Fans in every city grow up believing that they live in the “ultimate sports town”. Either that, or they simply don’t want to accept that there is a difference.
And I’ll fully admit that I was absolutely guilty of this adolescent naivety before spreading my wings a bit. I remember scoffing at the notion that Seattle wasn’t a sports town when I’d read critiques in the national media.
But after visiting Boston the summer before finishing university my eyes were opened right up.
Only baseball was in season at the time, so I went to see a game at Fenway Park. (Incidentally, I was able to scratch Yankee Stadium off my stadium bucket list on the same trip and was lucky enough to see David Cone pitch a perfect game.)
But Fenway blew my mind. You could literally smell the history clinging to the steel girders. And there was an air to the ambience that was unlike anything I’d experienced before at a professional sporting event. Bostonians loved their team like they loved their family. I was rife with jealousy at the strength of their bond. (After all, at this point in my life I was one of those nutters that would scream obscenities at my own team’s fans if they got up to leave a game before the clock read double zero or the final pitch had been thrown.)
I also took a tour of the Boston Garden (FleetCenter at the time, but ask around in Bean Town: it’ll always be the Boston, and not TD, Garden). The photos, trophies, banners, and accolades that lined the walls of the corridors sent shivers down my spine. And to step foot on the Garden’s famous parquet floor – simply awesome.
If you’re from Boston, you’re a Celtics fans. End of discussion. It’s part of your history, part of who you are.
We didn’t have that in Seattle. I finally understood how sportswriters could have the audacity to say that we weren’t a sports town.
Sure, every franchise has got a staple crowd of faithful followers that stick with their club through thick and thin. And every team that finds success will undoubtedly attract busloads of bandwagoners to jump on and enjoy the ride while the gettin’ is good.
But there is a difference.
In some parts of the country, sports are entertainment. The “game” is something to watch to take your mind off work and the other stressors of life, and the “stadium/arena” is just one in a long line of options for somewhere to go on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon.
But in other parts, like Boston, the local sports franchises are at the core of what defines the people of the city.
Pierce and Garnett return to the Garden.
Which is why the Nets visiting the Celtics this past weekend was such a big deal.
Last Sunday Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett returned home to the Boston Garden as members of the Nets for the first time since the blockbuster trade that sent them to Brooklyn for a bevy of draft picks.
And while the two superstars who brought the Celtics their first NBA title since 1986 certainly didn’t anticipate to be booed, they were greeted with far more fanfare and acknowledgment than would be expected for players of the opposing team.
In addition to multiple standing ovations by the home crowd for their former players, the Celtics had prepared two moving video tributes that brought tears to the eyes of the Garden throng.
Garnett said it was “unbelievable” and “over the top”, noting that it was a prime example of how the Celtics are a first-class organization that truly shows appreciation for its members.
The event was emotional for #5, who admitted he’ll always “bleed green” regardless of the fact that he spent far more seasons in Minnesota than the six he played with Boston, but Paul Pierce had a much more difficult time keeping the tears at bay.
After all, Pierce had spent all 15 years of his NBA career prior to this season playing his home games at the Boston Garden.
Once drafted #10 overall in the 1998 NBA Draft, Pierce’s time with the Celtics was often tumultuous. Early on his image was tainted with off-court mistakes that didn’t sit well with a fan faithful that expects the Celtics jersey to be worn with class.
Having matured, he blossomed into a 10-time All-Star, eventually cementing himself as the second highest scorer in Celtics history (24,021). Quite an accomplishment considering the number of Hall-of-Famers who once wore Boston green. On the defensive side of the ball he’s number one all-time in steals.
But by the 2006-7 season he was a miserable veteran on a 24 win team. At the time it was believed he might be trade bait as the Celtics franchise was in disarray.
However, instead of throwing in the towel and opting for rebuilding, Boston put together a package to acquire Kevin Garnett and the rest is history.
The arrival of Garnett elevated Pierce’s game and the two brought home a championship during their first season as teammates.
After Sunday’s game Pierce had this to say: “This was the toughest game I ever had to play. Tougher than any championship game, any Game 7, this game was just so hard to really just focus and concentrate on what was at hand.”
There’s a challenging disconnect between the business and non-business sides to sport.
While basketball-savvy Celtics fans surely understand that trading away their top veterans for young blood is just part of the rebuilding process, it’s still emotionally painful to watch your favorite players suit up for another team.
Of course, we’ve become far more accustomed to blockbuster trades, free agency, and star players being given the heave-ho because of salary restrictions.
It’s been two full decades since Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Oilers to the Kings (wrong sport, but Edmonton trading “The Great One” will always be in my mind the ultimate starting point for how professional sports clubs now view loyalty to their top players) and so no trade truly shocks us nowadays.
For me, it’s a double-edged sword.
You know what they say about the past, we always look back with rose-colored glasses.
There are certainly moments when I miss the good old days. When players stayed with teams for their entire career. Sure, you might see a guy play elsewhere for a season or two during his twilight years, but for the most part you could count on your superstars being part of your team for the duration of their prime.
When I was growing up you didn’t have to worry that if you bought a player’s jersey it might become obsolete in 12 months’ time.
But then again, the age of free agency and salary caps has brought in a whole new era of equality in not only the NBA, but professional sports in general. The powerhouses no longer stay on top for too long, and even the worst clubs can make quick turnarounds as the rebuilding process is far shorter than it used to be.
Overall I think that the new system is better for the league as a whole, but it’s still painful to see your once-favorite player hoist a trophy for another team, especially a hated rival.
We say it all the time: “It’s a business.” But we, as fans, have an emotive attachment to the game, and not a fiscal one. So while fans may be able to rationalize their sadness, they can’t simply make it go away.
It’s confusing. It really is.
And because of this confusion we often get mixed emotions and mixed reactions when players leave for different pastures.
So this brings up an interesting point.
During the 2007 off-season, Boston made more than one blockbuster trade. Along with acquiring Garnett, they also used their #5 lottery pick in the draft to pry 3-pt specialist Ray Allen away from the Seattle Supersonics.
Allen led the team in minutes per game and 3 point percentage, while averaging 17.4 points per game (Pierce 19.6, Garnett 18.8) during the regular season.
He was just as an important piece to the Celtics’ title run as Pierce or Garnett. So where was all the hoopla when he returned to Boston as a member of the Heat?
Was it missing because he left to go to a top competitor?
Was it missing because he said goodbye in free agency and not via trade?
Was it missing because he declined Boston’s two-year $12million deal and signed with Miami for less?
Was it missing because Allen told the media that the organization had disrespected him?
Was it missing because he left to play on a “Dream Team”, adding superstar talent to an already stacked roster at a bargain-barrel price in search of another ring?
Clearly it was a combination of all these things. But the thing is, it’s kind of bullshit that the Celtics didn’t feel Allen was due any respect simply because he made business decisions that they didn’t like.
When a team makes business decisions players and fans are expected to suck it up and be adults about it. I guess that since team owners write the checks they don’t have to play by the same rules.
Like I said, it’s confusing. It really is.