After a summer of love, Celtics return for more chest-bumping heroics

For Kevin Garnett, the signature moment of the summer -- the moment when it literally hit him how good it felt to be a champion -- came as he walked through a casino in Las Vegas and saw a man in a well-worn Celtics jersey sprinting in his direction.

Was he late for a show? Running to the cashier? Fleeing security?

All of those thoughts passed quickly through Garnett's head as the approaching blur moved closer and closer, the man's radar locking squarely upon the center of Garnett's 6-foot-11 frame.

Full speed ahead, the man leapt and smashed his chest into Garnett's.

"He was like, 'Man! Hellluva year! That's what I'm talking about! Yeah! Thanks!' and he kept moving," Garnett said.

Moments like those, moments only a champion can savor, happened to each and every one of the Celtics at random times and places throughout their summer of glee, a three-month period in which they reveled in the satisfaction of their mutual accomplishment after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers to win the franchise's first championship since 1986.

Eddie House said he couldn't pay for a meal any time he went out for dinner with his wife in Boston; and back home in Scottsdale, Ariz., a transplanted Celtics fan who was in charge of the golf carts at House's local course made sure each and every round House played was on the house.

For Paul Pierce, the moment that made this summer like no other came when he was riding in the passenger seat of his buddy's BMW sedan, and the two exited the L.A. freeway in the hardscrabble district of Watts -- "out near the railroad, where you don't even see people," Pierce said -- to escape traffic as they made their way to the Marina district.

Pierce, doing his best to ride incognito, his window rolled up, his baseball cap pulled down low and his sunglasses on, noticed a car following them and then speeding alongside, the driver motioning for Pierce to roll down his window.

A bit warily, given the location, Pierce complied.

"He rolled down, and he said: 'Man, I'm a Lakers fan, but congratulations to you, all the props.' They all knew I grew up in that area."

The praise came in all sorts of places -- Brian Scalabrine heard it in rural Washington, and Leon Powe was stunned to discover that native Bahamians in Nassau not only recognized him but wanted to know why he wasn't wearing his ring (it's because he won't get it until the Celts' home opener against Cleveland on Oct. 28) -- from people from all walks of life, such as the ruddy old man who climbed off his riding mower and sauntered up to Doc Rivers at the first tee of a country club outside Boston.

"He reaches over to shake hands, says thank you and starts crying. I mean, this is some old gruff, tough guy, and his eyes were just water dropping. He said he was the biggest Celtics fan, how he watched the last one, watched every game last year -- he was naming games -- and he said it was just so emotional for him.

"And I ran right back up to the tee and hit the ball out of bounds," Rivers said, enjoying a laugh at his own expense.

Rivers' joke about his lack of golf prowess was indicative of the loose mood that enveloped the Celtics early this week as they gathered at their training site Monday and then bussed together to the seaside hamlet of Newport, R.I. -- famous for its opulent late-19th-century mansions. Those who were living large 100 or so years ago were not messing around when they told their architects and builders that they wanted a summer home that would display to all just exactly how large they were living.

Students at Salve Regina University swarmed out of a former mansion that has been converted in part to a student cafe Tuesday afternoon as the Celtics left the campus gymnasium and boarded their bus. The students snapped photographs with their cell phones and asked for autographs from a group of players and coaches who have grown accustomed to seeing such faces of joy every time they interact with the public.

It was a mere 3 ½
months ago that seemingly every single piece of green and white paper in New England had been turned into confetti and was falling from the rafters after the Celtics completed their victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the crowning moment of the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history, earning the Celtics the right to raise a 17th banner to the rafters of the new Garden when ring night arrives later this month.

The team returns largely intact, the key missing pieces being the re-retired P.J. Brown and the departed James Posey, who signed with the New Orleans Hornets as an unrestricted free agent. Rivers hopes to use Powe in Brown's spot and plans to fill the role Posey played -- defensive specialist and occasional 3-point weapon -- with some combination of Tony Allen, rookie Bill Walker and nine-year veteran Darius Miles, who is hoping to restart his NBA career after missing most of the past three seasons due to knee injuries and microfracture surgery.

The starting five of Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins returns, although Perkins is being brought back slowly while he continues to recover from a strained oblique muscle in his shoulder that hampered him in the playoffs. Sam Cassell has been re-signed to a non-guaranteed contract and will try to make the team in camp, earning another chance to battle with House over the backup minutes in the backcourt, and Glen Davis could be joined by Patrick O'Bryant, also a member of the competition to survive the cut from 16 to 15, as the backups at center.

In other words, most of the team that steamrolled its way to 66 victories last regular season will be back. The goal Pierce talked about Monday was what other great Celtics teams did in the past -- multiple championships over a period of seasons when the roster had been as stacked as it is now.

Although a few East contenders have improved on paper, most notably old division rival Philadelphia, the Celtics will open the season as the prohibitive favorites to re-emerge from the East with the chance to add banner No. 18.

They are now as much a part of the resurgence of Boston sports as baseball's Red Sox and football's Patriots, providing a measure of pride that snuck up and struck Cassell over the summer as he walked down West 33rd Street in Manhattan over the summer, right outside of Madison Square Garden, and was accosted by several men in Boston caps.

One of them told Cassell how he had been born and raised in Brooklyn but had grown up a Boston fan because the first games he attended as a fan were at Fenway Park and the old Boston Garden.

"They stopped and said: 'Y'all winning that championship, you make me feel so good in this city wearing this hat'," Cassell said, recalling a time not so long ago when wearing a Boston cap in New York City was likely to provoke a confrontation.

Folks in a lot of cities, wearing similar hats and clothes, had similar things to say or -- as in Garnett's case -- to express through things like the casino floor full-speed running chest bump.

That's how it feels when you are a champion, something the Celtics learned over and over in their just-completed summer of love.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.