By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist
BOSTON — Two hours before Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Tito Horford stood in the stands and watched the Celtics warm up. His son, Boston star Al Horford, wasn’t out there yet, but that didn’t matter. Tito, a former NBA player himself, was locked in as Jayson Tatum shot 3-pointers.
The Horford family is beloved among the Celtics’ faithful. As people started to trickle into TD Garden — sneaking down to the court to get as close to their favorite players as possible — many noticed Tito. They whispered and pointed excitedly, taking pictures of one another and making sure Tito was in the background. One couple even asked to take a picture with him. Tito happily obliged, standing between them and cheesing for the camera at almost twice their height.
By the time Al came out to warm up, a sizable crowd had gathered in the first few rows behind the Celtics’ bench. The fans cheered and whooped and called his name as Al took the court. He smiled, looking genuinely happy and somewhat humbled to be at this party.
“Boston is a place that, from day one, it totally embraced us,” said Al’s sister, Anna, who is a Big Deal on Celtics Twitter. “He’s very grateful and so ready for the moment because he’s been working toward this his whole career.”
He sure has. This is Al’s first time in the Finals, despite having played in 141 playoff games prior to this season. Wednesday night’s win helped keep his hopes of a championship alive. In Game 2, the Celtics appeared to forget how to play basketball altogether, but in their first home Finals game in 12 years, they made it clear that they remembered. Boston took a lead immediately, blew it in the third quarter and regained it to win 116-100. The Celtics are now 7-0 in these playoffs when coming off a loss.
The vibe was electric. I thought the roof was going to blow off the building several times throughout the night. Between Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s combined 53 points, Al’s 3-pointers, Robert Williams III’s offensive rebounds and defensive blocks, and Marcus Smart’s general existence, the decibel levels in TD Garden rose to those of an active aircraft carrier.
Fans were thrilled — as they should be. It’s wild that the Celtics are here after such an abysmal start. Lifelong Celtics faithful and season-ticket holder Harry Haytayan watched them begin the season with an 18-21 record.
“I tell ya, walking out of here on some of those cold nights, it was brutal. But this,” he said, looking around at the sea of screaming green, “this is something really special.”
It’s also pretty wild that not hosting a Finals game in 12 years counts as a drought for a Boston team. The most recent championship this city won was the Super Bowl in 2019, and fans here feel that four years is a long time to go without one.
As a Boston fan, I will readily admit that the paragraph I just wrote was really obnoxious. Any fan whose team wins all the time is obnoxious. But fandom this prominent is also very meaningful.
I live in New York now, but as I drove through the streets of Boston after the game, I felt a primal sense of home when I looked at the Prudential Building lit up to say “GO C’S!” The region’s teams are so intertwined with the experience of growing up in New England that sports history becomes personal history here.
Players feel the weight of the history, too.
“When we look up and see those banners, see those numbers, it’s something that gives us that motivation to go out there and try to be the next person up,” Smart said in his postgame news conference. “It gives us goosebumps to be able to say that.”
Celtics fan Tony Wong, who is from L.A. but moved to Boston and adopted the team as his own, said, “These fans really welcomed me. They’re better here than in L.A. They’re more passionate.”
While it’s rare to hear “welcomed” and “better” used to describe Boston fans, “passionate” is certainly accurate. The crowd at Boston games takes great joy in proving that winning a lot doesn’t render it complacent or make victory any less thrilling.
And as Wong talked to me about fans’ passion in the stands, the building erupted with enthusiastic chants of “F— you, Draymond” followed by three quick claps.
That reaction is, of course, what basketball’s biggest troll, Draymond Green, thrives on.
He and Boston fans actually have a lot in common: They like getting a rise out of people, and they like winning.
Anna Horford recently called Green out on Twitter. For her, the way he instigates scuffles with other players is personal — she doesn’t want her brother or his teammates getting hurt. Her outspoken account (give her a follow, I highly recommend) has catapulted her to national fame, as she has gone viral several times during this run. Being known on social media requires thick skin, but she says she’s built for it.
“Any time there’s a strong, powerful, opinionated woman, it’s going to rub people the wrong way,” she said. “I could say ‘Flowers are beautiful,’ and some guy online would say ‘What about dandelions?’ I just embrace the journey.”
That seems to be what Al is doing, too. Usually a nonconfrontational presence on the floor, he has been a bit feisty lately. He held up six fingers when Green secured his sixth personal foul and was then ejected. He also pumped up the crowd that was yelling “bulls—” after the refs called a technical foul on him, which fans deemed unnecessary.
The Horfords are the perfect ambassadors for the spirit of this Celtics squad and many of its better fans. They’re a true, unapologetic team, they wear their hearts on their sleeves, and they always show up, no matter what happened the day before. They don’t give up: After Al left Boston for the 76ers in 2019 and then the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2020, GM and former coach Brad Stevens brought him back. Anna says the family was thrilled.
“We were sort of manifesting it,” she said. “If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw that I would still tweet about the Celtics a lot.”
Under coach Ime Udoka, Al and the team have thrived. After getting so close to the Finals every year since the homegrown trio of Smart, Tatum and Brown were drafted, Boston and Al have finally reached it, the highest level that they always knew was possible.
After the Celtics’ first Finals win at home in 12 years and the first Finals win of Al’s 15-year playing career, his mother, Arelis Reynoso, celebrated in the tunnels beneath TD Garden. She wore a jean jacket with the number 42 on the back and “MOM” where the player’s name typically goes. Smiling as she greeted well-wisher after well-wisher, she apologized because she had to go. She had to find and congratulate her son.
The son who, with two more wins, could help the Celtics add another banner — another slice of history and another reason for Boston fans to be insufferable — to the rafters.
Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist and cohost of “The People’s Sports Podcast” for FOX Sports. She’s honored to represent the constantly neglected Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings and is happiest eating a hotdog in a ballpark or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.
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