Talk about an interesting introduction to the world of the Boston Celtics.
I don't live in the Boston area anymore, so when I get a chance to visit my parents in the winter I usually try to catch a Celtics game. My kids are just now old enough to understand and enjoy the whole game (and stay up late enough for it). So I wanted to take them to a game. And what better game to be my kids' first game than Kobe Bryant's last?
First there was a good deal of prep work that I had to do. Obviously they know to root for the Celtics, I'm a responsible parent after all. But I need to explain the Celtics and Lakers to them as well. So to do that, I had to explain rivalries.
Me: "Sometimes when our team plays against another team in important games over and over again, we really want to beat them every time."
Son: "You mean like when Mommy really wants to beat Papa in the FitBit challenge?"
Me (stunned and impressed): "Well yes, that's exactly what I'm talking about. Excellent association."
Next I pulled out a big coffee table book filled with pictures from the Celtics history. We looked at Red and Russell and Bird and Pierce and all the greats in between. Then I got to Kobe Bryant.
Me: "Sometimes you really want to beat the other team and you root against them for years, but you also come to respect them for how good they are. Even though I don't root for Kobe and I'm not a fan of his, I can see how good of a player he is."
I went on to explain in more general terms that the players are still human beings and they should be good sports and be nice to other teams when they are playing against them. That's about as complex as I could get with them at this point so I left it there and focused on getting them to the game.
There really is nothing like walking out of the tunnel for your first pro sports game and seeing the court/field/ice for the first time. I still remember the sensation of seeing Fenway Park stretching out in front of me for what seemed like miles. The smell of the grass, the sound of the crowd, the dizzying height of the stands. I saw all of that in my kids' eyes as they saw the Parquet floor for the first time.
We found our way to our seats and enjoyed the pregame festivities. I figured that the kids would enjoy the pregame and halftime acts more than the game, but I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, when my wife took our daughter somewhere at a timeout, my little girl was worried that she would miss some of the action.
The Kobe introduction went about as I expected. The PR folks paused for effect, some Celtics fans gave him a respectful applause, the Kobe fans gave him a big cheer, and some Celtics fans booed. Then every time he touched the ball, the crowd booed. For my part I chose to smile and remind the kids that it was all meant in good humor and that Kobe understood and had good attitude about it.
The confusing thing for my youngest was the fact that there were so many Lakers fans in the crowd that he wasn't sure what to cheer for. At one point the Lakers scored and the annoying young man in front of us was hooping and hollering so much that my son assumed that we scored and he was supposed to cheer. "No, no, son, you watch me and if I'm cheering, that's when you can cheer too." Which led to an amusing exchange.
Me: "See, Isaiah Thomas is shooting a free throw, we want him to make this basket."
(Ball goes in. Son cheers loudly. Nobody else reacts.)
Me: "Well, maybe that was a little bit of an overreaction to a free throw."
Wife (smiling): "All the points count the same though!"
By the end of the game the kids really had the cheering stuff down pat. They knew when to cheer and they picked up from me which moments were more exciting than others. That's the really fun part about going to the game because you get swept up in the emotions of the crowd and you feel that camaraderie with thousands of other like-minded fans.
Except that this wasn't a normal game and it wasn't a normal crowd. By my guestimation there was probably 1 Laker/Kobe fan for every 30 or so Celtics fans. So when the Lakers were doing well, there were actual cheers going up from the stands. When Kobe hit his dagger, there was a legit eruption from the Laker fans. It was maddening for me as a fan and confusing for my kids.
Even worse was that annoying Laker fan in front of us gesticulating and generally being a stereotypical obnoxious Kobe fan.
My kids were a prime target for the jumbotron because they were decked out in Celtics gear and dancing during each timeout. The camera found them 4 or 5 times (which was a thrill) but each and every time, Laker Fan jumped up in front of them, to the point where the folks around us started saying out loud how annoying it was.
But at the end of the day, the Lakers fans bought tickets and are able to show up and cheer if they want. I've certainly attended games in other cities dressed in my Celtics gear and I've participated in pro-Celtics cheers at those venues. If I'm being perfectly honest, I've probably not always been the model citizen in those situations but something about teaching your kids life lessons and good sportsmanship gives you a little more perspective.
I don't know if my kids will really grasp all the layers of what we experienced but it was a good learning experience that I'm glad we got to enjoy together. I would have preferred a happier ending but in a way that was fitting and yet another good lesson. The Celtics can't win all the games. Sometimes the Lakers are going to win. Sometimes great opponents like Kobe Bryant (even if he's old) will step up to the moment and shatter the hopes and dreams of Celtics fans of all ages. But there's always tomorrow and there's always another game to win in the future.
I look forward to sharing these kinds of experiences more and more with them through the years. I'm glad they got this chance to see Kobe play one more time, but yeah, I'm also kind of glad that we won't have to play him anymore.