Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Celtics win 17th NBA Championship

While sports have degenerated into modern-day Gladiator matches (think idiot crowd chanting for either the Gladiators or the tigers; fixed matches; lots of money changing hands - sound familiar?), the local teams still pull on the ol' heartstrings when something special happens. Watching the Celtics win their 17th NBA championship at home, by an astounding score of 131-92, once again kept me from rejecting professional team sports altogether.

The Celtics won with defense and a great team identity. From the perspective of a younger Celtic fan who hasn't really experienced the glory days, it was special. I just remember flashes of Bird, McHale, and Parish together on the floor while they celebrated the championship in 1986, as well as a surprisingly vivid memory of attending a Celts/Lakers regular season game in 1988. I also remember McHale's last game as a Celtic when he threw in an alley-oop from out of bounds with 0.3 seconds on the clock against Charlotte in Game 4 of a first-round playoff game, and Dee Brown getting mugged on that play with no foul abomination, knowing it was McHale's last game. I remember Sherman Douglas being our main guard for way too long during the mid-90's, culminating in an ill-advised fall-away three in the closing seconds of the final game at the old Garden - which I attended; a Game 4 loss to the Magic in the 1995 playoffs. I remember the last Lakers/Celtics match up in the old Garden and Dino Radja tying the game with almost no time left, but just enough time for Van Exel to win the game with a last-second three-point heave. I remember being in Italy and calling my friend Kevin from abroad in the summer of 1993 just to talk to him, and finding out that Reggie Lewis had died, after falling down during a game just a month or so earlier - a double-blow (er, no pun intended) considering that Len Bias had died years earlier and the two could have carried the torch from Bird, McHale, and Parish well into the 90's, and maybe even challenged some of those Bulls teams. The most recent great memory I have of the Celtics, prior to this season, is attending the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals Game 3, last row of the "new" Garden, but feeling happy just to be there, when the Celtics came back from 20 down in the 4th quarter to take Game 3 from New Jersey. That was followed, of course, by the disappointment in Game 4 when they had a chance to take a 3-1 stranglehold and couldn't quite get it done in the closing stages. These are the things that happen when Tony Battie is your big man on the court and a Celtic misses a crucial free throw (he nearly tapped it in but it didn't quite go).

There were a lot of disappointments, and the NBA went through drastic changes during the 1990s. Somehow GM Chris Wallace just didn't know how to handle those changes (and a few lottery ping-pong balls didn't fall our way). I mean, Eric Montross? Pierce was on bad team after bad team, until finally Ainge came to town, made the team even worse with some very questionable moves (getting Antoine Walker BACK...?), and finally decided to try and tank the season toward the end of the 2006-2007 campaign. Even after securing a great lottery pick, the Celtics came out of it with the worst possible scenario (a #5 pick), promptly traded it away along with a lot of their young talent, and managed to keep Pierce around for another year when he saw he'd be surrounded by quality veterans with a real chance to make a run. I'm not sure if he believed at that point that the Celtics could win a championship, but I'm sure Garnett's attitude and intensity gave him some hope that this could be the year - finally, a veteran that worked as hard as he did, with real star power, to help share the load.

KG being called "the counterfeit Ticket" by the very definition of a hack journalist, Peter Vescey, as recently as yesterday. Jemele Hill indicating that "rooting for the Celtics is like supporting Hitler" (I'm parapharasing; read an article here - hey Jemele - ich liebe meinen Celtics!!!!). Most of the media choosing the Lakers over the Celtics, in surprising fashion, believing that somehow the best defensive team in the league was softer than LA because it took them forever to mesh in the playoffs (as well as some questionable coaching by Rivers, but hey, he's a nice guy, so we'll let that go for now). The championship was just that much sweeter because of those words.

The Celtics, having won 78 games this season prior to the start of the Finals, didn't need any extra motivation to win, though Garnett's threats that he would rip every one's heads off if they watched LA celebrate a title was probably motivation enough. Despite that, they got all the motivation they needed from the media. They also got it knowing Red died witnessing the worst team the Celtics ever put on the floor. They got it seeing Belichick, Cousy, Havlicek, Russell, and other Boston celebrities hungry for a championship. And they probably got it from Pierce; this was the very definition of the grizzled veteran without a title, struggling through tough times (stabbings, bad moves by the GM, a few coaching changes, a couple of disappointing playoff runs), doing everything possible through two ownership groups, the patriarch of the franchise dying, less than 5,000 people in the seats at certain points - to think that even in a me-first league like the NBA, that the other guys on the team weren't 100% happy last night to allow Pierce to get his and hoist that MVP trophy along with the championship trophy would be ludicrous.

Great win, great series, great team. Credit Ainge for finally pulling the trigger at the right time after an embarrassing lottery disappointment - looks like ultimately, the ping-pong balls did fall the Celtics way for the first time in a long time.

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