Boston has never stopped dreaming about Kevin Durant racing down the parquet floor in Celtics green. The vision feels as fresh today, with Durant set to enter free agency, as it did nine years ago, when the Celts had the second-best odds at landing him in the 2007 draft.
But fate intervened. The ping-pong balls fell wrong, the Celtics ended up with the fifth pick, Durant went to Seattle, and Danny Ainge constructed the new Big 3.
Even though it worked out fine -- remember Banner 17? -- Boston’s feelings for Durant haven’t diminished. Fans still wonder what would’ve happened had the C’s won the lottery and landed Durant.
With rumors swirling around the Celtics’ looming pursuit of Durant, Isaiah Thomas recently sent out a tweet with Durant's No. 35 next to a green shamrock. The tweet was representative of Boston’s all-in recruitment of Durant, but it also sent a reminder to fans of what could’ve been -- not just of Durant, but of another No. 35.
Durant isn’t just any NBA superstar to Celtics fans. At a subconscious level, Durant is a reminder of Reggie Lewis.
Celtic fans have always wondered what could’ve been if, 23 years ago, Lewis hadn’t passed away at the age of 27. But beyond the vexing question of “What if?” Durant’s resemblance to Lewis extends deep.
Like Lewis, Durant is lanky with wide shoulders and long arms. Like Lewis, Durant can score by shooting over the top or by dunking loudly at the rim. Durant has the chance to deliver the promise that Lewis showed, a beacon of hope for a franchise starved for a championship.
Durant will listen to the Celtics’ pitch when free agency opens on July 1. Boston has plenty to offer: Strong organizational stability, a cohesive locker room, the assets to add multiple players.
But the Celts can pitch much than that, if they choose, by offering Durant -- who wears No. 35 in Oklahoma City -- the opportunity to honor the life of Reggie Lewis by wearing his retired No. 35.
I asked Lewis’ mother, Inez Ritch, how she’d feel if the Celtics asked for her blessing to offer No. 35 to Durant as a tribute to her son.
“I don’t think it would take anything from Reggie because his number is still hanging up in the Garden,” Ritch told me over the phone. “If I see Durant running up and down the court with the No. 35, I don’t know how my emotions would be until it happens.
"I don’t think I would be upset about it. I think it would be a good thing because he is a very nice, humble young man. I don’t know a lot about him, but I know of some of the things he has achieved while wearing the No. 35.”
It’s not an unprecedented move for pro sports team to unretire a number. The Spurs gave Bruce Bowen’s No. 12 to LaMarcus Aldridge. Syracuse recently restored Jim Brown’s No. 44. The Broncos gave Frank Tripucka’s No. 18 to Peyton Manning.
Having a player of Durant’s stature wear Lewis’ No. 35 would stand as a symbol of the Celtics’ 70-year history. Lewis was 27 was when he passed away in 1993. Durant, who turns 28 in November, could carry on the tradition with honor.
“You can feel the tradition walking in here,” Durant once said in respect to Celtics lore. “You see all the guys plastered on the walls as you walk into the locker room. The tradition of being a Boston Celtic is second to none.”
In the private confines of the visitor’s locker room at TD Garden, the stories continued. Speaking with myself and a few other reporters, Durant described how Kendrick Perkins raved about his time in Boston. The fans. The front office. The legacy. Then, as Durant walked slowly down the hallway towards his team bus, he looked at the Celtics legends pictured on the wall and whispered, “Man, there's a lot of history in this building."
The Celtics retired Lewis’ No. 35 in 1995 not only for his triumphs on the court, but his impact off it. Lewis was active in the community in Boston and at home in the Baltimore area. He ran his own foundation and always participated in community events that helped children in need.
“It was quite an honor to have my child be recognized in this manner for the achievements that he had achieved in the short time,” Ritch said. “And to know that people all over loved him so much, it’s quite an honor to be able to say that was my little boy.”
Durant grew up only one hour away from Lewis, in Washington D.C., and today has his own foundation that aims to enrich the lives of at-risk youth from low-income backgrounds. The struggling D.C./Baltimore area longs for him to return home, but Boston isn’t far and could serve as a close connection to the area.
Both on and off the court, Durant is the only player in sports that can ‘remember Reggie.’ There is no other player the Celtics should even consider offering the number to. There’s something poetic about even the thought of it. It almost feels like destiny.
The No. 35 will always belong to Reggie Lewis, but Kevin Durant is a player fitting to continue his legacy.