BOSTON — There was a time when Jaylen Brown couldn’t stand Marcus Smart. As Brown was ascending toward being a perennial All-Star, Smart was always in the way.
It wasn’t that Smart was impeding his progress toward the upper echelon of the league. Smart was just everywhere in every way. He was unavoidable. He was a basketball maverick with carte blanche to do anything and everything he could think of in the pursuit of winning.
That got to be a lot. Too much at times. Sometimes it could be talked out. Other times, they needed to flip a table or two.
Smart is a distinct personality, a player with texture, as his former assistant Kara Lawson once said. Brown is his own enigma, a fellow diamond in the rough who’s smoother around the edges.
Now a Memphis Grizzlies player after nine seasons with the Boston Celtics, Smart can remember the days before the greatness in Boston. Before Brown was a face of the franchise. Before Smart was the point guard and the quarterback of the league’s best defense.
Back then, they were just constantly pissed off at each other.
“It was mutual. Definitely mutual. We all know, we all have siblings. And those of us who don’t understand that it’s a constant battle. It’s not every day that I like you, but I love you every day,” Smart said as he made his return to the Garden on Sunday for the first time since he was traded for Kristaps Porziņģis last summer. “But 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 end. A pot of gold.”
He got to see Game 6 of the NBA Finals with these guys, but he never got his hands on that pot of gold. This year’s team is poised to crack that chest open in a way they never quite did when Smart was on board.
As bittersweet as it may be to watch from afar, as much as he poured into making this franchise great again, Smart is thrilled for them.
“It’s amazing to see. For me to see my brothers … doing what they love to do and doing exceptionally well at a very elite level, but especially this group of guys,” Smart said before the Celtics beat his Grizzlies 131-91. “It’s a special relationship I’ve built with these guys and I’ve seen these guys take a lot of criticism over the years. I’m just happy for them to finally (be) clicking and getting it together because I had the pleasure of seeing it every day.”
He noted that the public just got to see what happened on the court. But all of the practices, plane rides and locker room dust-ups — they were all a part of Smart’s simultaneous education and tutelage.
“I spent six years with Smart and he’s like a brother to me. It was some tough days and we had a lot of great days, right?” Jayson Tatum said. “Some tough conversations that we had, but there were some great conversations. You just learn, being around Smart long enough, everything he did, everything he said came from a place of love and him just wanting to win.”
You see it in how coach Joe Mazzulla runs the Celtics. Brad Stevens helped raise Smart in this league, and then Ime Udoka came in to empower Smart as his proxy on the floor.
Mazzulla was there to watch Smart’s transformation from misfit starter to Defensive Player of the Year. They are similar in so many ways, garrulous, kind, confrontational, loving. As much as Mazzulla is a product of his own life’s journey, he was indelibly shaped by Smart in his wild NBA ascension.
“In my time, since I’ve been in the NBA, he really helped me see defense in a different way,” Mazzulla said. “And so I think what you’ll see today, obviously, his effect that he’s had on people off the court, I think, is even more than what he’s done on the court.”
The coach credited Smart with being one of the guys who started the team’s defensive foundation before Mazzulla arrived in Boston. He pointed to the way Smart would cover any position and impact every facet of the game, even as a guard.
Smart was always pushing the boundaries of his limitations, whether they be skills, physical capability or even just health. It’s what gave him the credence to truly hold people accountable.
“I feel like he had an understanding at times. If he needed to do it, he did it,” Al Horford said. “But the only thing you could respect with him was just how he came in to play, how he got out there even if he wasn’t 100 percent, 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 them.”
That’s a big part of what got Tatum and Brown to where they are now. Game managers, more than great scorers. Lockdown defenders and aggressive rebounders. Players who thrive in transition. It wasn’t just that Smart’s entire value to the team was doing all those things, but that he pushed his star teammates to make him redundant.
“Everybody voices their opinions and emotions differently,” Tatum said. “Smart wasn’t going to bite his tongue for nobody, and that’s what you learn to appreciate about him.”
Tatum said throughout his time he could see that Smart was the fan favorite. It was obvious Sunday night. They couldn’t stop cheering for him, even as the game carried on.
Horford has a unique perspective on Smart.
Horford said he first signed with Boston in 2016 to play with Isaiah Thomas and Smart.
But after stints with the Philadelphia 76ers and Oklahoma City Thunder, his two-year sabbatical from the Celtics locker room gave him a clearer perspective on just what Smart became.
“Marcus is just a big competitor, and what I saw from him was really saying things kind of how they were and holding people accountable in different ways. And defensively, always trying to lead us,” Horford said.
“So that influence is something that he brought to our group. That physicality, the emotion, the wit defensively, anticipation a lot of the times, things like that. And I think that we all benefited from it and I feel like we all definitely have taken things from some of the things that he did defensively and kind of been able to turn it. … I would always talk with him about defensive stuff. And I know Jaylen did as well. And that influence, it has left its mark here.”
Just about everyone in the building already understood what Smart meant, but then there was Jordan Walsh. He scored his first NBA points late in Sunday’s game, and as he stood in front of the media, arms wrapped around his game ball, he noticed something that stood out in Smart’s tribute video.
“Even like his clips that were on the jumbotron, like most of them were him diving on the floor and blocking shots,” Walsh said. “I feel like for that to be the highlight of what he was while he was here and the fans know that and love that about him, I feel like that speaks a lot to the tradition and the culture of the Celtics.”
Smart was as much a reflection of the organization as the franchise was a product of him. Every loose ball he dove for, every shot he took, it was all for the team. And even if he isn’t on the team anymore, he’ll always be a part of it. As the fans kept chanting everything from “We love Marcus” to “Thank you, Marcus,” it was clear that the impact of everything he did in green continues to elevate the franchise today.
Now Smart’s reality is the OG on a franchise on pause, a team so injured that it could field only eight players Sunday. Smart didn’t play Sunday, due to a right ring finger injury. The Celtics may eventually hoist Banner 18 and get the duck boat parade that Smart fought for. That day will be intensely bitter and delectably sweet.
That bittersweetness is nothing new. It was always there between him and Brown. Butting heads went from being a source of tension to a love language. With Smart, no matter how rough the ride may be, it was always love and trust.
“At first, it wasn’t all peaches,” Smart said. “But we love each other to this day and that’s my brother for life.”
At first, Smart was a polarizing figure in Boston. It’s hard to even draw a line in time between his being a source of consternation and pride. Maybe he can’t be one without the other.
He always fought to earn the trust, then he would push it to its breaking point. But his return Sunday made it apparent that, in the end, it’s always going to be love.
Marcus Smart makes his return to the Garden pic.twitter.com/XKIrGDETUt
— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) February 4, 2024
(Top photo of Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart: Brian Babineau / NBAE via Getty Images))