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Generational Grief and Gratitude

The Celtics will never be as good as they were these past 5 years. We will never see basketball played this way again. – Mike Kiritsy, three hours after Game 7 (June 9, 2012).

Is this the way it felt just over two decades ago? A tug-of-war of emotions generated by the heart and the mind: the former telling you to drop your head and look away as your eyes begin to water; the latter urging you to look on with a sense of appreciation and clap your hands in gratitude. Was this same inner conflict between the body and the soul evoked when the Legend through his already broken frame to the floor for yet another time in a last attempt to triumph? When the original “Big Three” walked off the court in defeat after so many years of success? When you began to realize that you may never see the same level of camaraderie and skill on one team ever again?

Nearly a generation later this was the feeling harbored deep within every Boston Celtics fan as the “New Big Three” perhaps played their last game together against the Miami Heat. The thought of this moment – the Paul Pierce, KG, Ray Allen era coming to an end – had been in the back of our minds since the beginning of the season, yet we were able to keep it there subdued for a while as our team turned things around in the second half of the season and then embarked on an improbable playoff run. However, it began to manifest itself towards the end of Game 6 in Boston, when the remaining fans at the TD Garden began a “Let’s Go, Celtics!” chant for the final minutes of a blowout victory for the Heat. That thought returned when the hobbled Celtics began front-rimming shot after shot in a highly contested Game 7 in Miami while their younger counterparts grabbed control of the game, the series, and their fate.

And then finally we were seized by that feeling. We were left speechless, motionless, stunned. Kevin Garnett walked off the court – not in shame, but knowing he had left everything on it – and embraced every member of his team, beginning with his coach, Doc Rivers. As his lanky body made its way down the bench, Doc stood there, teary-eyed, as perhaps those words KG whispered into his ear finally hit home. We do not know if it was a simple “Thank you,” an “I’ll be back next year,” or an “It was a hell of a run, Coach” (implying an end to an unprecedented career), but what we do know is the expression on Doc Rivers face mirrored that of all the Boston faithful – a collective and simultaneous sense of sadness and appreciation.

For the past five years, Celtics fans (and basketball fans, in general) have been blessed with the performance of this team. Centered around Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo (a core many now refer to as “The Big Four”), the Celtics have embraced an unselfish attitude that has generated tremendous success. A crafty scorer (Pierce), a recluse off the court – a maniac on it (KG), an OCD smooth shooter (Allen), and an enigmatic point guard (Rondo) all came together and united their unique skillsets to do one thing – win. That sense of interconnectedness emerged on day 1 of the New Big Three era, and has prevailed, despite a revolving door of role players, due to the leadership of these core members and their tremendous coach.

During its inaugural season, this team ended each huddle with the chant of the African phrase, Ubuntu, a subtle reminder of the relationship of the individual to the team and the sacrifice each had to make for the latter’s success. Individual statistics and honors were gladly forgotten, and in their place, crisp and efficient offense led by unselfish passing and a smothering defense hinged upon precise rotations and switches emerged. More importantly, team members began playing for each other, for their fans, and for the city of Boston, who embraced this team whose sole aim was to restore glory to its home.

Sitting there watching these Celtics inch closer to their end, I often wondered why I cared so much. At the end of the day aren’t they only throwing a rubber ball through an orange cylinder…a seemingly insignificant action when perceived at this basic level? However, as the famous sportswriter and basketball enthusiast/historian, Bill Simmons, writes,

“Then I remembered something. Sports is a metaphor for life. Everything is black and white on the surface. You win, you lose, you laugh, you cry, you cheer, you boo, and most of all, you care. Lurking underneath that surface, that’s where all the good stuff is — the memories, the connections, the love, the fans, the layers that make sports what they are.” – Bill Simmons, The Consequences of Caring

I began to recall those significant moments over the past five years, memories that were formed as I watched these Celtics play alongside millions of other people, all exhibiting the same eagerness, anxiety, passion, and love for their team and the game.

KG comes to Boston: My brother and I were sitting in Logan Airport at the end of July 2007 waiting for our flight to Miami (ironically) when news broke that the Celtics had traded for Kevin Garnett. We turned toward each other, both with a “Holy s***” look on our faces. Not only would we now be able to watch one of our favorite players every night, but we also knew that this meant we were going to win. And it had been a long time since Boston had truly won. The city’s basketball team had not won a championship in 22 years, and although the Celtics dabbled in a façade of success at the beginning of the millennium, we had not witnessed true success during our lives as Celtics fans (which had officially begun with Michael Jordan’s retirement in 1998 and Paul Pierce’s (the Truth’s) emergence in 1999.

Opening night of the 2007-2008 season: The New Big Three kicked off their reign against the Washington Wizards in early November. After returning home from basketball practice, I turned the TV on and anxiously waited for the tip. Apparently, KG was a little anxious for his first game as a Celtic too because his first patented 16-footer from the left elbow sailed long and smacked off the opposite side of the backboard. My heart skipped a few beats and I held my breath before being consoled by a Celtic drubbing of the Wizards and a monster 22-20 night by the Big Ticket. 65 more wins later and an unforgettable run through the postseason capped off by a shellacking of the hated Lakers in Boston, and my Celtics finally hoisted their championship trophy, the 17th in team history.

The knee injury: Walking home from the library on a cold February night, I flipped open my phone (yes, flipped, you read that correctly) and perused a text message from my brother: KG went up for an alley-oop and came down holding his knee. He left the game but we don’t know how bad it is. At 44-12 and primed to repeat, this did not seem to bother me the way it should have in hindsight. Nobody really knew the extent of the injury (Garnett had never really been injured in his career prior to that point), and Celtic nation kept waiting for his prompt comeback, even as the playoffs began. But KG never came back that season as we had all anticipated; instead, he was reduced to a mere spectator during the playoffs, as he watched his teammates try to defend the title from the bench. In reality, this injury was not going to heal overnight. In fact, it didn’t heal completely for about two seasons (if ever, only KG really knows that), which compromised at least two chances to add to our championship total. After reaching the pinnacle only months earlier, this began the decent into the abyss of fandom, as I watched my favorite player hobble around the next few seasons and try to lead his team to another championship with a swagger that was now slowed by the hand of time.

Game 7, 2010 Finals: And this was the bottom. I was in Tanzania at the time for a six-week study abroad program, and due to the time difference, I woke up as each Finals game ended. I had read about everything…Ray Allen’s record setting three-point shooting night (Game 2), the efforts of “Shrek and Donkey” (Game 4), our complete collapse after the Perkins injury (Game 6). But for Game 7 we were travelling to Zanzibar for the weekend. As nice as this sounds on the surface, it was heart-wrenching as a Celtics fan since it meant even more limited access to the Internet (vodafones aren’t exactly smartphones, in case you were wondering). The game had already finished and that year’s NBA champion had already been etched in stone, yet there was no way for me to find out if my team had prevailed. That morning we visited a school which was being built by a group of Irish architects who had volunteered two weeks of their lives to help out this community. When the one donning a Boston shirt found out that I was from Massachusetts, the conversation went as follows:

Him: Tough loss for us, buddy.
Me: How bad was it? (The depression already setting in although I maintained a faint sense of hope that perhaps – somehow – he mistook me for a Lakers fan)
Him: Lakers squeaked it out by 4. We had a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter. Worst part is Kobe was pitiful, making only 6 of 24 shots. We just couldn’t score on offense and couldn’t grab a rebound on defense.
Me: (Silence)

That afternoon, as the rest of the group went to the beaches of Zanzibar, I told my director I felt sick and retreated to my hotel room, laid down, and buried my head in pillows, pondering what could have been. (As a New England native herself, my director knew all too well of my “malaise” that day).

The re-emergence of Kevin Garnett: Whether it was his move to center, people calling him old, or him knowing he would retire at the end of the season and mustering everything he had left in the tank, KG returned to form during the middle of this season. Watching my favorite Celtic put the rest of the depleted team on his back for a ride to the Eastern Conference Finals, draining 18-foot jumpers with ease, working the “Dream Shake” in the post, and even throwing down a few alley-oops from Rondo while blocking shots and playing his typical ferocious defense, my spirits were swung upwards after a miserable start to the season (one which followed a quick exit from the playoffs the year before). KG showed everyone what it means to be a leader, providing the spark for one last postseason run.

The curtain finally closes on these Celtics (Game 7 vs. Miami): An exhausted Celtics team just did not have enough energy left to maintain its remarkable run through the playoffs and finish off the Heat. My brother and I watched the game together, noticing how the game eerily mirrored that painful Game 7 in LA two years ago (the one I have read about but will never actually watch). However, the feeling at the end of this one was much different: we didn’t sit there wondering “what if?” (i.e., what if Perkins had been healthy); instead, we were at peace with a team that gave a city its best effort and were defeated by the league’s best player (LeBron James).

These past five years have provided innumerable memories for me. The resemblances between the five year stretch of this team and the final six years of the previous generation’s are uncanny. In 1986, the Celtics won the last NBA championship with what many would argue was the best team of the decade (if not ever) before the New Big Three began their run by raising another banner as perhaps the best team of their respective decade. The following year, the original Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish lost to the Lakers in the finals while fighting several injuries (eerily similar to the 2010 result). From then on, those Celtics teams could not overcome the Detroit Pistons, a gritty and talented Eastern Conference rival much like these recent Celtics succumbed to the newly formed Miami Heat. However, both went out on their own terms, with Larry Bird leading the Celtics to a first round comeback victory in 1991 against the Indiana Pacers (returning to Game 5 after suffering a concussion) before falling to the Pistons again; while this past year’s Celtics battled to within one win from the Finals but were not able to overcome the talent of the younger Heat. During their respective eras, both teams retained their signature team play even as injuries and age tried to break it up.

As the league continues to name new “Big Threes” in an endless attempt to replicate the Celtics’ success, it seems ironic that in their final and perhaps most cherished year they undoubtedly outplayed this overused moniker. Ravaged by injuries and the wear-and-tear of a brutal, truncated schedule that the entire league had to deal with, the success these Celtics attained despite teetering on basketball extinction demonstrated that heart often prevails over talent and age. The ever present egotism that dominates the present-day NBA had been shed by Allen, Garnett, and Pierce – they, like their predecessors, had become Celtics.

So if sports really are a metaphor for life, what can we take away from these teams and their respective runs? For one, teamwork and dedication are not only central to sports but to our general way of life. Ubuntu – or interconnectedness – runs through all aspects of life as we all have to realize the relationships we have with those around us and work together for us all to truly benefit. In addition, with every experience, there will be highs and lows. At one moment, we will feel the euphoria of the 2008 championship, at another, the misery of losing to your greatest rival after being only minutes from your own victory. In life, we have to deal with success and failure, happiness and sadness, enjoyment and frustration. Nothing is perfect, and we must accept the bad that comes along with the good. However, with the right mindset, dedication, work ethic, and passion, Anything is Possible.

As for the text message from my brother that began this diatribe, I hope he is wrong because these past five years changed my life, and I want the generations to come to have the opportunity to experience the same thing. If history does indeed repeat itself, we will be watching a talented Celtics team with “the Next Big Three” a generation from now, just in time for my kids to form great memories and learn a few life lessons, as they experience their own grief and gratitude.