(Disclaimer: I wrote this rather long piece a while back, but I decided to share it here. I added the last three paragraphs to keep it up-to-date with recent events. Oh, and this is my first post in CelticsBlog.)
The day I read the news that Ray Allen had taken his talents to South Beach, it was raining outside. After seeing the headline, I got up and walked around my room with hands clasped at the back of my head. My mind was blank. The patter of the rain outside was deafening, but a cruel thought slowly surfaced from the monotony: Ray Allen was gone, but more importantly, so was the Big Three.
I didn’t feel anger. Instead of joining the howls of “Traitor!” from several Celtics fans on the Internet, I took to Twitter and thanked Ray-Ray for all the memories during his five-year stay. My heart felt as heavy as Shaq on his fattest day, but I meant every word.
This sentimentality over something as trivial as a player leaving for another team is what baffles the outsider who views sports with a casual eye. Why feel so dejected if Ray Allen, a man who makes a living putting a ball through a hoop, decides to pack up and leave for another team? It’s just basketball, after all.
Except for some people, like myself, it’s not just basketball. Sometimes, the connection a fan feels for a player or team isn’t just predicated on their watchability or penchant for winning. There are fans who root for a certain team because that team, whether in its identity or style of play, has come to represent an ideal that they want to attain, which strongly resonates within them. And when the “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were formed in 2007, they came to represent the ideal of the brotherhood, a rarity in a league where individual achievements and star players are glorified. For an NBA fan living in the Philippines, that’s what attracted me to the franchise.
Every year, some star will preach unselfishness and unity as their team’s motto for the season, which is quickly dispelled by their disjointed play throughout the season (I’m looking at you, Kobe and Carmelo). Not the “Big Three” Celtics. When Garnett and Allen arrived in Boston, it wasn’t just a contender that was born. The Celtic culture of winning through team unity was re-awakened. This Celtic renaissance had more to do with Garnett, but his selflessness and intensity seeped through Allen and Pierce as well, and the rest of the team followed their lead and embraced the concept of team unity. It was given a name, which the whole team rallied around and used as a war cry before doing battle: “Ubuntu.”
Almost immediately, they became a squadron of Spartans, fighting and repelling every opposition as one whole unit. They cheered each other’s efforts in games, from the best player to the 15th man on the lineup. When a teammate fell to the floor, at least three Celtics would help him up, some even running all the way from the bench. The five players on the floor moved as one on defense, and set each other up on offense. They played like this for a whole season, culminating in a humiliating thrashing of the Lakers in the Finals.
And all of that happened because of the brotherhood first displayed by the Big Three. Here were three guys who earned the “Big Three” name not only because of their collective talent, but also because they complemented each other well off the court. In the first month of their formation, they were inseparable during interviews, and inseparable during photo-ops. Theirs was a bond bordering on brotherly love, possessing none of the forced camaraderie that is all too recognizable in Kobe’s interaction with everyone. They were like three buddies who treasured the company of each other–a real brotherhood whose members would die for each other, if this were war and not basketball.
Or so it seemed. I remember feeling dead the day Kendrick Perkins was traded to OKC, as if Danny Ainge had just hurled a spear straight at my chest. That was a tough pill to swallow, but in the end, I consoled myself with the fact that the Big Three was still intact. As long as KG, Pierce and Allen are wearing green, “Ubuntu” will be alive, because they were the personification of the concept. I get that “Ubuntu” involved the unity of everyone on the team, but the togetherness of the Big Three was the banner the franchise rallied around.
Which is why it was painful when Ray Allen left. For me, it wasn’t because the greatest shooter ever was leaving Boston and heading to a hated rival. Rather, it was because the ideal that the Big Three personified was obliterated with his departure. Unlike Perkins, who was traded against his wish, Allen chose to sign with the Heat. I understand that this sport is a business and that players are more likely to put aside their sentimentalities for better money or a better chance to win a title, but for five years, the Big Three seemed poised to defy that. Despite Allen and Pierce nearly getting traded during that span, it looked like they would finish out their playing days together. Just like that, Ray Allen abandoned the code of loyalty and brotherhood, and became just another ring-chaser.
His recent interviews, where he kept playing the blame game and throwing dirt on Rondo and Ainge, only strengthened the “traitor” narrative that people are creating for him. Again, instead of joining the fray and calling for his head, I just felt that pang of sadness once again. He sounded selfish, as if during his five years in Boston he expected to be treated like a star–which he is, but that goes against the whole identity that the Celtics fronted for five years.
The hardest thing for a fan to experience is to be let down by the athletes and teams he roots for, when he had already built them up with certain values and ideals and expected them to adhere to it. In the aftermath of Allen’s defection, I asked myself, so was that all a mirage? Was the “brotherhood” of the Big Three, which I held in such high esteem, no different from the other forced “brotherhoods” in the league?
But right before the start of the first Celtics-Heat game of the season, those questions were dispelled. The sight of him heading over to the Celtic bench to embrace and shake hands with his former coach and teammates was poignant, even though he received the coldest of shoulders from KG. And one lasting image, that of him and Doc embracing on the sidelines, struck me as something symbolic–Ray really enjoyed his time in Boston and cherished being a part of “Ubuntu” for five years, and “Ubuntu” remains instilled in him.
Some would say that was a mere keeping up of appearances by Ray, but I don’t think so. I speak for all Celtics fans when I say that the bond between the Big Three was as genuine as they come, and it won’t just crumble because some sports rivalry got in the way.
The original Big Three may be broken up, but maybe, in spirit, their bond still remains intact. At least that's how I want to build them up again, after they were momentarily torn down. As a fan, I’ll take comfort in the belief that the quality that made them special still lingers.
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