BOSTON — Jeff Green remembers his first steps.
He remembers the pain of those few tentative steps, then how out of breath he was when he finally cracked the imposing 10-step barrier. Every moment and milestone of his recovery is seared into his brain as part of what he calls the “wonderful journey” that he is still living through.
The key word there is “living.” One year to day after he woke up in a hospital bed after surgery to fix an aortic aneurysm, Green led the Celtics’ tone-setting bench unit in an 87-79 win over the Phoenix Suns. The Celtics would not have won on Wednesday without that bench. The bench would not have been as explosive without Green. And Green would not have been there if not for the expert work of his doctors, the support of his friends and family, and his own indomitable will.
He tried to talk about his emotions before the game, but his words came out sounding cliché. The only time he broke his monotone was in joking about Jared Sullinger‘s penchant for getting, ahem, mistreated by the referees, asserting that Sullinger, as a rookie, did not deserve to get any calls. Once the game was over, though, Green needed to say very little to make it clear how much the day meant to him.
“I can’t put into words how it feels,” Green said, his voice swelling in a way that does not translate effectively into text. “It’s a wonderful day. I had a good game. I’m just glad to be here. I reflect a lot about what I’ve been through. It’s a blessing just to be here, so I’m just happy.”
A locker away, Jason Terry sat in awe of his teammate, who is almost a decade younger but has seen far more than most 26-year-olds. Terry calls him “Iron Man,” after the superhero with shrapnel in his heart and a hole in his chest, and the Tony Stark of Cheverly, Md., soared for three dunks on the anniversary of the most grueling day of his life.
“What a way to celebrate,” Terry said. “It’s still amazing just to see him out there on the floor, playing the way he is, because any moment he can get hit in the chest or anything. It has to be tough for him every night.”
Life and death matters trump all, but as Celtics coach Doc Rivers noted, the heart ailment started a series of challenges for the young forward last year. Looking forward to proving his worth following a midseason trade that brought him to Boston for fan favorite Kendrick Perkins, Green was blindsided with the diagnosis of the aortic aneurysm in the preseason. He lost the game he loved (permanently, Rivers assumed), his contract was voided and the Celtics then withdrew their qualifying offer for the summer of 2012.
Although withdrawing the qualifying offer was a goodwill gesture — it made Green an unrestricted free agent and therefore more attractive to prospective suitors — it must have added to the level of uncertainty. Sure, Green and his agent, David Falk, could tell every team that Green was fine to play again, but how many would listen?
The Celtics did. Green’s four-year, $36 million contract was panned in some circles, but the deal was the Celtics’ declaration to Green that they believed in him. In two of the victories in Boston’s current four-game win streak, Green was an X-factor. He is showing signs that the Celtics’ faith was justified.
“Who would have thought it, a year ago?” Rivers said. “I mean, the doctors and all that, but it’s really a testament to Jeff and the fact that he worked himself into condition, because to play, you have to use that muscle.”
Green burst out of the gates on Wednesday, throwing down a one-handed dunk over former Celtics center Jermaine O’Neal and pumping in an alley-oop from Avery Bradley to score 10 points in his first 13 minutes. Then he disappeared. He missed his only two shots in the third quarter and barely touched the ball in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter.
After Green nabbed his first rebound of the second half, he got re-involved offensively thanks to a 6-foot-11 point guard. Kevin Garnett received the ball at the top of the key and just decided to run the offense himself. He dribbled to the right elbow against his petrified defender, Marcin Gortat, and baited P.J. Tucker into turning his head away from Green. That was the opening Green needed to cut backdoor, catch a perfect pass from Garnett and slam home his first basket of the second half. On the next possession, Garnett again found a cutting Green to swoop in for a layup that gave the Celtics a 12-point lead.
It was the type of layup he could only imagine making at this time last year, and it punctuated what was a very emotional day for Green.
“I don’t cry, but it was,” Green said. “A year ago, I had heart surgery. I think about laying in bed, waking up from it, to where I’m at now, I mean, it’s a big deal to me. I’m just glad to be here. Glad to be alive. Glad to be playing basketball.”
Not just here, but thriving. Not just alive, but living life to its fullest. Not just playing basketball, but playing it well.
One year later, he’s back.
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