Remember back to the start of the 2007-2008 season when Doc Rivers and the new look Celtics, touting highly regarded free agent signings Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen alongside perennial all-star Paul Pierce, flew overseas to Rome to get to know each other away from the distracting Boston media scene. The newly dubbed "Big Three", a term once reserved only for the likes of Bird, McHale, and Parish, prepared to ignite a fire under a team that had just endured an abysmal season including the worst losing streak in the history of the NBA. You could feel the excitement and anticipation growing in the streets of Back Bay. Meanwhile, behind the glamour of the press and the humorous "This is Sportscenter" commercials, a coach buckled down to business. With a much more experienced and talented roster, Doc Rivers was poised to lead a team with championship aspirations. However, unlike many coaches of the modern era, Doc Rivers knew the one thing that mattered more than talent: camaraderie. During those couple weeks in Rome, Doc found a simple theme that would seal the bond between his players.
"Ubuntu!" the Celtics shout as they break their huddle after practice. Coach Doc Rivers says he chose the chant over the typical "1, 2, 3, Celtics!" after reading about Bishop Desmond Tutu over the summer. "Ubuntu," from the African Bantu language, stresses collective success over individual achievement.
This esotericism would prove to be the glue that held the 2007-2008 Celtics together during their miraculous run at banner seventeen.
Throughout the next three season's, the Celtics continued to use the term in their chants, as seen in this 2010 promotional video.
However, as the season's wore on and the "Big Three" grew older, Ubuntu lost its luster. In the past two seasons, rumors of potential conflicts within the Celtic's locker room spread through local sports outlets. The discontent of Rajon Rondo, which escalated to a shouting match in the film room during the 2011 playoffs and led to a barrage of trade rumors involving Chris Paul during the offseason, caused many fans to worry. The decline of Ray Allen, which started as a mere ankle injury and reportedly manifested into a terrible relationship with Rajon Rondo and a frequent visit to the trade block, ended in his eventual signing with the Miami Heat. Ubuntu no longer held the team together at its core.
Fortunately, thanks to some maneuvering by Danny Ainge, the Celtics still have their centerpiece and the one player who embodies Ubuntu both on and off the court: Kevin Garnett. In a basketball sense, Ubuntu can be most related to defense. "Collective success over individual achievement." Celtic defense relies on the help side. By repeatedly pounding into player's heads the idea that team defense beats individual offense, Doc Rivers created a defensive monster that tops the league year in and year out in opponent field goal percentage and opponent points per game. As the leader of the Celtic's defense and a wonderful defensive player in his own right, Kevin Garnett is arguably the Celtic's most important player. Yet, still the Celtics struggle with team togetherness.
For the Celtics to succeed in the years to come, Ubuntu must become the theme that it once was. Doc must preach togetherness and trust. The Celtics must become not only a team, but a brotherhood. Last but not least, they must have fun. They must enjoy their profession as they did back in Rome.
Boston's starting five all sported shaved heads in Rome, and Garnett bought each rookie three custom-made suits. The players hung out together nearly every night, cracking on one another for hours one evening on the Spanish Steps. And it doesn't seem to be just a "When in Rome … " thing.
With the old core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo, a new bench of Jason Terry, Jeff Green, and Courtney Lee, and a surplus of young stars, the Celtics have all the talent in the world needed to win a championship. All that is lacking is that one thing that young Doc Rivers discovered five years ago: Ubuntu.