Friday, February 09, 2007

Celtics Prone

The Celtics play the Nets tonight. I won't watch. I haven't watched them in months weeks. It's too painful, not because I'm a fan, but because I grew up just the opposite. No one can hate the Celts anymore, which .s the ultimate proof of how pathetic they've become.

I'm no bandwagon Celtics' ignorer, either. My apathy predates the current 16-game losing streak, for which the club deserves a near-total pass. NBA teams are fragile things nowadays. Few if any could cope with the loss of their very best player. The Wizards are sinking fast after losing their SECOND-best player, Antwan Jamison. Let's face the facts. Even with Pierce in the lineup, the Celts aren't worth hating. They don't matter.

To grow up a Philadelphia sports fan is to grow up hating the Celtics. To grow up in the era of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell was to take the almost-always-losing side in a magnificent blood feud of epic dimensions, a psychic commitment that made winters and springs frustrating, agonizing, and fun from start to finish.

Who could hate the Celtics now? It'd be like hunting butterflies with a blowtorch, or rooting against the Pirates all summer. There's a void in the NBA where a sneering band of buccaneers spent decades reveling in the fury of their foes. And I'm damned if I'll insult my beloved enemy by feeling sorry for it. If Red ever found out, my home would be haunted by ghostly cigar reek.

The Celtics are past pity. Watching them is simply an extreme social awkwardness. Those New Englanders who hate the Raiders know what I mean. Enemies should get their comeuppance, but an enemy must always be good, or at worst respectable. Top to bottom, the Celts are just a shell. They play games, they sell tickets, and no one's heart seems to be in it. Tommy's rants at the refs are a melancholy, half-hearted trumper solo.

As a Phillies fan, I know followers of a lousy team have it easier than its former haters. In tough times, fans can look to the future. Celtic followers can pass the lost winter debating the merits of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Haters aren't allowed the comforts of hope. They tend to see things like the Cavaliers' OK-but-hardly fabulous 28-21 record with LeBron James and wonder if either Oden or Durant could be expected to be as good as Clevleand's sort-of savior. They also tend to worry that given his choice between Oden and Durant, Danny Ainge will select Sam Bowie.

Hate and love are the two sides of the fan coin, and a team which doesn't generate much of the former will eventually come up short of the latter, too. When the Lakers were in town awhile back, commentators noted most of the "fans" in attendance cheered more for Kobe Bryant than for the home team. This is not new. Allen Iverson got more cheers than boos as a visiting 76er back when I was at the Herald two winters ago.

Bruce Allen of Boston Sports Media Watch is a big Celts' fan, and some of his readers used his site to express their horror and disgust at the cheers for Bryant. Good for them. Let me assure you folks all true Celtic-haters share that emotion to the max. A Boston crowd cheering a Laker? A 76er? The NBA's entire moral universe must be collapsing (as it is).

Hate=accomplishment. Hate=fun. Since the sports gods are into irony, they taught me these lesson by making my first professional sportswriting experience in-depth coverage of one of the NBA's most hate-worthy teams, the 1980s Celtics. I couldn't have enjoyed anything more.

We pause here for a brief explanation of sportswriting ethics. All of us began as fans, and the favored teams of our youths remain so. You just put that part of your mind in a box at work. I covered the 1981 Celts comeback over the Sixers and the "beat LA" Sixers' win over the Celts in 1982. They were both great sports stories and I did my best with each one. My emotions, while stirred, were not released on-duty. It's not that hard to do, honest. Love of sport means more than love of a particular team, or should, anyway. I wouldn't have much use for a Pats fan who couldn't muster up a grudging respect for worthy hate-object Peyton Manning this week.

Covering those Celtics taught me two lessons. Fans care more about the teams they don't like than the ones they do. Great teams receive as much or more emotional boost from the disdain and fear they generate than from the love they get at home.

Perhaps these anecdotes will prove my point. During the 1982 Eastern Conference finals, I went to a dinner party in Philly at the home of two of my oldest and dearest friends.

"Tell me, Mike," one guest inquired. "Is Kevin McHale as big a jerk as he seems on the court?"

I innocently explained McHale was a swell guy whom I personally liked a great deal, and were he at the party, all the guests would feel the same. Hearing this, the guy's face twisted into a scowl.

"Thanks a lot for spoiling things," he said.

Fast forward to the 1985 Finals. This was the first played under the 2-3-2 format, so the Celtics had a long week of time on their hands at the LA Airport Marriott. In this prehistoric era, teams not only flew commerical, many took their families with them on this road trip.

Small children and free time in southern California equals a trip to Disneyland. A group of Celtics' wives and kids, accompanied by (I remember for sure) assistant coach Chris Ford and (hazier here) several players took a post-practice off day trip to the Magic Kingdom.

The Celtics' party was recognized, which was not a good thing. Inside the costume of each adorable Disney character was a Laker fan-a vocal one. Goofy, Snow White, and Donald Duck would see a Celtic, come over, and announce, "hey Ford, you suck," "Magic's gonna kick your ass tomorrow" etc.

The children were freaked. Daddy dissed by Mickey! The wives followed suit. The Celtics themselves were delighted. What could be more hilarious proof of their athletic worth than abuse from Disney cartoon characters? The next night, Boston won Game Four, and I wished the Phoenix was a daily, as "Up Yours, Goofy." would've been a perfect lede.

The only Disney theme for the current Celts is "Bambi Meets Godzilla." In my opinion, as long as the energetic, dedicated but clueless team of Wyc Grousbeck and Danny Ainge remain in charge, that's not going to change no matter how they draft this summer.

As noted before, I have too much respect for our shared history to feel sorry for the Boston Celtics' franchise one little bit. But when I see what the franchise is now, I feel profound sorrow for the entire sport of professional basketball.


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