By this time Garnett was willing to consider a contract extension with the Celtics. So on July 20, with Minnesota's permission, Ainge flew to California for a one-on-one in Garnett's Malibu backyard. During the 90-minute conversation they discussed how KG would fit in with the Celtics and worked out the general terms of his salary: combining the two years remaining on his current contract (enhanced by a 15% trade kicker) and a three-year, $56 million extension, Garnett would earn a total of $104.9 million over the next five seasons in Boston. "It was probably the most simple negotiation I've been through," says Garnett.
Others would disagree, including Miller, who was besieged by the technicalities of the first sign-and-trade extension in NBA history. On the eve of the deal, he says, "I went out and walked [an] entire golf course screaming and venting because I was having so much difficulty."
Satisfied with Garnett's willingness to be a Celtic, Ainge flew home more optimistic about making the trade than ever. Eight days later he and McHale finally settled on the particulars of the biggest trade for one player in NBA history: In exchange for Garnett, Boston would send Jefferson, Ratliff, Green, Gomes, Telfair, two first-round picks and cash to Minnesota, which would rebuild around Jefferson, second-year guard Randy Foye and rookie forward Corey Brewer, its first-round pick from Florida.
That afternoon Grousbeck was jogging on the beach near his summer home on Martha's Vineyard when his phone rang. It was the last of his five calls that day with Taylor, and Grousbeck, says a league source, would agree to pay $1 million of Telfair's salary as compensation for not including Rondo in the deal. "This was the first trade we've done where owners were involved," says Grousbeck. "This was just too big for both franchises. I took my phone with me in case it rang, and it did ring and thank God."
ON JULY 31, at TD Banknorth Garden, Garnett stretched himself out of an SUV wearing an open-necked shirt, a blazer and a Red Sox cap. He had arrived in Boston that morning for meetings with the Celtics, a physical at New England Baptist Hospital and the beginning of the most promising phase of his career. (After the trade was announced the team enjoyed its most profitable day of ticket sales in years.) That evening, at Garnett's introductory press conference, the turnout was reminiscent of the day Bird announced his retirement 15 years earlier; the potential heirs to the original Big Three of Bird, McHale and Robert Parish had finally been found.
Boston is banking on the two trades turning into the most triumphant off-season makeover since the Lakers' in 1996. That summer L.A. acquired the rights to first-round pick Kobe Bryant in a draft-day deal and then signed free agent Shaquille O'Neal a few weeks later, an arranged marriage of superstars that produced three championships before an ugly divorce. Though it is paying $58.5 million to Allen, Garnett and Pierce this season alone—more than the entire payrolls of four NBA teams—Boston would gladly accept a similar scenario. "In this league if you really want to make something happen, you can," says Trail Blazers forward James Jones. "It's just that teams normally don't have the motivation to pull something off like the Celtics did."
Yet obvious questions will require months, maybe years, to answer. For instance, Are the new Big Three too old to win a championship? That's a fair concern because no NBA team has ever won a title with its top three scorers all in their 30s. Ainge contends that their style of play and body types will enable Allen, 32, Garnett, 31, and Pierce, 30, to remain productive for the lengths of their contracts. Still, the Celtics will be trying to break new ground with old legs. "We already know that the way to beat Boston is to run them," says Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas. "Look at how old they are—we have to run them so that by the fourth quarter they have nothing left."
But in another way the three Boston elders have never felt younger. Eager to step up their learning curve, they met throughout September for daily workouts at the Celtics' practice facility. They will not be easing their way into November, especially with their arena almost guaranteed to be sold-out all season. "Kevin will pull those guys together quickly," says Timberwolves assistant G.M. Fred Hoiberg, who played with Garnett in Minnesota. "He's the best practice player I've been around in my career, and to see how hard he works, that brings together the team. I think they're the favorites to win the East."
After the Celtics gave up all those players, what about their depth? Ainge filled out the bench by signing veteran free agents Eddie House, Scot Pollard and James Posey to short-term, short-money contracts. Once the Celtics acquired Garnett, all three found Boston a more desirable destination and were willing to sign deals favorable to the team. Those contracts pushed Boston into luxury-tax territory, but the owners spend little time worrying about the enormous investment they've made. "If we don't get Banner 17 and do it in the right way, then we'll consider it a failure," says Grousbeck, who sees his ownership group as presiding over a public trust. "This isn't about the value of the team or selling out the building. It's about the Celtics on the court winning the championship and off the court leading the league in community relations and community work."
Other issues will be harder to quantify. Will Rivers prove able to coach defense as well as he oversees the offensive end of the court? (To that end he brought in defensive specialist Tom Thibodeau, the longtime aide to Jeff Van Gundy.) Will 21-year-old Rondo and 22-year-old center Kendrick Perkins develop into capable starters for a championship contender? Most important, will Allen, Garnett and Pierce be capable of dialing back their customary roles to flourish as a unit? "I can understand one of those guys being able to take the number 2 seat," says a Western Conference G.M. "But who's going to take the number 3 seat? There's no room for three [stars] unless at least one of them says, 'I don't care.' If one of them can do that, then they'll be great."