Wednesday, June 18, 2008
This was an extraordinary year for the Boston Celtics. Despite their dynastic history and 17 championships, ordinary for the Celtics in the last twenty one years has been failure and disappointment, with the only difference being the scope of that failure and disappointment. In 1987, they failed to beat the Lakers in the Finals. In 1988, they were an aging great team and lost in their last reasonable chance at a title, giving way to the rise of Detroit and Chicago. After that, they were a team in decline for several years and we knew it. They would make the playoffs but would certainly lose, meaning that we would not get a high draft pick and would be stuck in the dreaded NBA cycle of mediocrity. In the mid to late nineties, there was a different type of failure. They weren’t good enough to make the playoffs, the quality of their play was sloppy and embarrassing, their draft picks were poor, free agents average, and their decent players were frustrated. And when they bottomed out, they even failed to get lucky enough to get the top draft pick and the guy who would win his team 4 titles. And then they gave up on the guy they did draft third overall and he went on to be an all-star and to win a title with his team. Ah Pitino. In his defense, the little scumball famously reminded us: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish were “not walking through that door” and noted that "the negativity in this town sucks". Sorry, Ricko. That's what you get after a dozen years of failure and disappointment: sucky negativity. Soon after his departure in 2002, the Celtics hit what passed for a peak: two wins in the Crappy Eastern Conference Finals. But they failed to capitalize on an epic comeback win and they lost that series. And then there were 5 more years of the decline brand of failure: the lean years of that Danny Ainge five year plan. As a huge fan of the hometown Celtics in a town that was sports frenzied by unexpected and expected championships from the Patriots (not a "fan" of, but rooted for them when they didn't play the Steelers) and Red Sox (not at all a fan of), it was particulary frustrating. I remember trying to get a bar to turn on the Celtics playoff game in 2004ish and getting overruled by the other patrons who laughed and continued to watch an April Sox game against the Devil Rays. I knew the Celtics weren’t going to win that playoff series (a first round playoff series), but come the fuck on. It’s the Boston Celtics. It’s your hometown professional basketball team. They’re in the playoffs! But I couldn't say it was a completely irrational reaction either. Given their 15 years of ordinary, disappointing failure, they were not a team that captivated and inspired. Why bother watching that game and getting angry at their three-chucking style. Or at least that’s what those schmucks at that bar thought. Then last year, after yet another failure of a season – a particularly galling failure of a season – the Celtics piled on one more failure to punch the guts of those of us who were still following them on a regular basis: with the second worst record, they failed to get one of the two top picks, one of the two future franchise player hall of famers. That’s when I hit my personal low: advocating for the acquisition of Zach Randolph. How deluded was I. How distraught.
Shortly thereafter, things began to move from ordinary to extraordinary. They traded the # 5 pick, Delonte, Wally for Ray Allen. That move convinced KG to come and they traded everyone not named Paul, Rajon, Kendrick or Leon for KG. That convinced Posey and House to get on board. They bonded in Italy. They started the year on fire, playing like a team that had been together for years. They beat everyone. They eviscerated Nuggets and Knicks teams. They beat all three Texas teams on the road. They won and won and won, delighting a city of sports fans that was obsessed with a World Series champion team and a potential best-of-all-time undefeated football team. They completed the biggest turnaround in NBA history winning 66 games and then used home court advantage to win 16 more games and a 17th NBA Championship. 82 wins, the last of which was the most extraordinary of all.
Winning a title in sports these days really is out of the ordinary. While my sports fan life started with a surfeit of favorite team titles, each of those teams slipped into long droughts before they won rings again. The Yankees made me wait 18 years. The Steelers made me wait 26 years. Last night, the Celtics ended my 22 year wait. The UMass Minutemen? That could be a while. (I essentially stopped rooting for the Islanders years ago, so that 28 year wait doesn’t count and I’ve never followed a soccer team closely enough and for long enough to be relevant to this conversation). VTK Red Sox readers waited even longer. Many sports fans wait their whole lives and receive nothing but failure and disappointment in return (Chicago Cub fans, Cleveland Anything fans over 60). So having your team (a team thay you’re truly a fan of) win any championship is truly quite extraordinary – something that young Boston sports fans would be incapable of understanding. It doesn’t happen often so you have to savor it when it does. I’ve been remarkably fortunate as a fan in the last 12 years (with my 3 favorite teams having won 6 titles (oddly the same number as strictly Boston sports fans have enjoyed)). But this is not lost on me. When the Yankees won their 3rd consecutive World Series (4th in 5 years) in 2000, I was scorned for celebrating it; but I knew how long it might be until I got that moment again (and the way this season is going for the Yankees, it looks like it’s going to be a while longer). With all the possible things that can go wrong, with all the ways to choke, with all the great athletes in the world, with all the ways to lose, to win a title is extraordinary. And I’m savoring it. Bet your ass I’ll be out there on that parade route tomorrow - the first of the six post-millenial Boston sports parades that I'll be attending and hopefully not the last.