BOSTON — Justin Tsouros and Brian Johnson got to their seats early, roughly 20 minutes before tip-off, armed with a turkey wrap, a roast beef sandwich, Cape Cod potato chips, two beers, a Blue Moon and a Molson, and mixed emotions.
When they removed their coats, settling into their front row seats just behind the courtside collection inside TD Garden, they revealed threads that tore each of them up inside.
Johnson wore a white No. 43 Celtics jersey. Tsouros donned a blue No. 5 Thunder jersey.
Meet Kendrick Perkins' biggest fans.
Like 18,624 other Celtics crazies, Tsouros and Johnson welcomed Perkins back for the first time since the trade that shipped him to Oklahoma City 11 months ago and rocked the Boston franchise to the bone.
“It's heartbreaking,” said Johnson, 36, of Brookline, Mass., when asked how it feels to see Perkins in another uniform. “It's horrible. It's maybe one of the worst things I've ever had to experience as a fan, and I've been a fan for 30 years.”
Johnson and Tsouros in 2006 started a fan site dedicated to Perkins called PerkIsABeast.com. The two eventually met Perkins and became close with the big man. Perkins allowed the two to celebrate with him and his family in the immediate moments after the Celtics won the title in 2008. He even invited both to his wedding.
So you can imagine how their sorrow at seeing Perk dealt away would run deeper than most.
“For me,” Tsouros said, “it was almost like breaking up with a girlfriend who you were in a relationship with for five years.”
Perkins certainly felt the love in his return.
Fans brought signs that read, “Welcome home Perk” and showered him with cheers from the moment he was introduced as the Thunder's starting center.
In a tremendously classy move, the Celtics played a minute-plus video montage of Perk during the first timeout, with the words “Thank you Perk” flashing in every few seconds.
Perkins reveled in the reception. Players from both teams remained near their benches as the video played. Fifty-five seconds in, Perk walked toward the scorer's table all alone and raised both arms. By then, the entire Garden was on its feet, clapping, cheering, whistling.
Perk slowly walked out to center court. He raised his right arm. He turned toward every corner of the arena in thanks as the cheers grew to a crescendo.
“That was unbelievable,” Perkins said. “I really appreciate it. I say this time and time again. I really appreciate the whole city of Boston. The whole Celtics organization, just the way that they embrace me time and time again…They didn't have to do it. I'm not taking it for granted.”
Perkins then admitted he's still a Celtic at heart.
“It ain't like something that you can just let go,” Perkins said. “I'm greatly appreciative of being in Oklahoma. I love Oklahoma. But just being here for eight years and winning a championship, it's hard to replace it…It still has a special place in my heart.”
Perkins scored seven points with five rebounds and one blocked shot in 28 minutes. His mind, however, was elsewhere.
“Mentally, I was just out of it,” Perkins confessed.
Four minutes, 35 seconds in, though, Perkins proved where his loyalties lie. When Rajon Rondo got loose on a fast break and all that stood between the Celtics point guard and a layup was Perkins — a scenario he was asked about at the Thunder's morning shoot-around — the Thunder's new paint protector clothes-lined his best friend and prevented an easy deuce.
“He was coming at me full speed, and I was really just trying to wrap him up but he was coming so fast,” Perkins said. “I wasn't trying to do nothing crazy to him. I just couldn't let him score on us.”
It's that attitude that the Celtics faithful grew to love over seven-plus seasons. And it's one they assure Oklahoma City fans will come to adore if they don't already.
“He was the heart and soul of this team,” Tsouros said.