Marcus Smart made his emotional return to Boston over the weekend for the first time since being traded to the Memphis Grizzlies last summer.
The former 2022 Defensive Player of the Year walked into the TD Garden as an opposing player with a message for Celtics fans who supported him for nine seasons to start his NBA career.
"Thank you, guys. I love you guys forever. You guys will always be in my heart, and Boston will always be here. Never forgotten."
Smart didn't suit up against his former team due to a finger injury but did speak before the Grizzlies' 131-91 loss -- about his connection to the city and its fans.
"They allowed me to grow," said Smart pregame. "They allowed me to see a different side of myself, and they watched me become a man. My favorite thanks will always be here. They have definitely shaped my life in many ways than one."
After a tribute video midway through the opening quarter, Smart was also honored with the "Hero Among Us" award before the second period, to which both resulted in a lengthly standing ovation respectively.
“Marcus Smart, he was the fan-favorite," Tatum said in his postgame comments of the tribute video and loud ovation. "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."
It was a warm welcome for the guard who was only 20 years old when drafted by the Celtics as the No. 6 overall pick back in 2014. When asked what it felt like to enter the visitor's locker room as an opponent, Smart was all smiles as he was surrounded by a more packed than usual media room.
"Oof. Smaller," Smart said on entering through the opposing team's entrance. "It's different, but it's unique. I was able for nine years to sit in that locker room and experience the home crowd. I always had to hear about opposing teams coming, hearing the difference and what they feel. The uniqueness of being able to be on that side -- now to understand how much power playing in the Garden really has."
On the court, the Garden faithful acknowledged all of Smart's hustle and game-winning plays such as diving for loose balls or taking a charge -- helping shape the Celtics' current defensive culture -- the reason for the eruption on Sunday and the "Thank you, Marcus!" chants throughout the night when the game was pretty much won by halftime. It was Smart's moment to get his flowers in a place he called home for nearly a decade.
"I spent a little bit over half my life here," said Smart. "Just the way Boston took me in. We all know playing in this city isn't the easiest. There were plenty of times where they let us know about it, especially me. Everything is always great here, and I speak for everybody, opposing teams and guys that have played here. There's nothing like playing in this place, and playing in this city with these fans."
Even Smart former teammates can appreciate and respect him for building a foundation of what we see with today's Celtics roster which is now led by Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Just ask the elder statesmen in Al Horford.
"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 2016 was Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart," Horford said in his postgame presser Sunday. "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."
As for what Smart has seen from afar with his ex-Celtics brothers, he's proud and excited for what's to come a roster that is a league-best 38-12 since his departure, as they remain serious title contenders.
"It's amazing to see," Smart said prior to the game. "For me, to see my brothers from all around in every sport -- doing what they love to do and doing it exceptionally well and at a very elite level -- especially this group of guys. It's a special relationship I built with these guys. I've seen these guys take a lot of criticism over the years, and I'm just happy for them, clicking and getting it together. I'm very ecstatic for those guys, and I'm very happy for them."
While most considered Smart a true Celtic because of his grit, toughness, loyalty, and leadership, it was shocking to see Brad Stevens make the decision to trade Smart after nine straight seasons of making it to the postseason -- that resulted in five trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and of course the lone Finals berth in 2022.
Still, Smart understands that basketball is a business at the end of the day, despite the many years of blood, sweat and even tears shed for a city and region that truly embraced you.
"I understand business, and I understand this business," Smart said. "I tell people to this day, I would make the same business decision as well. At the end of the day, I'm a business man as well."
Though Smart has no ill will toward the Celtics, the veteran guard did admit he was hurt and blindsided by the trade but has moved on even if he continues to deal with the emotions -- especially on a day like Sunday.
"Between getting married and the wedding and everything personally I've been dealing with, it's helped me cope," Smart revealed. "It definitely hurt, but it didn't hurt as hard as I thought it would because of that. All I ask is that -- could've given a heads up or just a simple, 'hey, been here nine years...we just want to let you know what's going on.''
As Smart keeps up with the rollercoaster season in Memphis, no one knows what the future holds for the guy who used to have green hair. But he definitely won't be forgotten as a Celtic, as so few understand what the word truly meant.
Photo used courtesy of Getty Images
Photo used courtesy of Getty Images