The African phrase was once the Boston Celtics’ rallying cry. It can be roughly translated “Unity,” or “All for one.” It was the Celtics’ motto, what they chanted in pre-game huddles, but it became far more than that.
Ubuntu became a symbol of everything the Celtics stood for.
When the Big Three came together, nothing was a given. How would the three stars play together? Would there be enough basketballs to go around? Could they co-exist in a fashion to help their team win? People forget it now, but there were huge questions facing the 2007-08 Boston Celtics.
But the stars were fed up with losing. Kevin Garnett got to the gym one day prior to that championship season at 8 o’clock in the morning. In Minnesota, he would have been the only one there for hours, the lone player dedicated enough to be in the gym that early. In Boston, he wasn’t even the first one there; Ray Allen and Paul Pierce beat him to it.
In that moment, looking around at stars just as dedicated as he, Garnett knew what the world would soon find out. The Boston Celtics were hell-bent on winning a championship.
But perhaps that desire can only burn so deeply for so long. Maybe individual agendas can only be pushed aside so often. It’s possible that one championship was enough to satisfy the Celtics, that one title was all they felt necessary to validate their careers. Whatever the reason, somewhere along the way, Boston lost its unique ability to join as one.
As the Celtics stand, with a solid but disappointing 32-17 record, Ubuntu seems to be nothing but a sliver of the Celtics’ past.
The Celtics still play hard.
Kevin Garnett still barks orders, Paul Pierce still drives to the hoop with no regard for his body, and Ray Allen still whips around screens to get open. Glen Davis still thrashes after offensive rebounds, and Rajon Rondo often still beats the opposing team to loose balls. Kendrick Perkins is as tough as players come. Boston is still a formidable foe, a tough out, and maybe even a championship contender.
But gone is the band of brothers who bonded during a preseason trip to Rome. Gone are the days when no team would ever outwork the Celtics, not even for a minute. When every game, every play, was taken as a point Boston needed to prove along its quest to be crowned champion. When Boston might be outplayed, but never for lack of effort. When every move a Celtic made was specifically to help his team win.
Back then, the biggest thing to worry about — effort-wise, at least — was whether KG and co. would wipe themselves out by playing all-out, balls-to-the-wall basketball for 82 straight regular-season games. Never would anyone have to worry about Boston taking games — quarters, even — off. They were a tornado, picking up steam all season long, never stopping for a second, regardless of what was in their way.
Back when Ubuntu reigned.
James Posey would hug each starter before every game, and whisper into their ears.
It isn’t often that an NBA basketball player gives five of his teammates such a deep bear-hug. To the fans observing the game, it seemed odd, out of place.
But to the players, it was welcome.
“It’s not necessarily the hug. It’s what he’s saying to me and reminding us what we need to do to go out and be successful,” Kevin Garnett said at the time. “It’s kind of good before you hit the floor. He’s not just talking the talk. It really means something.
“You guys see it as a hug, but it’s the unity of what he’s saying. It’s all motivating. It’s all positive.”
It was Ubuntu.
Tonight, Boston will play New Orleans, Posey’s new team.
Just like Posey, Ubuntu is gone. Rajon Rondo has openly spoken of a divided locker room. Doc Rivers has resorted to promising to yank players who play selfishly, either offensively or defensively. Effort, once a given, has become fleeting.
The Celtics are old, but age isn’t alone in denying them of wins. A lack of unity has helped. A shortage of Ubuntu.
Every game, I hope that someone will take on Posey’s role of administering hugs. Do you know what I would do tonight if Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis, or Marquis Daniels walked out to halfcourt just before the game and wrapped his arms around each member of the starting five, whispering words of advice and unity into each player’s ear?
My blood would race, and my heart would pound. I’d stand on top of my couch. My hands would hurt from clapping, and my lungs would be sore from screaming. Chills would flood every millimeter of my body. Goosebumps would flow like the day a little less than two years ago when I watched the Celtics’ championship parade.
It’s hard to imagine the championship was less than two years ago. It seems so distant, so long ago.
Everything has changed.