Monday, June 23, 2008

A New Dynasty: Celtics Win Title #17

For the past few years, I'd all but given up on actively watching the NBA. During the very early years of my youth my hometown team, the Celtics, were a dominant force. With the man Bostonians call Basketball Jesus a.k.a. Larry Bird guiding them, the green & white took three league titles and finished runner-up twice.

I was born into and bred on winning Celtics basketball. I was spoiled. It was the only way I appreciated pro basketball. And I wasn't unlike other Boston fans. We fully expected a winner.

Losers need not apply.

Then, that all came to a crashing halt. Len Bias' death sent the organization into a frightful stretch of mismanagement. That was followed a few short years later by the sudden death of Reggie Lewis. I remember watching Lewis through middle school and into high school. He went to my father's alma mater Northeastern University, so we loved him in our house.

He died of a heart defect during practice in Waltham, Massachusetts...the same town my grandparents lived in. Close to home. Reggie was the one thing the Celtics had going for them in the early '90s, then he was gone.

Following Reggie's passing, the Celtics tanked. And I mean tanked. They wouldn't make another legitimate run at the title until reaching the Eastern Conference Semifinals in '01-'02. And even that seemed to be an aberration. 'The Truth' Paul Pierce had a phenomenal year, willing Boston as he went. Antoine Walker played second fiddle and hated every second of it. I have no idea how that team made it through two rounds with that roster. As a fan, I can remember thinking, "This team can't get there...after all the greats we've seen, this team can't sustain championship-level success." And they didn't.

Around that time, my life was picking up. Off to graduate school and then the television business. While my days and years flew by, there were the Celtics. Perpetually underachieving losers. When they actually made national television appearances it was embarrassing to watch. And at no time was that more true than the 2006-2007 season. An 18-game losing streak and a total of 24 wins. The team was in the gutter. But attendance in Boston was still high. From the previous season, the number of tickets sold only dropped by 47 per game. Remarkable considering the team's utter destruction.

Fans wondered if it could get worse. No one wanted to see another version of the 15-win '96-'97 Celtics team. The thought was altogether frightening. It was time for the team's management to draw a line in the sand.

And they did.

On June 29th of '07, the Celtics traded for Ray Allen. And they traded a lot. Hoops fans in New England thought, "That will help Pierce, but it's not enough."

Then Kevin McHale handed Boston a ticket to the NBA Finals. The Big Ticket. Kevin Garnett, in the definition of a blockbuster deal, was headed East and out of Minnesota mediocrity. The moment he became a Celtic, all of the NBA shuddered.

The greatest franchise in the history of professional basketball was back.

Five months ago I declared that there was no reason for debate. Without a doubt, Boston would win it's 17th NBA title. At the time, I promised that stating the obvious would allow me to avoid further commentary on the matter. However, my ego wouldn't allow it to stay checked and I returned to the topic in early April. I implored Boston city officials to do advance work on the ticker tape was a lock. But somewhere along the line, the 'experts' in the pro hoops media circuit forgot what a winning team looked like.

Check out the Worldwide Leader's pre-Finals prediction board. 10 experts voted. 1 chose the Celtics over the Lakers. It's true that Boston hardly showed up versus Atlanta in the first round and barely ducked the Cleveland LeBrons in the second. However, the Cs truly owned Detroit in the Conference Semifinals and were running full steam into the championship series.

66 regular season wins.

Three Hall of Famers in the starting lineup.

The frenzied, raucous home crowd that saw the Celtics lose only ONE home playoff game.

How did anyone pick against them? And, worse of all (or perhaps best of all) the experts sided with the Los Angeles Kobes. A ragtag bunch who knocked off a game Jazz team in the second round before cruising past a dilapidating Spurs squad in the Western Semis. Lamar Odom was unproven; Pau Gasol needed to be buoyed by teammates just to be a factor. But there were the Lakers as clear-cut favorites everywhere.

Everywhere except for Celtics Nation.

Six memorable and truly amazing games later, Boston wins another world championship. And they did it on guts & heart, two things the Lakers could not measure and certainly did not have the fortitude to match. 'The Comeback Game' in LA said it all. Down 24 in Cali, Boston rallies to win Game 4. After that it was only a matter of time. And to make it all the sweeter, the Celtics finally won the trophy in front of their faithful.

It was truly perfect. The hated/loathed/despised/evil Lakers in the "New Garden" with a chance to seal a title. Really, it wasn't even fair. Celtics 131 - Lakers 92.

Watching Boston obliterate LA, tearing Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant asunder at will, was as magical as sports moments can be. The right team won. No 'me' guys on the floor for Boston; no Kobe-esque prima donnas that went to ESPN reporters publicly demanding a trade last year; just a bunch of guys that wanted to win above all else.

Good triumphing over evil.

Troops finding Saddam in an underground shack. The Berlin Wall coming down. The Rebel Alliance toppling The Empire. Frodo climbing Mount Doom. Neo besting The Matrix.

Celtics beating the Lakers.

Good guys are supposed to win. Aren't they? Maybe it doesn't happen as often as it should anymore. But that's all the more reason to celebrate when it does happen.

And it happened a week ago. Kevin Garnett, the over-the-top emotional driving force... Ray Allen, the calculating assassin who survived the worst slump of his career to save the season... And Pierce, the long-suffering Captain. Paul Pierce, who year-after-year tossed his frame recklessly across the court for a franchise seemingly unable and unwilling to help make him a winner.

Finally, they are all champions.

And we can all share in it.

This is the new Celtics dynasty. The second coming of the 'Big Three' has arrived. It's official. And they don't want to talk about their expectations being met. They are already talking 'repeat.' Watch here as Pierce and Garnett giddily call themselves "Champ."

This Celtics team has returned the NBA title to Boston. Now they want to return Beantown to both consistent glory and established dominance. They have the opportunity to once again make NBA basketball relevant for the millions of fans that want to watch hard-fought, team basketball.

They won it all their first year together. Next season holds even more promise.

Celtics Nation: Embrace newcomers. There's no reason to be selfish. The sport of basketball needs this team to be in the headlines.

Still want to join the bandwagon? Hop aboard.

But the Lakers faithful can stay right where they are. They're not invited.

Remember, losers need not apply.