On Tuesday, word trickled down the internet newswire (read: Twitter) that Dionte Christmas and Jamar Smith were both waived by the Celtics. This came as a surprise. Although Christmas was far from guaranteed a spot, he seemed likely to make the team as an end-of-the-bench player, someone who would make up 1:45 second long handshakes with all of the starters that would draw the Celtics early delay-of-game warnings. The shock was lessened when we learned Wednesday that the cuts had taken place to make way for Leandro Barbosa, a very solid, defensible basketball decision. But solid basketball decisions don’t necessarily make for solid basketball narratives.
Jamar Smith? Bummer. Sorry man. He never really had a chance after the Celtics acquired Darko Milicic, taking up a roster spot that could have been reserved for a younger player. Although I’m sure everyone wishes Smith the best, no Twitter tears were shed on his behalf.
Christmas, however, was dfferent. He was immediately likable, in part because of his feel-good story (trying to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing in the NBA) and in part because everybody on the team seemed to like him. But most of all, he was likable because he’s an underdog with a real chance, and we LOVE cheering for underdogs.
Let me start here: I don’t feel like we can’t call Christmas a Cinderella story. Jay disagrees with me, and there’s a good chance he’s right, because he usually is, but I think the Cinderella narrative is overused. In sports, true Cinderella stories are incredibly rare. To accomplish the full narrative, the protagonist (underdog team) has to go through a series of seemingly lucky coincidences and end up champions, the ultimate feel-good ending. That’s where most sports narratives get tripped up: an unrealistic, improbable, completely happy ending.
When was the last time an NCAA Cinderella team actually won the championship? Butler came close twice and lost. George Mason made it to the Final Four. VCU did as well. But in all of those cases, any semblance of true Cinderella narrative was erased as soon as the team lost. If the prince found Cinderella after all of her pumpkin-riding, dancing and shoe-losing and he decided “Erm, this is awkward, but you looked better at night, and I’m not interested anymore, sorry,” it would be a thousand times more crushing than if she had just stayed oppressed with her evil stepsisters.
Dionte Christmas never could have been a Cinderella story. For him to achieve the ultimate happy ending, he would have to, essentially, become the best player in the NBA. After all, becoming a benchwarmer for an NBA team isn’t exactly equivalent to marrying a prince (I would assume, having done neither). But Christmas didn’t need to become the best player for this story to end happily, he just needed to make the team. So strike the fairy tale narrative, and we’ll stick to that of the underdog.
But this is also problematic. Hollywood underdogs, for the most part, share one thing in common: they only have one chance to pull off the biggest upset of their lives. Eminem better not mess up that final rap battle, or he’s never going to get another chance. The Titans better win every single game or Denzel Washington is going to get fired. Even Average Joe’s Gym better win or Vince Vaughn won’t own a gym anymore.
Dionte Christmas was an underdog. He came into Summer League a long shot to make the final roster, but he played so well that the Celtics had little choice but to invite him to training camp, despite the glut of shooting guards already in place. In the process, he built a small legion of dedicated Celtics fans who really wanted to see him succeed. The underdog narrative was looking good.
Then Tuesday, with one fell swoop from the C’s front office, the whole story came to a screeching halt. Christmas was waived, relegating him to the uncertain purgatory that awaits every post-waiver NBA hopeful. He can be picked up by another NBA team, and several people have speculated that the Celtics cut him early so that another team could have a chance to sign him. He can also go overseas, where he would make plenty of money and get much more playing time than he would in the NBA. But for fans of basketball narrative, Christmas’ story is now frustratingly open-ended. We don’t know what will happen next.
We’ve been taught that underdog stories aren’t supposed to be open-ended. They are supposed to be open and shut, brought to a conclusion in dramatic fashion. They aren’t supposed to be dropped halfway through.
But there IS an ending here, within the seemingly open-ended conclusion. Perhaps it’s not as happy or satisfying as Remember the Titans or 8 Mile, but it’s also not as sad as the failed Cinderella narrative. Christmas won’t play for the Celtics, but he could still play for an NBA team. Heck, he could still play overseas and live happily in Italy or Spain or (gasp) France, making tons of money. Those would be happy endings too, right? Where would you rather live, Detroit (for example) making a metric ton of money or Barcelona making slightly-less-but-still-a-metric ton of money?
Real-life underdog stories are never open and shut, whether they have the idyllic ending fans crave (Christmas making the team) or the less idyllic ending (Christmas having to weigh his options). Waiving Christmas and signing Barbosa were the right decisions by the Celtics, even if I’m bummed about them. But as a fan, I don’t get to write the narrative. I just witness the results. And in the meantime, while I wait for those results, all I can do is cheer for Christmas to end up somewhere good, wherever that may be.
Good luck, Dionte.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.