Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Updated: May 30, 9:54 AM ET
Welcome to the next decade of discontent
By Bill Simmons
In "Crimes and Misdemeanors," Alan Alda's character defines comedy as equaling "tragedy plus time." So eventually, I'll find the following story funny. Just not right now. But here's the story
Tuesday afternoon, my father and I were watching ESPN's "2007 NBA Draft Lottery" special. The show started at 1:30 p.m. and ran for 90 minutes, causing Dad to sarcastically wonder, "Is anyone else watching this show right now?" even though he ended up watching the whole thing. He didn't seem to grasp the irony. Midway through the show, ESPN ran a feature on Chinese prospect Yi Jianlian, a 7-foot forward who moves reasonably well for a big man. Desperate for Yi tape that didn't have the grainy quality of the Zapruder film, ESPN showed footage from a recent workout in which Yi completed a series of drills against a trainer who couldn't have been taller than 5-foot-9. At one point, Yi posted up the tiny trainer, then whirled around, zoomed by the poor guy and dunked with his left hand.
"Whoa, he went right by that guy," Dad joked.
This made us giggle. After that, every time Yi made a jumper or beat an imaginary defender off the dribble, we reacted like it was the Slam Dunk Contest.
After three minutes of workout highlights, Dad decided Yi reminded him of Brad Lohaus. It wasn't a compliment. Then, Chad Ford appeared via satellite and confessed that he was completely sold on Yi, maintaining that Yi's personality was different than overwhelmed foreign players from years past, even adding, "He lives in L.A. and attends premieres and parties, he's already living the life of an NBA star." Let's just say that we weren't too swayed. That was followed by the obligatory Nikoloz Tskitishvili reference -- after all, he's the worst-case scenario for any foreign pick, right? -- and some old-school Tskitishvili highlights while Chad talked. Finally, they threw it back to the studio where ESPN's experts, including former Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe, who drafted Tschkivili over Amare Stoudemire four years ago (a decision that earned him a spot on this particular show), broke down Yi's game.
It was a startling sequence. Ever decide before a Vegas trip that you're bringing a certain amount of cash (let's say $750) and maxing out your daily ATM limit ($500) no more than twice? It's called a "preemptive worst-case scenario." In other words, you determine beforehand that you're allowing yourself to lose only $1,750 and not a nickel more. For the rest of the weekend, that number hangs over everything. You've given yourself a salary cap for failure. Well, by the time they reached commercial, Dad and I had determined our preemptive worst-case scenario for the 2007 lottery: The Celtics dropping to No. 5, followed by Danny Ainge talking himself into Yi Jianlian.
Fast-forward to 10:30 Tuesday night: I'm sitting at the Four's with my buddies JackO and J-Bug. We had just arrived from Sully's Tap next door, which lived up to its reputation as the single most depressing bar in Boston. In fact, that's why we went there, because I asked Bug right after the lottery, "Take me to the most depressing bar in Boston" and he quickly responded, "Sullivan's Tap!" That's not a diss on Sully's -- we love that place, it's everything a dive bar should be. But you'd never go there for the atmosphere. After watching the Celtics logo get pulled out of the No. 5 envelope, Sully's Tap felt like the perfect destination for a rebound beer.
In retrospect, any Boston bar would have worked because all of them were morbidly depressing. For all intent and purpose, professional basketball had just been murdered in the city of Boston. Ever since Larry Legend's retirement, the Celtics had suffered one blow after another -- Reggie Lewis, Dave Gavitt, the Garden, M.L., Duncan, Pitino -- and just when things were finally turning around, our overmatched front office turned four first-rounders into two veteran bench players (one who played for the team for four months), then compounded the mistake by trading for a recovering alcoholic making max money. Ainge took over and blew up everything, fired the coach who took us to the 2002 Eastern Conference finals and embarked on a series of individually semi-defensible moves that had no correlation to one another. Within four years, we had the league's youngest roster, fans were openly rooting for losses (for lottery purposes) and the team was shamefully tanking down the stretch. Looking back, it was pathetic. We disgraced the game of basketball for a 38.7 percent chance at Oden or Durant. Not even 2-in-5 odds.
Things had fallen so far that those odds assumed a level of hope that exceeded the actual odds. Maybe because of the recent success of the Red Sox and Patriots, that perpetual optimism bled over. We had Pierce, we had Jefferson, we had a 38.7 percent chance at a franchise player. We were still alive, dammit! The Celtics were still alive!
Well, until 8:53 p.m. rolled around last night.
You can't even fathom the pain. Everyone believes Celtics fans get a free pass with this stuff because we won 16 titles in 30 years. Actually, it's the opposite. Long-suffering fans of perennial losers don't know what they're missing. After all, how would they know? You can't miss steak if you've never eaten steak, right? But if you're fortunate enough to follow a perennially successful franchise, then that same franchise starts decomposing right in front of you ... what then? The Celtics used to mean something; now they don't. Anyone who remembers the good old days -- when the Garden was rocking, when we were always in the hunt, when you honestly believed that we'd win every close game because someone was looking out for us, when everyone else feared us -- can't come to grips with what's happened. We're like one of those child actors who peaked at 15, made a ton of money, had everyone kissing their ass for a few years and then everything went to crap.
Well, you know what happens to famous child actors who become irrelevant? They go crazy. They go off the deep end. They chain-smoke, they do drugs, they get arrested, they look like hell, they disgrace themselves on "The Surreal Life" or "Celebrity Fit Club" because they're so desperate to be famous again. And these things happen because they're still trapped in the past and waking up every day wondering, "What the hell happened? I used to be living the high life!" Basically, every Celtics fan older than the age of 25 has turned into Macaulay Culkin. And the ones younger than 25 can't even remember what they're supposed to be missing.
So when the Celtics got crushed last night, you could feel it everywhere you went. You could feel the pain. You could. Even a normally gregarious sports bar called The Four's felt like it had been rented out for an Irish wake. When JackO, the Bug and I grabbed three seats at the bar, I was still in complete shock. I looked like Brady Quinn after Ted Ginn Jr. went No. 9 in the draft, crossed with Tim Duncan after Derek Fisher made the miracle shot in the 2004 playoffs, crossed with Andy Van Slyke after the Francisco Cabrera single, crossed with Mark Cuban during Game 6 of the Warriors-Mavs series. I couldn't get past what happened -- how everything was going so well, how all the envelopes were coming up in order, and then that improbable moment when the Bucks popped up at No. 6, followed by the traumatic realization that
A. Three teams had jumped Milwaukee into the top three.
B. The Celtics were in the next envelope.
C. Four straight months of rooting against my own team had gone for naught.
I couldn't get past seeing that Bucks logo, or the unexpected crotch punch of Brandon Roy (who could have been ours last summer if we swapped picks with Minnesota over making the moronic Telfair trade) cheerfully accepting the No. 1 pick on Portland's behalf, or even my 59-year-old father slumped against the side of the sofa like a gunshot victim. It was too cruel, all of it, the whole thing. I wasn't handling it well. For the past hour, my friends were trying to cheer me up by kidding that we could still get the Chinese guy at No. 5. It became a running joke of sorts. I even cracked a half-smile at one point.
Which brings us to the aforementioned Alan Alda moment
Patrick the Bartender (one of the greats) stopped by for some Ping-Pong ball commiseration and offered the obligatory "Christ, what do we do now?" question. It lingered in the air like a stale fart. None of us knew what to say. Finally, the Bug lightened the mood by responding, "Whaddya think about rolling the dice with the Chinese guy at 5?"
And Patrick the Bartender responded in all seriousness, "If he's still there."
If he's still there.
In the span of two hours, I'd gone from dreaming about Greg Oden or Kevin Durant saving the Celtics to Patrick the Bartender earnestly wondering whether the Chinese Brad Lohaus would be available at No. 5. If he's still there. Eventually, those four words will be funny. Just not right now. Comedy equals tragedy plus time.
The thing that really kills me? I thought we were going to win. I really did. I was feeling it.
Yesterday in downtown Boston, the sun was shining and the sky seemed especially blue. Dad and I walked through the park in Boston Common on our way to lunch and I remember saying, "What a nice day, something good is going to happen." It felt like having a baby all over again -- I just wanted to get it over with, and whatever happened, I knew my life would never be the same. This was different than a Super Bowl or a deciding World Series game because the next 15 years of the franchise hung in the balance; as strange as this sounds, the stakes were higher. So I found myself looking for signs all day. For instance, when our bill for lunch came, I left a $17 tip, then realized after the fact, "Hey, 17, that's a good sign, we're going for our 17th title!" I'm not saying this was rational. Just trying to explain my mood at the time.
We headed back to Dad's house, watched the lottery show and decided on a pay-per-view movie to kill two hours (and some nervous energy). We were leaning toward "The Good Shepherd" until we realized it was 168 minutes. Dad didn't want to see "Bobby." Both of us agreed that "Children of Men" was too depressing. No, we needed an action movie. We needed to see things blow up. I pushed hard for "Déjà Vu" because you can always count on Denzel, even in the worst possible movie. He's like KG that way. Dad agreed. We bought the movie.
It took us a solid hour to realize our mistake: Not that we rented a bad movie, but that we rented a movie named "Déjà Vu" 10 years after the Duncan lottery. I don't know if this was the dumbest suggestion I've ever made in my life, but it's definitely in the top five. I inadvertently filmed my own Bad Idea Jeans commercial. After playing the karma card perfectly all week, I self-destructed at the worst possible time.
A few hours later, we were renting "Déjà Vu" all over again ... only this time, it was for the next 10-12 years. See, out of any professional league, luck matters most in the NBA. You need to get lucky with Ping-Pong balls. You need to get lucky with draft picks. You need to get lucky with your GM and your coach. You need to make lucky trades that work out. The Spurs were lucky when they landed Duncan. The Bulls were lucky when the Blazers took Bowie. The Lakers were lucky that Shaq wanted out of Orlando and Kareem wanted out of Milwaukee. Miami was lucky that Wade fell to 5. Washington was lucky that they saved cap space for a summer in which Arenas became a free agent. Phoenix was lucky that Dallas cut ties with Nash. Luck, luck, luck. You can make your own luck to some degree, but still, you need to be lucky.
Ever since the summer of '86, for nearly 21 years and counting, the Celtics have been wildly, comically, irrationally unlucky. That's an exceptionally long time. Maybe we didn't fully realize the ramifications of losing a potential franchise player in '97, but we certainly realize them now. We're back to Square 1. We're sentenced to another decade of quick-fix plans, risky trades and dumb free agent signings. We're looking at another decade of excuses, spin control and hyperbole. We're headed for another decade in which the Sox and Pats are Michael, and Sonny and the Celtics are Fredo. It's basketball déjà vu.
Maybe they can snap out of it. Maybe. Still, I can't shake the image of my 59-year-old father slumped against the sofa as Brandon Roy was happily shaking hands with everyone in Secaucus. The last time we won an NBA title, my dad was one year older than I am right now. Time flies when you're a sports fan. Last night, Dad looked as wistful as Karl Malone during the 2004 Finals when the Lakers were falling apart. See, you only have so many chances in life. The older you get, the more you appreciate those chances.
"Hey, at least we have the Sox and Pats," I told him.
Dad nodded glumly. We waited for him to say something profound. We waited for him to put the night in perspective. After all, that's what older people do. They inject wisdom at the perfect time, right?
"That sucked," he finally mumbled. "That really, really sucked."
And then some.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.