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|The raw emotion of Kevin Garnett summed up a perfect night for every Celtics fan.|
You know you attended a special game when you're trying to fall asleep that night and the following things are in place: Your palms are swollen and pink, almost like when someone allergic to shellfish accidentally touches a lobster. Your voice sounds more hoarse and scratchy than Lindsay Lohan after an all-night bender. Your body is caked in sweat, only you don't want to shower because it kinda feels like you played. You just lie there smiling and thinking about everything, and if you concentrate hard enough, you can still hear the crowd cheering and cheering. I climbed in my bed at 2:30 a.m. and didn't fall asleep until 4.
There are different ways to win a championship; all of them work, but ideally you'd like it to happen at home so the fans can share in the happiness, and you'd like a butt-whupping so everyone can spend a stress-free fourth quarter soaking it in, carrying on like maniacs, watching the boys celebrate on the bench and everything else. The Celtics clinched the 1986 title in Boston by effectively destroying the Sampson/Olajuwon-era Rockets. The game happened 22 years ago almost to the day, and I just remember standing and cheering for three hours and thinking Larry Bird was superhuman. Everyone thought we were headed for another dynasty that day -- we had the best player, one of the greatest teams ever, the No. 2 pick in the '86 draft ... I mean, life was good. Then Lenny Bias died from a cocaine overdose and sent the franchise into one of those Goose/Maverick tailspins. Bird and McHale got injured, Reggie died and within seven years, the Celtics weren't the Celtics anymore.
On the surface, Tuesday night was about reclaiming old territory, a little like Avon Barksdale getting released from prison and reclaiming the streets of Baltimore. But it went much deeper than that. This was a generational thing. For older fans weaned on the Russell era (like my father), this was about stumbling into another banner well after the point when they had started wondering to themselves, "Good god, I don't know if I'm ever going to see another championship team." For fans weaned on the Hondo/Cowens teams or the Bird/McHale teams (like me), this felt like climbing into Doc Brown's DeLorean, back to those springs in New England when the weather started getting nice, pollen collected on the streets and everyone started getting geared up for a two-month run of Bruins and Celtics playoff games. And for the under-30 fans, this was about breaking from the past and forming their own memories. Instead of hearing about the time Gerald Henderson stole the ball or Glenn McDonald saved the triple-OT game, they finally had their own stories to tell, like the time Pierce dropped 41 on the Cavs in Game 7, or the time we came back from 24 down to beat the Lakers.
Everything was a happy blur. Looking through my notebook Wednesday morning and trying to decipher the incoherent notes, fortunately, a few things from that happy blur stand out:
Note No. 1: "6/17"
If you're a numerology buff, then you'll enjoy this one: Game 6 was played on June 17 -- in other words, "6" (the number for June, as well as the number of games in the Finals) and "17" (the number of Boston championships if you include one for 2008). Two of the four greatest Celtics of all-time -- Bill Russell and John Havlicek -- wore "6" and "17," respectively. And if you add 6+1+7, you'd get "14," the number worn by Bob Cousy, another one of the four greatest Celtics ever. (If you want to really stretch it, 3 + 3 = 6, and "33" was worn by Larry Bird, the fourth in the "greatest Celtics ever" group.) If that's not enough, the area code for Boston is "617." And on a somber note, the 1986 draft happened June 17 -- really, the last day the Celtics felt like they were invincible. I don't know what all of this means, but it means something, right?
Note No. 2: "KG Head-Butt"
After a brutal Game 5, Kevin Garnett admitted afterward he "played like garbage." This made me happy. We needed him to show up for Game 6, and as I wrote Tuesday, it sure seemed like he was either (A) shrinking from the moment or (B) totally worn down from keeping his engine in fifth gear for the duration of a grueling 107-game season. Before the opening tip, Garnett stood in front of the basket near Boston's bench, muttered a few things to psyche himself up and finally head-butted the basket support as hard as he could. Watching from about 50 feet away, my dad and I raced to make the "Uh-oh, I think we're getting the KG from the regular season tonight" comment.
|Kobe and Co. looked like they wanted to catch a flight home at halftime.|
Let the record show KG played one of his greatest games to help clinch a championship. It's something Elvin Hayes can't say, or Karl Malone, or Patrick Ewing, or Chris Webber, or anyone else from the not-so-clutch group that Garnett escaped. Much like John Elway after the '97 Super Bowl, any lingering questions about Garnett's ability to raise his game in big moments vanished into thin air for good Tuesday night. They will never be asked again. It's funny how a championship can do that.
Note No. 3: "Posey 3, 43-29, BEDLAM"
Here's where things started looking good -- midway through the second quarter, after the Celtics survived a hot start from Kobe and some curious officiating -- when the Celtics pulled away with some stifling defense and a few timely 3-pointers and finally rewarded a crowd that was ready to burst for a solid hour. You could actually see the Lakers wilting. I'm not kidding. They looked like they wanted to hop on the plane right then and there. More importantly, this was when the fans pushed themselves to another level -- I know this sounds crazy, but, of all the sports, only in basketball can a crowd reach a point when everyone collectively decides, "There's no way we're losing tonight." You don't know when it's going to happen, you can't make it happen, but when it does happen ... you know.
43-29. Bedlam. That's when we knew.
Note No. 4: "84-53, 21 asts, 5 TO, 13 stls, 34-17 reb adv."
Here's when the night became a little surreal, with the Celtics leading by 31 in the third quarter and dominating the game statistically to the degree that I actually felt obligated to write those numbers down. The guy who keyed everything after halftime was Rajon Rondo, who played out of his mind and made the Lakers pay for the "let's cover everyone else and make Rondo beat us" strategy. If you applied my Table Test to Rondo's second season, you'd say he brought a ton of forks and plates to the table, and he definitely took off a bunch of knives and spoons. In other words, maybe he didn't give you everything you needed, but you could still eat dinner with him. If Rondo played well in the same game when Allen and/or Pierce were scoring and Garnett was controlling everything else, the 2008 Celtics were unbeatable at home. Repeat: Unbeatable. Just like Tuesday night.
|No one in green and white deserved this title more than Paul Pierce.|
Quick tangent: We're basically rooting for laundry in sports. Of the 10 best guys on this particular Boston team, seven of them weren't Celtics during last season's despicable tank job, and two of them weren't Celtics as recently as January. As much as I like the new guys and everything they brought to the team, I still feel like I'm getting to know them. Posey, House and Brown were hired guns. Garnett belongs to Minnesota. Allen belongs to Milwaukee and Seattle. Powe, Rondo and Big Baby just got here. This season was like having a great fantasy team -- the guys were thrown together and made some magic happen, but, still, they were thrown together.
But Pierce ...
I mean ...
We watched that guy grow up. We watched him become a man. We believed in him, we gave up on him, and we believed in him again. I don't mean to sound like the old man in "Pretty Woman," but part of me wanted to walk onto the court Tuesday night and just tell Pierce, "It's hard for me to say this without sounding condescending, but I'm proud of you." The guy gave us everything he had, altered his NBA tombstone, earned a place in the rafters and brought us a 17th title -- just like he promised, by the way -- and his sterling play in Games 4 and 5 ranks among the all-time greatest Celtic performances. We spend so much time complaining about sports and being disappointed that our favorite players never end up being who we wanted them to be, but in Pierce's case, he became everything we wanted him to be. When he held up the Finals MVP trophy after the game and screamed to the crowd in delight, I don't think I've ever been happier for a Boston athlete. How many guys stick with a crummy franchise for 10 solid years, then get a chance to lead that same team to a championship? Does that EVER happen in sports anymore?
Note: No. 6: "You feel safe?"
My dad asked me that one when we were leading, 89-60. My answer? No. The memory of the Game 2 meltdown still lingered. And, of course, the Lakers still had No. 24.
But as Bryant kept throwing up bricks and looking like Mike Tyson in Japan -- remember when Buster Douglas kept clubbing Tyson in the head, and after the initial shock wore off, we came to the gradual realization that Tyson wasn't as dominant as we believed? -- I started to feel safer and safer, and everything crested with those two Ray Allen 3s that practically caused the roof to cave in. Leading to ...
|Without the sudden resurrection of Ray Allen, Boston would not have won this series.|
I glanced over to the Celtics' bench and noticed P.J. Brown just sitting there grinning; he looked like a proud parent watching a son or daughter giving an Oscars speech. He couldn't have been happier to be there. It wasn't possible. Standing next to him, Pierce faced the crowd behind the Celtics' bench, watching everyone dance to the Jumbotron music as he nodded happily. You could see him soaking in the moment. He wasn't even doing it for the cameras; it was one of those times when you could study someone from a distance and read every single thing they were thinking. He was thinking about the past 10 years, and all the bad things that happened, and all the times he gave up hope, and now he was reminding himself to enjoy the moment. You could see it. All of it.
Note No. 8: "Gino!!!!!!!!!"
They finally showed him with a little less than three minutes remaining. Once upon a time, we had Red Auerbach's cigar. Now, we have a long-armed dancer with a creepy beard working his magic on an "American Bandstand" episode from 30 years ago. As soon as the music started, the crowd erupted and Pierce quickly hopped onto a chair to dance along. This wouldn't have happened 22 years ago; back then, the players exchanged sweaty high-fives and hugs, the stadium played organ music, Red's cigar smoke drifted toward the rafters and the fans prepared to charge the court and eventually spend the rest of the night getting drunk at one of the 50 bars surrounding the Garden. Now? We stay in our seats cheering and clapping, we can't celebrate after the game because nearly every bar was closed down for safety reasons, and we celebrate victories by dancing along with dead background dancers from long-defunct disco shows. Things are different now. S--- happens.
But you know what? I still loved every second of it. I feel guilty about condoning anything about the Jumbotron era, but in this case, I gotta say ... it worked. Fifty years from now, everyone able to remember Game 6 of the 2008 Finals will remember Pierce and Gino dancing together. And that's just the way it is.
Note No. 9: "Deee-fense! Deee-fense!"
This chant happened after the game, when they were interviewing Doc Rivers on the podium after the celebration. (Important note: I was wrong about Terry Francona in 2004, and I was wrong about Doc in 2008. That's not earth-shattering news because I'm wrong many times. But this time, I was really, REALLY wrong. The guys gave him everything they had in the Finals. This had to be mentioned.) Doc mentioned that defense as the biggest reason for the victory, and out of nowhere, the fans started a "Deee-fense!" chant and drowned him out for the rest of the interview. It was the perfect way to end the season. Everything started with the defense this season, from Garnett's trade to Tom Thibodeau's hiring to Posey and Brown's signings to Pierce's emergence over these last few months as a truly great defensive player. Time and time again, the defense saved this season. If there's a lesson with the 2008 Celtics, it's one we already knew: Defense wins championships.
For the past 15 years, he shelled out a substantial amount of money for one dreadful memory after another (with the exception of an improbable playoff run in 2002). What made him keep sending those checks with no daylight in sight? He hoped for another game like the famous Bird-Dominique duel in 1988, when Larry had come through enough times that you could actually feel it coming before it happened. After that masterpiece of a sporting event -- really, it was a life experience -- we were too wired to head right home, so we found an ice cream shop called Bailey's in Wellesley and ordered a couple hot fudge sundaes. I don't think we said anything for 20 solid minutes. We just kept eating ice cream and shaking our heads. What could you say? Can you put something like that into words? We were speechless. We were drained. We were lucky.
So maybe you can't walk away from the potential of more Bailey's moments, even if the NBA stacks heavy odds against such bliss happening for more than three or four franchises at the same time. After Reggie's death in the summer of '93, the Celtics stopped being lucky and they definitely stopped being smart. That didn't stop my father from steadfastly renewing those tickets every summer with his fingers crossed, hoping things would somehow revert to the way they were. Then the Allen trade happened, and McHale delivered KG on a silver platter, and Posey and House came aboard and, suddenly, we were alive again. Although the 17th title meant something different to everybody, for the lifers like my father and every other fan who kept their tickets as prices kept rising and the team kept stumbling, Tuesday night resonated with them on a whole other level. Had they given up, had they packed it in, had they watched Game 6 happen on television and spent the whole time thinking, "I could have been there" ... now THAT would have been cruel. Instead, they were inside the building and feeling part of everything that was happening, mainly because they were.
Anyway, my father deserved the title as much as anyone. I was somewhere between 100 and 500 times happier for him than I was for anyone else. We parted ways after the game, shared a hug and successfully avoided getting choked up, although, in retrospect, that wouldn't have been a bad thing. I headed down to The Greatest Bar to commemorate the victory with a packed house of deliriously happy Celtics fans, threw down a few celebratory beers, turned down about 25 offers to do shots and had a series of "Can you believe this?" conversations with basically everyone in the bar. Nobody really knew what to say. We all agreed that, as great as the night was, that it happened at the expense of the Lakers really pushed everything over the top. Boston fans hate the Yankees, we hate the Canadiens and we hate the Lakers. It's in our DNA. It just is. Blowing the Lakers out of the building in Game 6 was the proverbial cherry on our hot fudge sundae. If it were the Jazz or the Spurs, it just wouldn't have been the same.
At one point, someone asked me, "How are you gonna write about ... THAT? I mean, how do you write about what just happened?"
I didn't know, and I didn't care. The Celtics were the champs. The Lakers had been vanquished. The city of Boston was hopping. Everything was right with the world again.
And that's when I decided to do a shot.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.