(Note: The above video has nothing to do with the Celtics or this post. But I posted it for two reasons. 1) It’s my music video debut. If you watch at 1:41, I’m the bloody dude dying. Not exactly the most glamorous debut, I know. And 2) If you like rap and don’t know Aziz, you probably should get to know him. He’s from the Boston area and he’s one of the best rappers in New England, and I’m not just saying that because he was my roommate.)
When the Boston Red Sox completed their comeback against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, two of my friends and I decided streaking through my neighborhood was the perfect way to provide an exclamation point on the night. We dropped our pants and pulled our shirts over our heads, and we ran through my front door into the beautiful night. I remember it as starry and cloudless, but perhaps my memory has been altered by my mood when it was created. Either way we were Idiots, just like the team.
A procession of cars formed spontaneously, one following the other, complete strangers honking their horns and freaking out together, as my buddies and I sprinted the sidewalks, self-conscious about our naked bodies potentially shriveling in the mid-October night chill. We didn’t have any real reason for streaking rather than, say, running around with our clothes ON, but we felt Kevin Millar would have gone with the pantless celebration too if he’d been a fan rather than a crucial aspect of THE MOTHER-FLIPPING TEAM THAT FINALLY BEAT THE YANKEES!!!!
The Red Sox won a World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals a week later and I have never cared about them the same way again. There was thrilling resolve in rooting for long-time losers and something particularly fun about that team’s makeup, about Millar’s good nature and Pedro’s dominance, about Curt Schilling’s bravery and Johnny Damon’s caveman persona, about David Ortiz’s uncanny penchant for clutch hits, about Bill Mueller and Jason Varitek and the rest of the Dirt Dogs. There was something marvelous about praying to remember Grady Little, and Aaron Boone’s home run, without wanting to find the nearest shotgun and go hunting at Yankee Stadium. I gradually lost interest in the Red Sox after that first title. I still followed them, just not in a psychotic manner whereby I surrendered major aspects of my life to carve out three hours each night to watch a baseball game on TV.
Three years later the Red Sox won another World Series. My friends and I didn’t consider the event streak-worthy. From there, the atmosphere surrounding the team got worse and worse until fans finally hated their favorite baseball team, a collection of unlikable characters who seemed spoiled and overpaid, who gained dozens of pounds during the season and may or may not have drank too much beer, who failed to live up to expectations that were probably too high, who didn’t seem to understand that Boston–every city, really–loves competitors who treat their sports and fans with respect. When Josh Beckett was traded this weekend, very few people in New England wept. Why couldn’t these pampered big-name players act more like Trot Nixon, anyway?
Almost 500 words later I’m almost at my point, which is that I’m thankful the Celtics are so fun to cheer for. They’re not perfect–I have not forgotten what it’s like to watch Rasheed Wallace don my favorite team’s colors, and I would rather drink a gallon of chlorine than recall the second halves of certain seasons–but they’ve managed to keep my attention and mostly fulfill every expectation I have for my athletic heroes, very few of which are performance-based.
Allow me to explain: I know I will never have to wonder if Kevin Garnett sat out a game claiming injury when he could have played. I know I will never have to question Paul Pierce’s work ethic, because he’s been consistent for 14 years and that doesn’t happen by accident. I know I will never have to question Rajon Rondo’s competitiveness, Avery Bradley’s motor or Doc Rivers’ preparation. From Wyc Grousbeck down, I know the Celtics care. So even when they screw up, even when they lose 13-point leads in the waning minutes of the NBA Finals, even when they let opportunities slip away or make trades with which I don’t agree, the knowledge that almost everything within the Celtics organization is done with the proper motivation makes everything easier to digest. Even the most painful losses have only helped solidify the feeling that if the Celtics’ gas tank holds 40 gallons, they drive until the gas light blinks and the car starts to sputter, and finally, 40 gallons after the trip began, they’re forced to pull over to the side of the road against their wishes.
I would root for the Celtics even if they stunk. I would follow them even if they drank cases of beer in layup lines and ate chicken wings on the bench. I forced myself to stick with the team when Sebastian Telfair started and Paul Pierce had no help and everyone thought Rivers was an awful coach. I felt like a glutton for punishment, but I dreamed of better days and hopefully the No. 1 pick and a rebuilding process that would one day make the Celtics relevant.
The Celtics are relevant now. They’ve been that way for five seasons and committed this summer to staying that way for at least three more. But that’s not entirely the point. The Celtics could be pampered babies who complain about their coaching staff, whine about their touches and take months to return from injuries that should not sideline them for nearly so long. Surely, there has been some of that inside the Celtics organization. I’m not such a homer to believe the Celtics are free from boneheaded behavior or (what we see as) broken competitiveness. Glen Davis had a habit of making himself look bad, Jermaine O’Neal spent more time in the doctor’s office than Doogie Howser, Wallace spent his final NBA season with all the energy of a dead snail and Rajon Rondo doesn’t always dish out dozens of hugs. The Celtics have their problems (anyone remember the Von Wafer vs. Delonte West spat?) and they’ve had a few problem children (Stephon Marbury, what up?). But the core, the players who make the most money, the ones who have millions of reasons to take additional time recovering from injuries, who could get away with coasting slightly because of their great talent, generally play with vivacity and spunk, with intelligence and courage, with precisely the effort we want our millionaire professional athletes to exert.
Many of the Celtics play with MCL sprains, shoulders popping out of their sockets, ankles that require several cortisone shots or knees that swell to the size of softballs after every game. They don’t golf when they’re supposed to be injured and they respect Rivers too much to campaign for his removal behind his back. They sometimes make us dance and other times they make us cry, but no matter what the score says we have always felt comfortable rooting for this Celtics team because it (mostly) approaches basketball the way we wish we would if we were lucky enough to make millions of dollars playing a game. Even things that might turn off outsiders–KG occasionally losing his scruples against an opponent, Rondo putting down the Heat during a sideline interview, Pierce bowing at mid-court inside Madison Square Garden–display a sense of fierce competitiveness that we can admire, even if we sometimes don’t agree with the way it’s displayed.
We could resent our favorite team and root for salary dumps of its biggest names. Our emotions of fanhood could have peaked years ago with a streaking session around the neighborhood. Assuredly, one day things will change and the Celtics will employ stars for whom we are not proud to cheer. But for now, in this current era, we should consider ourselves lucky to support the men wearing green.