Rivers: 'It's not done, but it's done'

Updated: March 3, 2005, 9:32 PM ET
Associated Press

BOSTON -- Maybe Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish will be walking through the door. After all, every other former Boston Celtic seems to be on his way back.

Gary Payton is on the verge of signing with the team, coach Doc Rivers said Thursday, a week after the nine-time all-star was traded to the Atlanta Hawks. That deal brought former Celtics captain Antoine Walker back to Boston, where he played seven seasons before being shipped out 1½ years ago.

And the architect of all these deals: Danny Ainge, the team's former point guard, who took over as its basketball boss in 2003.

Ainge said Payton is expected to clear waivers on Friday at 10 a.m. He has already agreed to sign with the Celtics, reportedly for close to veteran's minimum salary.

"It's not done," Rivers said, "but it's done."

Former Celtics coach Rick Pitino unleashed one of his most memorable quotes near the end of the 1999-00 season when he lashed out at fans who expected a quick return to the glory days of the 1980s.

"Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door," Pitino said of the Big Three that won three NBA titles. "And as soon as they realize that those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us."

But Ainge obviously feels that the key to turning around Boston's longest title drought is a dip into the more recent past.

Payton was traded to Atlanta with Tom Gugliotta, Michael Stewart and a first-round draft pick at the NBA trading deadline. Walker's return to Boston was a bit of a surprise, considering that he lashed out at Ainge after being traded to Dallas nine days before the 2003 opener.

But the Celtics have won three straight since adding Walker's inside presence to the lineup, including a 104-101 victory over the archrival Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night. If the Celtics can re-sign Payton, who was waived by the Hawks on Tuesday, the trade looks even better.

"If we get Gary back, basically we went out and got Antoine as a free agent," Rivers said. "It's always nice adding a piece."

Payton originally balked at reporting to Boston when he was traded there by the Lakers last summer. But he has bonded with his teammates and grown comfortable with the team, even though he might have had a better chance to win elsewhere or play closer to his California home.

"He's happy about coming back," said Paul Pierce. "We'd welcome him back with open arms."

The 36-year-old Payton averaged 12.1 points and 6.1 assists for the Celtics while serving as a mentor to the team's younger guards. Rivers said Payton could be in uniform as soon as Friday night but he probably won't play against Charlotte.

That would put him back in the lineup for Sunday night's game against Minnesota. The Timberwolves are coached by McHale.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press