BOSTON – Fifteen minutes before Tuesday night’s season-opening tip-off, the Boston Celtics gathered on their TD Garden court and paid their respects to the late legend, Bill Russell.
A variety of tributes were made including video flashbacks from Russell’s playing days, poetry written and read by Boston’s poet laureate Porsha Olayiwola, a musical performance by Aloe Blacc, and a thought-provoking, 90-second speech from one of Russell’s biggest admirers, Jaylen Brown.
To top it all off, the Celtics took the court in their new Russell-themed City Edition uniforms and played their hearts out in a 126-117 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in what was their highest-scoring output in a non-overtime season opener since 1989.
Brown and his wing-mate, Jayson Tatum, led the charge with 35 points apiece, becoming the first NBA duo to reach that mark on Opening Night since Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West in 1969.
It was the type of collective team performance that would’ve filled the greatest winner in NBA history with tremendous pride.
“Playing in the light of Bill Russell, starting the season off, the memorial ceremony before the game, it was just unique and special,” said Brown. “So I'm happy that we both came out and performed and we got the win, but it feels a little bit better knowing what we were playing and who we were playing for.”
While Brown, Tatum, and the rest of the team were playing in the light of Bill Russell, Joe Mazzulla was coaching in the light of Bill Russell in his first game as Celtics head coach.
Mazzulla said he talked to his players pregame about the impact of Russell’s legacy “and the responsibility we carry to be able to hold that and build our own legacy.”
He also said that as a first-time head coach, “The Bill Russell ceremony brought a lot of gratitude, brought a lot of perspective to what it means to coach the Celtics and to be a Celtic.”
Tuesday night’s win also encapsulated what it means to play like a Celtic. The team played unselfishly with four players dishing out at least four assists apiece. They took care of the basketball, committing only 10 turnovers. They shot the ball with extreme precision, making 56.1 percent of their shots from the field. And they stood up for each other in a physical battle, having each other’s backs when there was a brief dust-up early in the third quarter.
“We’ve matured in ways, and we continue to mature in ways that we have to, we need to, that we all are benefitting from,” said Marcus Smart, who finished with 14 points and a game-high seven assists. “We have a really good team. We’re really good players. We have a really good coaching staff. So for us to come out here and do what we did tonight, kind of set the tone, was big for us.”
They felt that it was the least they could do to honor the man who set the tone for the entire franchise.
“Tonight was a special night,” Brown reiterated, “and it was amazing to be able to play in his honor.”
Though, Tuesday night was just the beginning. The Celtics will play in Bill Russell’s honor for the rest of the season and by the end of it all, they hope to commemorate his legacy in the ultimate fashion – by bringing him another banner.