Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thinking on the Celtics

With the haze from the proverbial smoke cleared now that it has been almost 48 hours since the Celtics took number 17, I would now like to write on some lingering thoughts that I have about their season and just the entire experience of seeing them win a championship overall.

1) Let me be the 9,978th person to say that it was only fitting that Paul Pierce take the Finals MVP. My old roommate Jay wrote me and said that seeing Pierce up on the podium after the game thrusting the MVP trophy towards the sky and acknowledging the fans for sticking with him and the team while looking like the happiest and most satisfied person on the face of the earth was one of the top sporting highlights of his lifetime. I'd have to concur there. Personally, my favorite part was actually before that when David Stern was about to announce the winner and the whole crowd erupted in "TRRUUUUUUUUTHHHHH" chants. Awesome.

2) Just like it only seemed fitting for Manny to take home the World Series MVP trophy in 2004, it had to be that Pierce garnered the honor for the Celtics in 2008. There have been more celebrated athletes in Boston since the sports Renaissance started in 2001, but of all the people on all the teams now, nobody has been doing it better, longer than Paul Pierce and NOBODY has had to go through the "stuff" that he's been through.

When Pierce fell to the Celtics in the 1998 NBA Draft I remember being ecstatic. I remember thinking, "I thought this guy was supposed to go top 3, how the hell did he fall to us??!!". Since then I monitored his career like a hawk and relished his emergence in 2000-2001 and then his big time coming out in 2001-2002. The last time I was actually at the (new) Garden in 2005 when the team was in the middle of what would be a splendidly mediocre campaign I remember getting into a long discussion with a buddy of mine and we basically figured out that Paul Pierce was a no doubt Top 10 player in the NBA. Nobody believed us. Everybody thought we were crazy. Funny thing was - and this was before it even came to pass - that that season was actually Pierce's best. He averaged 27/7/5 and had that streak of 30 point games in January and February that got the whole league buzzing. I even got to sit courtside in DC for a game during this streak and see him hit a ridiculously difficult game winning shot with about five guys in his face. Pretty awesome stuff. Prior to this spring you could legitimately say that that January/February 2006 stretch was the high point of his career.

And then 2006-2007 happened, the team famously sucked, and Pierce only played in 47 games. This was last spring amazingly enough. I actually recall being at a party on Cinco de Mayo last year and talking to a few guys, telling them how badly I wanted Pierce to get traded in the offseason to a contender just so this spring people could see how good he really was as he made play after play for a championship caliber team. Furthermore, I wanted to READ and HEAR in the media, people talking about what a great player Paul Pierce was and what a tragedy it was that he withered away in Boston for the bulk of his early years. Little did I know that all of the above would happen this spring except that it would happen with the Celtics.

3) Paul Pierce and Manny Ramirez have been my two favorite athletes since they came to town in 1998 and 2001 respectively. The reason for this is really quite simple; I had followed them each prior to their arrival in town and when they each came on board there was legitimate shock. For Pierce it was the aforementioned, "how the hell did he fall to 10??!!" and for Manny it was, "holy crap, I can't believe the Sox are going to sign baseball's best hitter".

Long before Manny got into town I thought he was the best hitter in the American League and the idea of the Red Sox landing him (mind you this was at a time when NOBODY wanted to play in Boston and they had won a whopping 1 playoff series since 1986) was totally surreal. I was in college at the time and you would have thought the Red Sox won the World Series based on the reaction the Manny signing got. It really was that big of a deal.

Both Pierce and Manny have had some very, very famous ups and downs on their respective team's and have gotten ripped by both media and the public alike more than probably any other local athletes in recent history. Still, they hung around and kept doing their things. For Pierce it was carrying a bunch of wildly flawed basketball teams with the hopes of maybe getting a mid-level seed in the playoffs and maybe winning a first round series every year and for Manny it was going .300/35/120. It may seem strange now, but in Manny's first year in Boston, 2001 he was part of the most despicable team of my lifetime; a team where the steroids flowed like wine, almost every player of import logged some serious DL time, and the overall mood and feel could have best been described as toxic and horrible. In 2002, he played on the most frustrating Sox team of recent years; a team with an awful bullpen that could not win a close game to save their lives nor beat a decent team. And then 2003 happened, David Ortiz came on board and there is absolutely no need to finish the story because you all know how it ends. The thing is, Manny was there before all of that and Manny is the one guy who I can look at and play remember when and not just remember the good times. When I look at guys like David Ortiz and Tom Brady I can only think of the great times and the championships. This of course is not bad, but it's also not reality. When I look at Manny, I can see the good and the bad and also remember a time when things were not as blessed around these parts and I like that. It keeps me grounded but also makes me appreciate things more.

(Seriously, with Brady and Ortiz Boston has the marquis quarterback and marquis power and clutch hitter of this era. Those are arguably the two most glamorous "entities" to have in sports and both of them reside in Boston. Are you kidding me??!!)

With Pierce, it's the same but it is different too. I don't think I can accurately explain how it is different, but consider the fact that if you watch a basketball game, you are probably going to see the best players on each team for about 75% of the game. In baseball, you'll see your guy for a few at bats a game and maybe some plays in the field and that is it. While baseball players can become synonymous with their teams, it is not like they can be the be all and end all because they have 8 other teammates to contend with and it is very difficult to take over a game consistently. Even with once in a generation pitchers like Pedro Martinez, you'll still only see them play 30-33 times a year with maybe an extra 3-5 postseason appearances if you are lucky.

As for basketball players, as I have said, it is different. Basketball players have 82 regular season games a year and as I said before, the stars will be prominently featured on the court for at least 75% of each of those games. Furthermore, because of the nature of the sport and the amount of teammates they have, rooting for a basketball team with one great player can very easily become rooting for the one great player because he is the team. Paul Pierce has more or less been the Celtics since 2001. Yes, Antoine had a lot to say about the team's fortunes earlier on in that time frame, but Pierce more or less took control of the team in 2001 and then after Antoine left in 2003, he basically became the team. Sure he had some "names" around him before Garnett and Allen came on board but those were guys like Raef LaFrentz and Ricky Davis and a brief Antoine Walker resurgence so again, he was the team for all intents and purposes. Most people during this time tuned the Celtics out. I did not. I followed them. I followed them not because I thought they could win a championship, but because I loved the team and I loved Paul Pierce. Watching Pierce play was enough for me. So, when last summer some guys finally came aboard to help Pierce and lead the team to what was destined to be the best season the Celtics had seen since the early 1990's I was ecstatic. I did not think they would win it all, but shoot at least they mattered again. Well, they won it all and Pierce was obviously a huge reason. I got to not only fulfill my desire to see him playing in meaningful playoff games after years of watching him give his all during meaningless regular season games, I got to see him get to the highest point of his sport and assure himself a place in the rafters. Honestly, I never thought I'd see it and that is what I am the most happy about.

One last thing...

Before the playoffs I debated buying a Pierce jersey, something I've wanted for about 7 years. I did not buy it because I did not want to be confused with a bandwagon hopper. I still think I probably made the right decision but if you think for a second I don't wish that I could walk around the sweltering heat of DC all summer with a Paul Pierce jersey on, fresh off of a championship season then you are absolutely crazy. Sorry if that was incoherent, I am still trying to come to grips with my feelings regarding this championship and Paul Pierce appropriately. All I know is that I have never been happier to see an athelete win a ring than I was seeing Pierce get his. Not even close honestly.

4) Overshadowed by everything was the beauty of Ray Allen's game. I have never seen a smoother offensive player. Sure, he's probably not good enough to win a championship on his own but good lord is he a pleasure to watch play. We all know about his beautiful shot, but his ability to get to the rim and finish astounded me for most of the postseason. One of the Celtics biggest playoff Achilles heals were missed layups, namely by Rondo, Pierce, and KG. Ray Allen never seemed to miss them though. He could drive from the corner, into the teeth of the defense, take a hit, and still finish a reverse layup. This never ceased to amaze me. What a player he is.

5) It's funny, despite all the great things done by Pierce, KG, and Ray Allen, the Celtics fortunes always seemed to come down to Rajon Rondo. When he played well, they won. When he played poorly, they lost. During the playoffs, he had 11 games with 0-5 assists. In those games, the Celtics were 3-8. When he had 6+ assists they were 13-2. Pretty cut and dry there.

6) Another amazing stat to me is the fact that the Lakers went 14-7 in the postseason and the Celtics went 16-10. If this were the regular season, the Lakers would be ahead of the Celtics in the standings by .5 games. Too bad it's the playoffs.

7) I could not help thinking about Antoine when I saw Pierce up there celebrating. I really wish he could have been a part of this. I'd love the Celtics to throw him a bone this offseason and give him the minimum contract to be their 10th man. I still have a soft spot for the guy and I really feel like he needs to end his career in Boston.

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