, and there were some great conversations.

“And you just learned, you know, being around Smart long enough – Everything that he did, everything that he said, came from a place of love, and you know, him just wanting to win. And everybody, you know, voices their opinions and emotions differently. You know, Smart wasn’t gonna bite his tongue for nobody. And you know, that’s what you know, learn to appreciate about him.”

Memphis Grizzlies v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

For years, media members and fans alike questioned whether or not Smart was the right fit. “He’s not a point guard,” “the best player needs to be the leader,” “he’s too inconsistent on offense.”

But time and time again, Smart’s unquestionable devotion to the Celtics shined through, as did the admiration his teammates had for him.

Even though some of the relationships he formed may have gotten off to a rocky start.

“It was mutual,” Smart said when asked about Brown not liking him at first. “Definitely mutual. But no, we all know; we all have siblings, and those of us who don’t understand from the ones who do that, it’s a constant battle. It’s not every day that I like you, but I love you every day. And that’s kind of how me and Jaylen’s relationship and these other guys here has evolved.

“It might not have started off perfect, but we went through the storm together, and we were able to come out on the other end and see the rainbow on the other side, the pot of gold. So, like he said, at first, it wasn’t all peaches, but we love each other to this day, and that’s my brother for life.”

Roster-wise, Smart’s exit from Boston made sense. Kristaps Porzingis has objectively been a great fit, and the Celtics are on pace to have their best regular season since 2009.

But while fans have the luxury of looking at basketball from a purely on-court perspective, that’s not where the game ends.

Players have lives. Feelings. Emotions. They form friendships. Have families. Share their lives with one another. Smart was tough as nails on the court, but the brotherhood he created with his Celtics teammates is something that will never go away.

So, as tears streamed down the faces of fans at TD Garden on Sunday night, Boston’s bench was standing. And they were smiling.

Smart was home. It was just for a brief moment. But he was home.

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