Armed with a few extra pounds, a shorter vertical leap and foot speed that aged like a milk carton left open on the counter, I still occasionally play competitive basketball. Games have become an exercise in humility. Players I once outscored on my worst day now cut off my driving lanes with ease. Shots that used to fall hit the front rim. In my mind, I know my utility has deteriorated.
Still, unable to adjust to a body that simply doesn’t function like it used to, I play with the mentality that I am in my prime. My shot selection hasn’t changed from when I was actually one of the better players on the floor.
Clearly, I don’t have much in common with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. My list consists of three things: I’m white, I bleed Celtics green, and my heart took too long to admit I’m not what I used to be. (Note: There’s actually a fourth thing. Like Mr. Bird, I also have unsavory facial hair. Forgive me, Father, for I have used the lord’s name in vain.)
My third similarity with the Celtics legends is the one I’d like to discuss today. During an interview with Jackie MacMullan (be sure to read her entire column – it’s great), Bird, McHale and Robert Parish suggested that their diminishing abilities didn’t just hurt their on-court performance – it also bothered the team’s chemistry.
In their final two seasons together, Bird and McHale grew increasingly distant, even mildly antagonistic. The pain and disappointment of their suddenly limited skills wore on both of them.
“At that point Kevin was the healthier of the two, and he felt Larry should have deferred to him more,” Parish said. “That’s when the relationship really started to deteriorate.”
“The injuries made us all ornery,” McHale said. “We were all experiencing the same thing and we were just miserable.”
“When you are injured, you can’t move, you can’t do what you want, so you don’t want to talk to anybody,” Bird said. “You just want to be alone.”
Take the battle for alpha status between McHale and Bird, multiply it by two because Boston has four stars jockeying for alpha status now, raise it to the third power because Rajon Rondo’s just entering his prime while his teammates clearly fade away from theirs, and you begin to get a picture of how difficult it must be for Boston’s lineup to co-exist.
Yes, the Big Three are all known as unselfish individuals. Clearly, Rondo’s also unselfish. But Rondo obviously believes he’s the team’s best player — which he is — and the other three are struggling to adjust to their new, secondary roles.
That’s what has been most odd about Boston’s start to this season: As individuals, the Big Three are all healthy and performing reasonably well. But the Celtics offense is currently No. 25 in offensive efficiency. Keep in mind, the Celtics offense was never its strength. But No. 25 is considerably lower than how the Celtics have performed the last couple seasons, when Boston’s offense was more or less league average.
Read Nick Collison’s GQ blog about adjusting to a smaller role after being a star for his whole life. It’s an incredibly humbling process, and presumably even more difficult for the Big Three, who have an astounding 34 All-Star Game appearances between them.
Even the most unselfish players struggle to admit they can’t control games like they used to. In their heads, I’m sure Garnett, Pierce and Allen realize this is now Rondo’s team. But they’re all competitors, and it’s difficult to accept that basketball isn’t as easy as it once was, that the conch has been wrestled away.
Boston has looked more cohesive recently (the Philadelphia dud notwithstanding), but the Celtics’ hierarchy isn’t as natural as it used to be.