BOSTON -- When Isaiah Thomas joined the Boston Celtics after being acquired at February's trade deadline, he did so in Los Angeles, where he sheepishly admitted his father was a die-hard fan of the Lakers, the team that Thomas would make his Boston debut against later that night.
And while Thomas was raised 1,000 miles north of Los Angeles in Tacoma, Washington, he was subject to a steady diet of purple and gold during his formative basketball years. Noted Thomas, "I was brainwashed to be a Lakers fan when I was young, so I grew up on Kobe Bryant and he was my favorite player."
Bryant is scheduled to make the final visit of his 20-year career to TD Garden on Wednesday night when the Celtics host the Lakers. Raised on Kobe, Thomas was asked what he thinks it will mean for Bryant to play his final game in Boston.
"He's the best player to ever play the game of basketball in my era. It’s going to be probably a little emotional for him. This is one of the most famous arenas," Thomas said. "It’s going to suck to see him go. But, at the same time, if it was the other way around, he wouldn’t care if it was your last game, so we gotta try to get the win and don’t let him have a big game."
For the Celtics, there are no remaining players from either the 2008 or 2010 teams that danced with Bryant and the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The last of those players, Rajon Rondo, was shipped out last December, a short time after a much-publicized breakfast with Bryant in Boston.
Now, the Celtics' locker room is filled with players in their early-20s, many of whom were barely old enough to dribble a basketball when Bryant made his NBA debut. Like Thomas, they grew up watching Bryant and likely mimicked him on their local playgrounds.
"He’s probably the best player in my era, so it speaks for itself what the NBA is going to miss," said Jae Crowder, who will be part of the group tasked with defending the 37-year-old Bryant. "I’m sure the TD Garden will give him a good welcome. I think he’s going to play well. I think he’s going to come out and try to play his best and remember a lot of tough battles here in his career, so we’re prepared for him. We’re prepared for the Lakers."
Marcus Smart, another of Boston's perimeter defenders likely to draw time on Bryant, was 3 years old when Bryant made his NBA debut in 1997.
"It was crazy watching Kobe and the things that he accomplished," Smart said. "He took a beating day in and day out, night after night. It's definitely going to be a fun night Wednesday."
Evan Turner playfully barked when asked if he was a fan of Bryant growing up.
“That's the stupidest question you could have asked," Turner said. "I'm joking. Of course, man. I remember being 8 years old watching [Bryant win] the  dunk contest. I pretty much spent my whole life watching him play. Kobe’s always a bright spot of my adolescence and the game in general."
Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who is less than two years older than Bryant, has a deep appreciation for Bryant despite coaching against him only once. Bryant scored 22 points in Boston's 113-96 triumph at TD Garden last December.
"Obviously, I’m a basketball fan so I have a great deal of respect for him," Stevens said. "I hear the players talk about him as a guy they’ve looked up to and that they’ve studied and that they’ve tried to learn as much as they can from. Hats off to him for having a great career and for going out the way that he wants to. He’ll certainly get a lot of applause along the way over the next couple of months. And deservedly so."
It will be interesting to see exactly how Boston fans respond to Bryant's final visit. New England sports fans typically have a deep appreciation for those that transcended the game, but Bryant is also a villain who denied the Celtics another banner in 2010. The guess here is that fans will salute Bryant for his contributions, but probably spend most of the night booing him.
As Thomas noted, the Celtics can't get too sentimental about Bryant's visit. Boston is riding a season-high four-game winning streak, and the focus must be on continuing to play well. The Lakers sit in the basement of the Western Conference and own the second-worst record in basketball.
While aware of the significance of Bryant's final game in Boston, these Celtics would prefer this just be another quiet night on the farewell tour.