Yes, this might be another one of those retrospective commentaries most have read in one form or another, the kind that my father knew I would eventually expound upon 20 years or so ago; with the same types of opinions that come with age and experience, the kind that allow you to compare the past to the present.
And try as I might, I cannot keep the past from shading the present, and although my voice is one in a sea of many, I find I can keep silent no longer.
I have watched the Boston Celtics for about 30 years. Not as long as some, longer than others. I watched Bird steal the ball, McHale play with a broken foot, Reggie Lewis collapse on the court, and die a short time later. I watched as the Celtics turned their backs on Robert Parish, and I watched as M.L. Carr and Rick Pitino took a once proud franchise and turned it into a punch line.
I also watched with a wary eye as Danny Ainge came aboard, and eventually hired Doc Rivers. I watched as Paul Pierce, the lone bright light in a sea of drab, clash with his coach, and I feared for even rockier times ahead.
I heard the discontented and downright angry rumblings that began to thunder as mediocre seasons turned into atrocious ones. I saw the 2006 Celtics own the worst record, yet fail to attain the #1 pick. At the time I do not believe I was alone in Celtic nation when I lamented the Celtics drawing the 5th pick in the draft, having no chance to obtain Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. It seemed as though the Celtics were destined for a lifetime in NBA purgatory, destined to pay for past greatness with current and future failures. Who could have known back then that not getting the #1 pick would lead the Celtics to a championship the very next season?
Celtics fans know all about the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. We know all about the resurgence of Paul Pierce and the arrival of Rajon Rondo. And we know all about the game 6 blow out of the Lakers that gave the Celtics banner #17.
We fast forward to today. That banner still hangs proudly among the rafters, a bit whiter in color than all the others, a bit newer. We have 2010 and Kendrick Perkin’s unfortunate knee injury, or that banner would be hanging next to 2008’s. We also had several memorable playoff runs including battles against the Cavs, the Sixers, the Hawks, and the Bulls. While the peripheral pieces changed, the core players stayed the same, and with them, the Celtics did great things.
But more than just winning, these new Celtics restored "Celtic Pride" to Boston, and taught it to a whole new generation of fans. And two of the greatest cornerstones to the revitalization of the Celtic franchise were Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
And now they are both gone.
Kevin Garnett said it best, when he was quoted as stating; "He lives Green. He dies Green." He felt so strongly about it, that a no trade clause was written as a condition into the final NBA playing contract of his life.
As for Paul Pierce – well all he did was stay loyal to teams that had seasons in which 35 to 40 wins was considered an accomplishment. Meanwhile management, in their zeal to obtain that next great piece, traded players – humans, with outside lives, friends, relationships, and community ties, like one would trade shares in the stock market.
The Celtics so alienated Ray Allen, trading him, not once, but twice, that although the deals ultimately fell through, he left, taking half the money to play with the Celtics biggest rival. I do not believe for a moment this was a coincidence. I believe it was a statement to Danny Ainge. Enough was enough.
Kevin Garnett reminds me of my 1995 Ford Taurus. (It’s green by the way). It has 56,000 miles on it. Engine runs like a Rolex. Power everything, smooth, comfortable ride, has everything you could ask for or want. What’s the sale or "trade in" value on such a car? Around $1000. Ask me if I want to get rid of it.
In my opinion what has always been Ainge’s biggest flaw is his lack of seeing the intangibles. Garnett for one brings intangibles that you simply cannot place a numerical value on. The man supersedes mere statistics, which ownership seems to have forgotten. When Garnett leaves, so too does a man who can read other team’s offensive schemes, directing his Celtic floor mates as to where they should get back to on defense. Gone will be the man who would stay hours after practice teaching young players how to grow and become all around better players. Gone will be the man who’s screaming graced the Jumbotron before every game, the man who could fire up a crowd by pumping his chest, the man who never backed down from any challenge, the man who played hurt, the man with the heart of a champion, who is and will be an All Star right up until the day he retires.
How much Mr. Ainge, how much is that worth?
And what about Paul Pierce? Paul Pierce a 15 year veteran who grew up a die hard Laker fan. Pierce who was touted as a top 5 draft pick, but "fell" all the way to the Celtics, the team he would have least liked to play for. Pierce, the man who always made the most out of losing seasons, inferior talent, and an unspoken, but widely known fact – Paul Pierce was the next star after Larry Bird. Paul Pierce was never, ever going to get the respect he deserved. Paul Pierce was following in the wake of a Boston Legend that bordered on Godhood. Paul Pierce’s career in Boston was doomed to a tepid fan response from the beginning. Fans are one thing, and while some will never give Pierce the credit he deserves, apparently neither will Celtics’ management.
All too often we get caught up in statistics. If a player isn’t averaging over 20 points per game he’s not a "superstar". That same player must also haul down 8-10 rebounds a night. Guards must dish out around 10 assists to be worthy of the coveted label. KG and Paul Pierce no longer fit in those lofty categories. Today’s wisdom states that we must dump their contracts, or be considered soft and sentimental by others, as if they would matter. My answer to their wisdom is simple. I would simply say; Walter Brown. Red Auerbach. Bob Cousy. Bill Sharman. Bill Russell. Sam Jones. Tom Heinsohn. K.C. Jones. Tom Sanders. John Havlicek. Larry Bird. Kevin McHale. Dennis Johnson, and scores of others.
What do they all have in common? They all lived green. They all died green. Larry Bird voluntarily returned money already paid to him for a season his back would not let him play. Even at his severely diminished capacity Celtics brass pleaded with Bird to stay on another season, even though his pain was so severe he had to spend time off the floor lying down next to the bench.
Kevin McHale played the 1987 playoffs with a cracked bone in his foot. To see him today is to see a proud man with a permanent limp.
Red Auerbach, the man who built the Celtics from the ground up, who did the drafting, the scouting, the recruiting, the coaching, and the signing of players always stated that statistics would never be used against a player when discussing contract negations. The only thing Auerbach cared about was winning, and if you played your role on the team well, you were rewarded for it.
It was that simple formula that led the Celtics to 16 titles from 1957 to 1986. As new management took over and the "old guard" left, new, modern day business practices became the norm.
From 1986 to 2013 the Celtics have 1 Championship. And that one title came principally on the backs of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
As I read comments from outraged and heartbroken fans, I continue to ask myself this question; "If it’s was okay to let Celtic legends such as Russell, Havlicek and Bird retire as Celtics, why can’t we do the same for Pierce and Garnett?" Are they not as central to Celtic folklore as any Celtic whose number hangs in the rafters?
I’m sure management would answer these sentimental musings with the old standard that; "This is a business, and you make the wisest business decisions possible." To that, I would argue that the Celtics had a rich history of making illogical business decisions, putting the Celtic family first, and it seemed to work very well for them. I saw an interview in which a member of Celtics management stated that the Celtics were an organization in which the name on the front of the jersey came before the name on the back. With all due respect, I disagree, and I think this hits upon part of the problem with today’s way of thinking. It is the NOT the name on the front, it IS the names on the back, ALL of the names on the back, that equal the name on the front. It is on the backs of those men, from Russell, to Havlicek, to Bird, right down to Glen McDonald and Glen Davis, ALL have contributed to the Celtic mystique, and many have directly contributed to the banners hanging in the rafters, and the millions of dollars flowing around the league. I do not take anything away from all of the tireless work that members in management do, but it is ultimately the PLAYERS that make the Celtics, not the Celtics that make the players.
Loyalty is rare in any line of work. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are two examples of players who have been loyal to apparently a fault. In a league where superstars decide which coaches, general managers, teams and players they want around them, KG and Pierce are a refreshing, welcome change.
Danny Ainge, I would have asked that you do not dishonor the men who helped to win you a General Manager of the Year award by trading them away, but it seems it is too late for that. If you keep ruthlessly trading people like livestock and fail to reward loyalty, at some point Mr. Ainge you might find yourself on the chopping block one day.