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Top of the world
by Peter May / November 7, 2008

This excerpt is taken from the book Top of the World by Peter May. Available now from Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2008.

Cameramen were dismantling their tripods, reporters were heading back to write their stories, and many members of the Boston Celtics ownership group were still accepting congratulations shortly after the press conference that had introduced Kevin Garnett.

He, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen had all been on the podium at the Legends Club at TD Banknorth Garden, and the sense of anticipation and expectation could not have been greater.

As people started to file out, Garnett and his wife Brandi went out onto the arena floor, then just a big slab of cement, and looked up to see thousands of empty yellow and green seats. It would never look that way again when Garnett came to play wearing a Celtics uniform.

He had chosen No. 5 because No. 21 had already been retired (for Bill Sharman). No. 5 represented the fifth pick in the 1995 NBA draft. Almost overnight, the Celtics replica jersey with the No. 5 became one of the top sellers at the NBA Store.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers had dinner plans in the North End of Boston that night, but he also had something else in mind for the trio of players that were now being dubbed the “Big Three.” That had been the moniker attached to Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, who teamed to win three titles in the 1980s.

These three hadn’t won anything yet, and they reminded anyone who asked and more or less tried to bury all the Big Three talk before it even began.

Rivers summoned the trio to his office at the arena, sat them all down, looked them in the eye, and told them how happy he was to have them here. Then, he went on.

“I’m going to be frank,” he remembered telling them. “This is not going to work if you do not commit to playing defense, because we can’t be just a good defensive team. We have to be a great defensive team.”

Rivers brought up the names of a few NBA players who say they want to win, “But most of you guys, when you say that, you’re really full of shit. You all want to win. Everyone wants to win. But most of you want to win as long as you’re comfortable with the way things are done for you, as long as you can still do the things you’ve always done.”

He told them the Celtics would not win if they didn’t trust his offense, his defense, and most important, one another.

“I don’t care how good you are or how good you think you are,” Rivers told them. “You guys might think I’m tripping a little here, but you only have one shot. I don’t want to hear about next year, because that’s a total fallacy. You’ll be hurt. You’ll be tired. You’ll be too old. You don’t know about next year. You’ve got this year to get it done and there is no other year. That’s the sense of urgency that you have to have. But again, it all comes down to defense. We have to commit to that right here, right now.”

This was preaching to the chorus for the defensive-minded Garnett.

“I’m in,” he told Rivers. Then he turned to the other two, neither of them known for their defensive prowess, and said, “Paul, Ray, y’all got to start playing some defense this year.”

Allen chalked it up to being on a new team with a new coach and new system.

“I’d heard it before from just about every coach I ever had,” he said. “They all say, ‘We’re going to play defense.’ But what I took away from that meeting was that it wasn’t just going to be the coach. It was going to fall on the players as well. We were going to be held accountable.”

All three were on board at that very moment. They understood. What they didn’t know, nor did Rivers at that time, was who else was going to be on board with them.

Peter May is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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