Monday, January 22, 2007
To: The Boston Celtics
I just finished watching you lose to Washington in overtime. I don’t know exactly what to say to you, but I have to say something. I want to make sure that you know how some of us feel. I’m liable to ramble quite a bit, but I want you to know something really important right now. Here it is.
There is greatness within you.
I was born in March of 1957. In April of that year, The Boston Celtics won their first NBA championship. Knowing that, you know that I grew up during a time when your team was the best team in all of sports. In my first 13 years of life, the Celtics won 11 championships. When the Celtics lost, it was shocking.
Do you want to know something funny about that? I was the only basketball fan in my neighborhood. And I grew up in Dorchester. I know that sounds hard to believe now, but that’s the way it was then. All of my friends were Bruins fans. Basketball wasn’t even on their radar.
So I followed the Celtics by myself. I’d go to six or seven games a year, sitting up in the second balcony of the old Garden for something like $1.50 - when I could afford it. I learned to watch basketball from an angle that gave me a great view of the tops of the player’s heads. There wasn’t much depth perception from up there. Every shot looked like a line drive because I was so far above the arc. I still loved it.
When I couldn’t afford to go to the game, or the team was on the road, I religiously listened to Johnny Most. It’s possible that some of you guys don’t even know who Johnny was. He was the best radio announcer in the history of basketball.
(Games were rarely on TV in those days, so radio was it for most of the time.)
The thing about Johnny Most was that he absolutely adored you guys. He was easily the biggest homer in broadcasting. Every opposing player was a dirty no good cheating son of a bitch, according to Johnny. Listening to Johnny Most call a game, you’d swear the opposing team came to the game armed with switchblades and brass knuckles. Every foul sounded like there had been an axe murder at center court… AND THE REFS DIDN’T SEE IT! BILL RUSSELL IS DOWN ON HIS HANDS AND KNEES, FEELING AROUND FOR HIS HEAD THAT CHAMBERLAIN LOPPED OFF, AND THEY’RE CALLING THE FOUL ON RUSSELL!
(That’s only a slight exaggeration, believe me.)
But Johnny knew the game, inside and out, and that’s what made it so great to listen to him, really. He loved the Celtics, but he loved them because they were the best at what they did. And when another player tried to undercut that greatness with a shortcut or a questionable tactic, he was legitimately pissed off. And those of us, like me, who grew up hearing the Green Gospel According To Most, became rabid fans of the team.
Just a short history lesson for those of you who don’t know: Celtics games in those days were easy to get tickets to, even during the playoffs. The team won championship after championship, but they barely filled the seats. Boston was a hockey town.
So, that’s all just to establish my own cred. Guys like me have been there from the beginning. And we’ve stuck around through both the great and the not-so-great. Sometimes we’ve been laughed at for it.
Anyway, after Bill Russell and Sam Jones and K.C. Jones and Tommy Heinsohn and almost all the others from those great teams retired, it was even less of a basketball town. The Celtics had a couple of years of 45 or 50 losses. You’ve heard folks talk about the Russell Era and the Cowens Era and the Bird Era when they talk about your team? That was the Hank Finkel Era.
(Any real Celtics fan says that with love, not just as a joke. Hank Finkel never gave less than 100%.)
Some of us never wavered in our loyalty. We had enjoyed the greatness, so what kind of fans would we be if we deserted the team during a tough time? You had to have faith that good times would come again. And if you didn’t take the bad that was now, the good to come wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.
The good times came again. John Havlicek, part of the old greatness, was still plugging away, playing 45 or 48 minutes every night, win or lose. Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White came along and so did other wonderful players. And, God bless him, Tommy Heinsohn pulled it all together as coach and the C’s won another couple of championships.
(By the way, if Tommy talks to you, you should listen. You probably know that already, but it doesn’t hurt to say it just in case you don’t. He knows more about the game – about winning - than 90% of the coaches in the league right now. And I don’t think there’s anybody on the entire planet that wants to see you win as much as he does. Cut Tommy and he bleeds green.)
More history: The Celtics hit another rough patch. Ownership was the problem. Stupid trades were made, without Red’s consent. He almost quit. Thankfully, he didn’t and the bum owner sold his share.
I’m still a fan during all this time. Again, there was greatness ready to happen and a good fan takes the small pleasures available during the tough times, while waiting for the greatness to bloom. You endure because it will be worth it later.
It was worth it later. Bird – McHale – The Chief – DJ – Tiny Archibald – Ainge – Cedric Maxwell – Bill Walton. Amazing teams. Three more championships. And now, for the first time, Boston was a basketball town. Every faker and poser in the city came out of the woodwork and jumped on the bandwagon.
Guys like me had been there all along.
Well, every good time in life only lasts for so long, right? Bad luck and tragedy do sometimes occur. Len Bias. The wonderful and talented Reggie Lewis. Some questionable front office decisions. Big things and little things all added up to make a team that was stuck in neutral. There was a year in the playoffs with an early exit, followed by a year with no playoffs – back and forth. And guys like me, who had been following the team for years and years? We knew that playoffs or no playoffs, this team was never going to win a championship.
Well, I’ll skip over the more recent times. Some of you have been here a while, some of you haven’t, but you all probably know that stuff and don’t need me talking about it. So, let’s get back to the point of this letter.
There is greatness within you.
I’ve followed this team, and I’ve watched basketball, for longer than any of you have been alive. I’ve seen championship Celtics teams and I’ve seen Celtics teams that couldn’t have won a championship if they were spotted 10 points every night. I know a good team when I see one.
You are a good team.
Losses? Yeah, you’ve got more of those than you do wins. But you’re a good team. There is greatness within you. It just needs time to… well, to explode. That’s what’s going to happen sometime soon. The Boston Celtics are going to explode right in the faces of everybody else in the NBA. Lots of so-called experts are going to be very surprised. Guys like me won’t be surprised. We’ve seen greatness before and we know what it looks like before it shows itself to everybody else.
You have more heart than any Celtics team I’ve ever seen. I sincerely mean that. 10 years ago, 12 years ago, I’d watch those teams fall behind in a road game by 12 or 15 points and I knew, deep down in my heart, that there was no chance at all. There was no fire and it was just painful to watch. They didn’t have the big hearts that you guys do. I see you guys fall behind in a game by 21, like you did tonight against Washington, and I still have hope. You are the most persistent team in the entire league. You never go away. You keep hustling and running and moving the hands and somehow, some way, you keep yourselves in every damn game.
Guys like me love you for that.
The thing that makes this a good team, and a team verging on greatness, is that every one of you has that heart. That’s been proven during the past month. Every time some one of you goes down with an injury – Pierce, Perkins, Wally, Delonte - someone else steps up and drops 25 or 30, and usually it’s someone who never did it before. Tony Allen comes in and rips it up. Big Al blossoms into an almost automatic double-double guy. And then Tony Allen goes out for the season. Bang. Gerald pops for 20-something one night and Ryan gets 30 another night and Allen Ray has a 20 pointer. Scal throws in his three-pointers and hassles the other team to death. Leon comes in and plays like he’s 5 inches taller than he is.
The greatness starts to show.
(In many ways, these injuries have been the best thing to happen to you, you know? No, it didn’t help you to win these recent games, but it sure has set you up for the future. Now you’ve all been tested under fire. And you’ve all pretty much passed the test, even if it hasn’t added up to some W’s.)
Some guys have heart and never do anything special because they lack skills. Some guys have skills and never do anything special because they lack heart. Some guys even have both and never win a championship because they’re saddled with teammates who have neither. You guys are something out of the ordinary. You are a TEAM with both heart and skills. You just need a bit more time to pull it all together.
Can I say it again? There is greatness within you.
The point of this letter, really, is to let you know that there are some of us out here who are willing to cheer you on during the losses because we see that greatness ready to bloom. Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep hustling. Keep learning. And don’t ever start believing that the losses are any sort of reflection of what you have a chance to be. They are in no way your true measure.
Guys like me keep bragging on you to the jump-on-and-off-the-bandwagon fans. We say to them, “This team is going to be competing for a championship someday soon. You watch. Someday soon it’s all going to come together and this team is going to be a terrifying sight for other teams to see.”
Those fair weather fans aren’t buying it. But I know. I’ve seen it before and you have it now. Like no other Celtics team in recent times, you have it.
You know what it is? It’s not just the uniform. It’s a state of mind. What you have is Celtic Pride.
There is greatness within you.