When reading Gerry Callahan’s wondrous piece this morning, I particularly liked the way he chose to conclude. The Celtics don’t just like to win, he wrote (and I’m paraphrasing here); they like to see other teams lose. They enjoy seeing their opponents flounder, and they love looking across the court and seeing an opponent walk into the locker room defeated. They love looking into an opponent’s eyes and seeing despair, and they love reading about their opponent’s lack of toughness the next day. They love flexing their own strengths, but they also love exposing weaknesses.
And they hate other teams. Doc Rivers spoke about how his team would interact with other players at the All-Star Game, and noted that Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo don’t feel the need to fraternize with anybody outside the C’s organization. It’s not like Rivers expects them to become mute when they see Lebron James this weekend — he believes Rondo and KG will speak with their All-Star teammates, and even offer fake laughs and “daps.” But that doesn’t mean they’ll consider any All-Star teammates friends.
“Kevin and Rondo don’t really like anybody on other teams,” Rivers told WEEI. “It’s funny how Rondo has adopted Kevin’s belief that you shouldn’t like your opponent.”
However KG and Rondo interact with fellow All-Stars this weekend, the “AAU mentality” that exists through much of the NBA — the idea that players grow up friendly with each other because of the AAU circuit, and thus aren’t as competitive on the court — doesn’t have a place in Boston. Garnett hates his opponents, on principle, and he’s influenced at least Rondo to feel the same way. I would bet my non-existent first child that Kendrick Perkins doesn’t feel much love for foes, either, and that Paul Pierce doesn’t go out to dinner with Lebron or Wade before games. I’m sure some of the Celtics have friends on other teams (someone on the ABC telecast even said Garnett and Kobe Bryant are friends off the court), but they certainly don’t show anyone preferential treatment inside the sidelines.
The Celtics, like them or despise them, are a throwback to yesteryear, back when Larry Bird squared off with Dr. J and Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis. Back when the Bad Boys ruled the land. Back when physicality reigned supreme. Back when the term bad blood meant two teams who legitimately disliked each other.
When opponents and fans alike campaigned about Garnett’s cheap shots and dirty play, Rivers said Garnett couldn’t care less. Opinions don’t bother him, because he’s just focused on trying to win. Opinions don’t bother him, because the people holding those opinions — mostly opposing players, and fans of opposing teams — don’t mean a single thing to him.
Garnett cares almost solely about the people in his own locker room, and his only relationship to the players who have problems with him (Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard, to name two on a growing list) is that he would tear their hearts out (or elbow them, or tap them in the nuts) if it helped him win a basketball game. Garnett and Rondo, Garnett’s protege, don’t want players to like them. Because if you like playing against someone — in Garnett’s eyes, at least — that someone isn’t doing enough to get under your skin; that someone doesn’t compete intensely enough.
It’s no coincidence that Garnett’s teammates, coaches and fans all love him, while other teams hate him. He reminds me of one of my AAU teammates growing up, a kid by the name of Pat Lunney. Lunney had hair like Brian Scalabrine’s, but KG’s knack for getting under opponents’ skin. He was twelve years old when I first became his teammate, but already he knew more tricks to aggravate opponents than Bruce Bowen (okay, maybe not THAT many).
Before he entered games, Lunney would run his head underneath a water fountain. Then he’d guard somebody, placing his wet head directly on the person’s wrist or shirt. He would yank people’s shorts down when defending someone away from the ball, as soon as the ref wasn’t looking. He’d call for a timeout while he was on defense, knowing damn well that he could only call timeout while on offense — he was only hoping to sidetrack his opponent enough to steal the ball.
When the AAU season ended and my CYO teams played against Lunney, all my CYO teammates loathed him. But to this day, I consider Pat Lunney one of the best teammates I’ve ever played with. Maybe THE best. As one of my other AAU teammates once put it, “If I’m choosing sides for a pickup game, I don’t care who’s on the court. I’m picking Pat Lunney.”
Just like KG, Lunney rubbed people the wrong way. If you were his opponent, he wanted you to hate him. If you liked him after a game, he hadn’t done his job. And he hated you, too, because you were the obstacle he needed to pass in order to secure a win.
You may find it odd that I’m discussing one of my former AAU teammates, while I attempt to describe how the AAU mentality never found its way to the Celtics. But Pat Lunney was able to play AAU basketball as my teammate, respect me, become friends with me, and still hate me every time he stepped on the court as my opponent, with a fury people normally save for their worst enemies. Lunney knew how to separate competition from everything else.
Sounds like a certain Boston professional sports team.