BOSTON —Former Georgetown University head coach Craig Esherick vividly remembers the first time he saw the Celtics’ Jeff Green — then a junior at Northwestern High School in Maryland being recruited by mid-major Division 1 schools — take the basketball court.
“A friend of mine who I played basketball with in high school named John Bowie called me and said I needed to come to Maryland to see this kid play,” said Esherick. “He was a friend of Bowie’s son named Jeff Green and I needed to get out to see him right away.
“Well, I knew John knew his basketball so I went to see Jeff play in an AAU tournament. First he won the tip-off. Then, on the first possession he hit a 3-pointer, and on the second possession he threw down a great dunk. After two minutes, I am sitting there thinking, ‘Who the heck is this kid and how is he not a top recruit already signed by a major team?”
For Jeff Green, a man who stands 6-foot-9 with outstanding athleticism, there have always been doubters.
Could he be a star at Georgetown?
Was he simply a product of playing with scoring champion Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City?
Why would the Celtics trade old reliable Kendrick Perkins for Green, a player with so many question marks?
Would he live — let alone play basketball again — after a life-threatening heart condition required major heart surgery?
Now nearly two full years removed from the battle for his life, the forward faces the greatest challenge of his basketball career.
Can the soft-spoken Green be a true superstar, taking on the role Paul Pierce played to a Hall of Fame career?
With “The Truth” and Kevin Garnett now calling Brooklyn home, Ray Allen winning a title in Miami and Rajon Rondo battling injuries —and not a true No. 1 scorer — the fate of the NBA’s most storied franchise now rests on his shoulders.
The Boston Celtics open the 2013-14 season on Wednesday at Toronto, and play their home-opener on Friday against Milwaukee.
When the season tips off, it will be Green who is entrusted with the role of the C’s go-to guy.
That’s right, the Green Team is now officially Green’s team.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the team’s website, which features Green as the centerpiece photo, and also on the advertisement for the home opener and alongside Rondo and Avery Bradley on the link to buy tickets.
If the C’s are to manage a respectable season in their first year of the post Big 3 era, Green will need to consistently play like a star.
Can he do it? Can he live up to the name that seems to make Celtic greatness only right? That is yet to be seen. But with the roster Boston will be fielding this season, the Celtics desperately need him to do just that.
And you can count Esherick as someone that believes Green can lead an NBA team.
“He’s going to have a lot of pressure on him replacing Pierce and Garnett,” said Esherick, now a professor at George Mason. “But I know that Jeff can handle pressure. How many people have had to face the pressure Jeff has overcome? He had to worry if he would live after his heart problems. How can pressure on the basketball court compare?”
Green has been a bit of a mystery man from his days as a late bloomer leading Northwestern High to the Maryland 4A State Championship as a senior.
“He was really under the radar for a long time,” said Esherick. “But it took me two seconds to see he was a heck of a player. It didn’t take a genius to see he could play basketball He had great hands, ran the floor well, could defend. And he was not your typical star athlete. He was a great kid. From the first day, I knew it was someone we wanted at Georgetown, and suddenly the big schools started to find out about him.”
Green ended up signing with Georgetown, eventually playing for John Thompson III after Esherick was fired by the school. And it did not take long for Hoyas fans to fall in love with the newcomer.
“Within the first couple of weeks, we knew Jeff was going to be something special,” said Rich Chvotkin, now in his 39th year as play-by-play man for Georgetown. “You could see he had the right attitude to succeed. He could handle the ball, block shots, shoot 3-pointers and overpower guys in the paint. Then he scored 31 points in a Big East tournament game and we knew he was going to be one of the best.”
Green averaged 13.1 points a game during his three years at Georgetown, leading them to the NCAA championship game as a senior, including his NCAA tourney Sweet 16 buzzer beater against Vanderbilt that sent the Hoyas to the Elite Eight.
“That shot was one of the greatest moments in Georgetown basketball history,” said Chvotkin, who remains in touch with Green and sees him when he works out at Georgetown in the offseason.. “Jeff was amazing in the clutch and as a leader. With his intelligence and talent, there was no question he would be an excellent NBA player.”
From the moment the Celtics drafted Green with the fifth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, then immediately traded him to the then-Seattle Supersonics for Ray Allen, Green’s professional career has been a rollercoaster.
He showed promise in his first three seasons with Seattle/Oklahoma City as running mate with All-NBA players Durant and Russell Westbrook. He was the team’s No. 2 scorer his second year (16.5 ppg), and the following season trailed just the two stars at 15.1 a game as the clear No. 3 option. But at the 2010-11 trading de
adline, he was sent back to Boston in a highly controversial deal for fan favorite Kendrick Perkins. He struggled the rest of the way, scoring just 9.8 points a game and 7.3 in the postseason.
It only became worse the following year, when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening aortic aneurysm that cost him the entire 2011-12 season.
“Jeff is such a great person,” said Chvotkin. “To see someone reach his dream, and at the height of his career nearly have it taken away because of health is tragic. But, we knew that if anyone was going to make it through and play again it was Jeff, because that is the kind of person he is. He will work hard and do whatever it takes to persevere.”
Green, of course, did return to the court last season to play in 81 games for the Celtics, averaging 12.8 points a game. But just as he excited fans, he would also frustrate them.
There were games like his 43-point monster of a performance against eventual NBA champ Miami, his 31 points on 11-of-14 shooting against Phoenix and his 34-point, 8 rebound, 4 block night against Detroit.
Combine that with his catalogue of monster dunks and you have the makings of hype. But for every big day there seemed to be a tough one. Days like when he was held without a basket despite playing 23 minutes against the Heat, or when he shot 0 for 9 in a game against Orlando and 2 for 11 in a game against his old teammates in Oklahoma City. So Celtics fans can be forgiven for lacking full confidence that Green can step into the role that Pierce played for 15 Hall of Fame seasons.
But the C’s need Green to do just that because, quite frankly, there is no one else to do it.
Rondo is the only other player on the roster to average 10 or more points a game last season, and he only played in 38 games and is still out indefinitely with a knee injury. Rondo and swingman Gerald Wallace are the only former All-Stars, and Wallace only made it once and averaged 7.7 points a game last year.
So that leaves Green, who has the dynamic ability to do just about anything on the basketball court, but who still needs to show the consistency and personality to be a true No. 1.
Will he? We’ll have to wait to see. But the Celtics desperately need it, and there are those out there who believe Green will come through.
“After trading the Big 3, I know the people in Boston must be wondering, ‘What’s next?’ said Chvotkin. “But between Jeff and Rondo you have two very skilled, very special kids. I think Jeff will be a main player in this rebuilding process. It will take time, but he is a special player and person so I believe he will come through.”
David Willis is a sportswriter/videographer for The Eagle-Tribune. You can follow him on twitter at @DWillisET