Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Beat L.A.!



The Boston Celtics make their 20th trip to the NBA Finals.

Last Friday night, they displayed tenacity and poise as they surged ahead of the Detroit Pistons in the dying minutes of the game. It was the Celtics of old – great defense and a fantastic offensive trio backed by a supportive bench and a coach who kept his composure. I felt so proud of them. Finally, a championship series – against the Los Angeles Lakers! – that I can watch with pride.

When I was ten years old, I was stricken with chicken pox. I caught it from my older sister, which I should have expected since we shared a room. And I was extremely upset about it, since it meant missing weeks of school and staying cooped up in my room, all itchy and feverish and miserable. They sent me soup to eat in my bed for dinner. Alone. I was so upset, even as I turned on the television while eating, surfing for something to watch while I stewed on my own. As it turned out, there was a replay of the 1986 NBA championships that day – the Boston Celtics versus the LA Lakers.

I had forgotten what game it was, but I distinctly remember seeing the now-familiar parquet floor of the Boston Garden. I remember watching as I ate, transfixed by the action unfolding on the screen. It was the very first NBA game that I saw, and realized much later on that I was watching the two teams who were the best at the game at the time. Basketball fanatics called it the Golden Age of the NBA. Now that I am older, I realize that it may have been an exaggeration, especially since the eras of Havlicek, Russell, and Cousy also deserve mention. But I grew up in the eighties, and to me, my sports heroes consisted of the Boston Celtics’ starting five of that decade: Bird, McHale, Parish, Johnson, and Ainge.

What I also remember from watching that game of basketball many years ago was the serious competition displayed by the Lakers. I committed them to my memory just as strongly as I committed the Celtics. They were just as good as the Celtics were, both individually and as a team. I realized that Abdul-Jabbar was a force to be reckoned with, that Worthy lived up to his last name, that Magic Johnson gave Bird a run for his money, and both had benches that dug just as deep. But the Lakers were the flashier team – a culture spawned by the city they were in, I suppose. Even their coach, Pat Riley, was clothed in flashy Armani. Which was probably why I sided with Boston – they seemed to be the more hardworking and gutsy team, and played with a lot more heart. The ever likable coach KC Jones even had the quiet passion and fortitude to match. I related to that kind of attitude, and so I found myself immensely happy when Boston turned out the winner.

There was no cable television at the time, so whatever NBA games I watched on television were not live, and were not shown in chronological order. So after that first Celtics-Lakers game, I watched the conference playoffs. I got to know the Pistons and their troublemakers, the Rockets and the twin towers, and the other teams and players who made that generation awesome, such as Dominique Wilkins, Karl Malone, Spud Webb, and that amazing, AMAZING Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton.

The NBA shaped my love for all things Boston – and New England, by extension (which is why I decided to go to graduate school here). I started rooting for the Bruins, the Patriots (not anymore, though), the Red Sox. However, the nineties found the Celtics not winning as many games as before. Larry Bird retired, and the starting five that I have grown to associate with championship trophies and popped champagne have retired or left the team. Other teams, such as the Chicago Bulls stepped into the winning path paved by the Lakers and the Celtics. Younger upstarts dominated the game – Iverson, Shaquille, Jordan. Yet, although the Celtics may be down, they were not out. The team also had an upstart of its own who showed immense promise at the time – Reggie Lewis. I followed the games by reading the newspapers, and knew that, with enough time, Reggie could fill Larry’s shoes.

However, that promise was cut short when Reggie died of a heart ailment. I remember reading about it in the paper the day after he collapsed during a Celtics game. I was in my school uniform, getting ready to leave for class, when I picked up the newspaper on the driveway and turned straight to the Sports section. And there was a huge black and white photo of Reggie, on the Garden floor, with medics attending to him. I was extremely worried for him. And sure enough, three months later, he collapsed and died during a pickup game.

Reggie’s death signaled a downward spiral of sorts for the Celtics, for they never found their championship footing after that. I found myself rooting for other teams, simply because I admired certain players. They possessed the quiet passion but hard work ethic that Larry Bird also displayed. One player in particular stood out to me as having just that – Ray Allen, who was on the Milwaukee Bucks back then. Another player also displayed the same work ethic, although was a lot flashier than Bird was – Kevin Garnett, he of the very recognizable profile (next to Michael Jordan). And also during that time, Paul Pierce began to break through as the franchise player that could resurrect the Celtics legacy.

Paul Pierce was quite remarkable. He toiled for the last ten years on the team, never wavering, and giving his all in each game he played. He was a great defender, a reliable scorer, and received league accolades, including stints on the All-Star team. But I felt sorry for him since the team was not as great as he was, and coaches came and went. There were the occasional bursts of brilliance, reaching the playoffs, but never moving on to the Championship. But this season was different.

My two most beloved non-Celtics players found themselves on the team. The buzz for this so-called Big Three was so great it seemed to eclipse everything else. I almost worried that they were looking at the big picture too much to actually do the nitty gritty of winning games and playing good defense (besides, with Sam Cassell and PJ Brown also on the team, I definitely had cause to worry!). Thank God that was not the case.

For the first time in two decades, the Boston Celtics had the best record in the league. And they plowed through the Atlanta Hawks and the Lebron-charged Cleveland Cavaliers. Sure, the road to the Finals was difficult. Both series went to Game 7. But they learned from it and powered their way against the Pistons in six games. And now, the dream Finals match-up everyone has been waiting for. And I mean everybody. Even those who have been casual observers of the game, leisure watchers of the NBA. Even those who know little about basketball history certainly knew that a Lakers-Celtics series was special. A dream. And history was about to unfold again.

And I would get to cheer on my beloved Boston once again. I never really turned my back on that team. Even when they were down. Even when my sisters and friends teased me for it. Even when they were as maligned as the Knicks. Even when Danny Ainge was besotted with youth over experience. Even when Pitino did not fit in. Like Pierce, I stuck with them. When my graduate classmates took a trip to the storied Celtics office, I was the only one who found excitement in everything. Including Red Auerbach’s chair. I believed in the history of the Celtics, and in what the future holds. The franchise had changed since they last won a championship, but the heart remains strong as ever. And I have Paul Pierce to thank.

Yes, Garnett and Allen had made their mark on the team. But I will always look to Paul Pierce as the glue that held the team together and kept their focus on winning. The guy on SportsCenter was right when he said Pierce was often ignored and forgotten, but not this time. He won the game in Detroit, and all the fans – the real ones – knew it. To me, as great as the opportunity to win the Finals against the Lakers would be, the Conference Championship was just as good. Sure, a championship ring would be sweet, but I think, getting there was sweeter. For the first time in his ten years with the team, Paul Pierce finally has a shot a winning a title. And the Celtics fans finally have a reason to celebrate. Thank you, Paul.

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