Saturday, June 21, 2008

Great to See You Again, You %*!@*!!

One small but as far as I'm concerned vital side-effect of the Celtics winning the NBA Championship is that next winter, I'll once again be able to spend otherwise long winter nights rooting against them.

I grew up in Philly in the era of Wilt vs. Russell. There is always going to be a part of my soul in which the Celtics are the ENEMY. You know the Philly fans who threw lit cigars at Red Auerbach's head in 1967 when the 76ers finally beat Boston? Well, so do I. I mean, I really know them. Personally, you might say.

Yet I was delighted that the Celtics beat the Lakers in the Finals. For one thing, they deserved it. It would be difficult to imagine a weaker, more contemptible effort than the one LA allegedly put forth. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce have endured a whole lot of losing in their stellar careers. A championship for them is simple justice. And anything on earth that can ESPN to shut up, if only for a moment, about Kobe is a service to humanity.

Most of all, though, I was happy my enemy was back. A pillar of my sports cosmology has returned, a pillar of my life experience, really. Sports enemies have to be good. Rivalries make no sense when the rival is down and out.

I couldn't watch the Celtics last season. Too painful. I was embarrassed for them, and me. It hurt to cover the team from 1994 till I was separated from sportswriting in 2005. The current Celtics owners thought I had it in for them when I was at the Herald. They didn't get it. I was holding the franchise to the standards it set for itself in my youth. The Celtics should be feared, not pitied. The Celtics should greet the world with a self-satisfied sneer, not dancing girls. When the Celts laid down and died in that 7th game against the Pacers, they were killing my childhood.

Hating teams is an underrated element of fandom. I don't mean the fans who always root against the current dominant club. that's just a snobbish form of front-running. I mean fans who hate the other team because they've rubbed their noses in dirt more than once. It's OK for Red Sox fans to hate the Yankees. It's OK for Jets fans to hate the Patriots. I don't want to hear from Seahawks fans, though.

And there are certain teams whose whole sport needs them to be good if the league is to be in cosmic balance. They don't have to win the title every year, but they must at least be a possibility. When the Yankees DO suck, baseball is a poorer experience. Same goes for hockey and the Canadiens. What could be a more sickening sight than the current Oakland Raiders?

The funny thing is, the longer a rivalry lasts, the more hatred and respect mingle. Getting to hang around the 1980s Celtics was both a blast and an illuminating experience. For the firs time, I understood the power being hated could give the hate object. Wilt Chamberlain hated being Goliath, while Red Auerbach taught his players to get off on it, and that was probably worth at least two of Boston's 17 titles.

Most of all, through watching and covering memorable wins and losses, and learned that for me, anyway, the final score was less important than getting my emotional money's worth out of a sports event. I know most fans don't feel that way. After a close Boston win in a big game, I can't count the friends, neighbors, and strangers who've told me "That one was just too much." Not for me. Isn't vicarious excitement the point of watching?

I want a foeman worthy of my steel. I want the Celtics to be good enough so that beating them matters. In 2008-2009, that will be the case. Not that the Sixers will beat them very often, but that's not the point.

The point is, welcome back, my enemy. My brothers.


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