On Fans, Real and "Fake"

To say that I've been a Celtics fan for quite a while is probably not news to many of the regulars on this blog; most of you who read and post here consistently have probably been following Boston's most successful sports franchise for much of your lives. Like most of you, I'm no different. I may be young (let's just say I never got to see Larry Bird play live), but the Boston Celtics have been a part of my life from a very young age. I was schooled on the memories of the (then recently passed) Bird era, watching "Larry Bird: A Basketball Legend" with my dad over and over again. Growing up, I wanted to play just like Larry Legend, and to this day I still watch YouTube highlights of those 80's teams just to see what it was that got my parents so excited back then.

For all of my living in the Celtics' glorious past, I have my own memories as well. I can still remember screaming and hollering at the top of my lungs on July 31, 2007, when I first heard that Celtics had acquired Kevin Garnett. Imagine my excitement when I realized would finally contend for an NBA Championship. Sure, there had been that mini-run earlier in the 2000's, but that was a faint memory and hadn't lasted long enough to sink in. The new Big Three era was a Celtics team all my own, and one that I would follow from start to finish. Game six against the Lakers in June of 2008, the rolling rally later that month, and the raising of the 17th banner that October still rank as three of the happiest moments in my young sports life.

Naturally, I was heartbroken when I and the rest of the Celtic faithful learned that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were heading to Brooklyn this season. Both men, but especially Pierce, had defined an era of Celtic basketball; losing someone who had been a part of my sports fan life since before grade school wasn't easy.

I, like everyone else on this blog, wants to see the rise of another Celtics dynasty, one that will hopefully lead to more banners hanging in the Garden's hallowed rafters. The question among fans, however, is how best to get there.

We knew coming to this year that this would be a down season for the Celtics. Losing your franchise players is never easy, especially when your next franchise star in the form of Rajon Rondo is still recovery from an ACL tear. Just how bad, however, and what to do about it, has become a hot topic of debate among Celtics fans near and far.

It seems that fans have largely fallen into two categories, the "pro-tankers" and the "anti-tankers." The implications of their monikers is obvious: the pro-tankers are hoping for the luck of the ping-pong balls, and in doing so are hoping for the Celtics to lose as many games as they possibly can in the hopes of landing the next great superstar, be it Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or whomever you would prefer to have put on the Celtics cap and shake hands with Adam Silver on draft night. These fans haven't been shy about bemoaning Celtics victories, lamenting lost opportunities to be "Sorry for Jabari" or continue "Riggin' for Wiggins."

On the opposite side we have the anti-tankers, people who still believe the Celtics could salvage the current season and should continue to compete for wins despite the lack of talent and the team's low ceiling. These fans still root for wins and curse losses, just like we did for six seasons. These were the fans standing in their seats when the Celtics pulled to within a handful of games of .500 earlier this year, and even now hold on hope that this Boston team could still squeak into the eighth spot in the East and give either Indiana or Miami a scare come May. They're right alongside Jared Sullinger proclaiming that the world can "kiss our butts" when it comes to tanking.

This stark divide, it seems, has caused a rift within the Celtics community. I've heard fans from both sides accuse fans of the other camp of "not being true fans" on numerous occasions. Pro-tankers browbeat anti-tankers for their delusions of short-term success and seemingly not caring about the long-term health of the franchise, while anti-tankers ask how dare the pro-tank contingent actively root for their beloved Celtics to lose. Both camps have tried to make themselves out to be the "true fans" of the 17-time world champions, relegating the other to second-class status.

I openly admit that I have my own biases when it comes to this debate; coming into this season, I prided myself on being vehemently against tanking. I absolutely hate the fact that tanking exists as a strategy in basketball, and I would love more than anything to see the NBA devise a drafting system that I would finally do away with it once and for all. I even held out hope that the Celtics could sneak into the playoffs and at least see some postseason action. I've (mostly) accepted that that won't happen and I've resigned myself to watching and waiting until June to see how the Celtics fare. I do admit, however, that I still can't bring myself to root for the team I've watched for so many years with pride and passion to lose, and that I still have difficulty accepting the idea of "losing competitively" for the sake of player development and drafts. I accept tanking passively, at best, and hope that whatever happens works out for this team in the end.

But I digress. What's been lost in this debate of "to tank or not to tank" is the reality that not all fans are created equal. Everyone comes into this game with different schools of thought on what makes for a winning basketball team, and ultimately no fan is more "real" or "fake" than any other. Both sides claim to be the "real" fans, and maybe that's enough. The endgame is the same for everyone, we all want what's best for our Boston Celtics, no matter how we get there. Even if I might think that tanking isn't needed and that trades can be made to bring talent to the Garden but my neighbors thinks that the Celtics need to build through the draft, we both want to see an eighteenth championship banner raised up to the rafters.

What defines a "real fan" is not wins and losses; what separates the die-hards from the pink-hatters is something that Red Auerbach taught us about many years ago: loyalty. Loyalty is not shunning green and white for whatever color jerseys the Heat happen to be wearing or not caring about them when times get tough. Loyalty is the fact that we all still suck it up, turn on our TV's or head to the Garden, all just to watch our team play. No matter the path they take, we all want to see the Boston Celtics reign supreme over the basketball world again.

So whatever side you place yourself on, we can rally around the timeless words that remind us who our favorite team is, where our loyalties, and ultimately, where our hearts are:

Let's Go Celtics.

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