The year was 2007, and I sat squished alongside five friends in my buddy’s single dorm room. The seating arrangements could have been (much) better: sitting six people into a Skidmore College single is like fitting 17 in a Toyota Corolla. But I was in New York, I didn’t get Fox Sports New England, and my buddy Harry was the only person I knew who shelled out enough money for the cable package that included NBA TV. I wanted to, needed to, watch the new-look Celtics open preseason against the Toronto Raptors in Italy.
The C’s had just suffered through “The Gerald Green Year,” a youth movement of sorts that — combined with Paul Pierce’s injury-riddled campaign — left the Celtics with the NBA’s worst record, Doc Rivers with a bulls-eye on his back that columnists regularly took aim at, and fans with a “please lose as many games as possible so we can select either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant” mentality. When the NBA Draft lottery came and the Celtics were granted the fifth pick, I pondered my options. I could …
1) change allegiances and become a fan of some other team — ANY other team that wasn’t destined for failed season after failed season. But that really wasn’t an option, because, really, what kind of fan switches teams?
2) continue my existence as a miserable Celtics fan, blame Sebastian Telfair for everything bad that happened in life (“my keys got lost — screw you Telfair, you overhyped, underachieving son of a bitch!”), ask God daily why he ever mustered the cruelty to place Green, Telfair, Tony Allen and Wally Szczerbiak on the same team, and fall asleep each night muttering, “Allan Ray. Seriously?”
3) talk myself into fully embracing Yi Jianlian, who Danny Ainge was reportedly enamored with at the No. 5 pick.
I chose the third choice. A seven-foot tall Chinese dude with soft touch and decent athleticism? Forget Durant and Oden! Yi’s the future of basketball! The Celtics got lucky to fall to the No. 5 pick!
The events that took place following the Draft lottery can only be described as stunning. The Celtics traded for Ray Allen on draft night, turning from laughing stock to “hmm, that team might be fun to watch” literally overnight. Rumors about the C’s acquiring Kevin Garnett shortly followed. I checked into HoopsHype 759 times per day from the computer where I worked at the local swimming pool. On the umpteenth day of The Garnett Watch, HoopsHype afforded me some ridiculously good news, which can only be judged by my reaction: in front of 75 kids, 15 mothers, three hot mothers and my boss, I loudly screamed “F*** YEAH” at the top of my lungs. I almost got fired, but who cares about a job in a time like that? The Celtics had just paired Kevin Garnett with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Thank you, Kevin McHale. Would you like chopsticks with your pu-pu platter?
The Celtics quickly became the hottest ticket around town, but it’s important not to forget: there were serious question marks about whether they could contend in year one of the Big Three era. Ray Allen was 32 years old and coming off double ankle surgery. Paul Pierce had just finished his own injury-prone season. Kevin Garnett was still one of the five or six best basketball players in the world, but could the three of them really carry Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins on their backs? Remember, at that stage, neither Rondo or Perk had accomplished anything in their NBA lives. We knew very little about them. Rondo was young, uber-athletic and showed flashes of unadulterated brilliance, but lest we forget, he spent his rookie year backing up Telfair. And I assure you, it’s never a good sign when your team’s starting point guard was known as “Sebastian Telfair’s backup” just months ago. Perk was hulking, he frowned a lot and he had worked hard during his early years to cut a load of baby fat. But his offensive game was less complete than my latest Rubik’s cube, and it was difficult to calculate his defensive capacity. For so long, his defensive acumen had been hidden alongside young, immature teammates with nary a clue about how to play defense.
I really just used the word nary. But I digress.
For the first time, packed into the tiny dorm room, surrounded by the hot stench of my friends’ body odor, I saw the new-look Celtics in action. A few truths were immediately evident: Kevin Garnett looked odd wearing anything besides Minnesota Timberwolves colors, but he treated even preseason games like the NBA Finals. Ray Allen shot like a goddess, even when he missed, and also has enormous calves. James Posey would help everything, so much, even when he didn’t score. Eddie House had a quicker release than a virgin on his first time. But mostly, I watched and marveled at one thing: in the Celtics offense, the ball moved from side to side like a crowd’s eyes at Wimbledon. Back and forth, forth and back, the Celtics moved the ball like a Pete Carril Princeton team. You could never tell that two of the Big Three had recently been ball-stopping superstars with the basketball constantly in their hands. On this team, surrounded by so much talent, everyone wanted to keep everyone else happy. Maybe even too much so. The C’s passed up a few open shots to make the extra pass. But that was a trivial matter that more practice time would take care of. After watching Gerald Green for the previous year, this was like updating from Soulja Boy to Tupac.
At that point, watching NBA TV in that crowded, hot room, I still had no idea where the Big Three era would lead me. I didn’t know the Celtics would forge so quickly and rattle off 66 regular season wins, more than any team (1985-86, 67 wins) but one in Celtics history. I didn’t know they would struggle to beat the Hawks, barely nudge past a locked-in Lebron, find their inner playoff warrior against the Pistons and embarrass the Lakers in Game 6 to take home the franchise’s 17th title. I didn’t know “Anytthhinngggg isssss posssssiiibblllleeeee.” I didn’t know the slew of what-ifs that would follow in the coming years. What if Garnett didn’t get hurt? What if Perk never tore his ACL? What if Danny Ainge never traded for Jeff Green, or Rajon Rondo never dislocated his elbow? I didn’t know how joyful it would be to root for this Celtics team, even in the playoff losses, always so valiant and selfless and inspired, even if certain regular season games — especially the second night of back-to-backs — have been frightful to observe. I didn’t know Paul Pierce’s transformation into a mature man would finish. I didn’t know Rajon Rondo would blossom into one of the league’s most exciting, creative players, and also one of its most confounding. I didn’t know just how nice it would be to watch Ray Allen spot up on the wing in transition. I didn’t know Eddie House would become one of my favorite Celtics ever, James Posey’s hugs would be etched into my memory forever, or that Perkins — with his jaw that always seems set for war — would prove his worth and then some. I didn’t know losing to the Lakers in Game 7 would hurt so bad. I didn’t know I would come to love Tony Allen, even if I still hated him half the time. I didn’t know Stephon Marbury would be so strange, Glen Davis would make me feel the entire spectrum of human emotions, and Sam Cassell would never, ever stop shooting ill-advised shots. I didn’t know P.J. Brown would play such a crucial role in the only Celtics championship of my lifetime.
I didn’t know four years later, the NBA lockout would threaten to bring the Big Three era to a close without us seeing it through to the end. This glorious era that began when the Celtics got screwed in the NBA lottery might have just one season left. For the love of Scott Pollard, let us — let me — enjoy it.