BILL: I’m not exactly sure when it happened. It could have been after Danny Ainge gutted a Celtics team I loved and shipped out Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder. I thought those guys were the life blood of the rebuild and maybe not so much for their ability, but for their attitude and grit. It could have been after seeing Gordon Hayward crumple to the floor in Cleveland just minutes into his promising career in Boston. As gut punches go, that was the gut punches of all gut punches. Or it could have been how the team responded to such a devastating start, rattling off sixteen wins in a row and reaffirming my faith in the Celtics--these Celtics--and everything I love about sports. But at some point this season, everything seemed to get clearer and more blurry at the same time. The emotional swings of this year have made me more of a fan than ever, but that’s also just made me question it more. Why do I do this to myself?
The Celtics are in the hunt for the #1 seed in the East on the intangible strengths of Danny Ainge’s instincts and planning, Brad Stevens’ coaching, and the players’ selfless commitment to team and daily improvement. Or maybe that’s all just narrative, a narrative assigned by me. Maybe it’s all just about wins and losses. That’s all that will matter in some sports almanac. Maybe basketball is just a business and not the brotherhood that Celtics’ lore conjures up. Or maybe I’m having an existential crisis. Doctor, why do you Celtics?
ROMY: I don’t know what’s more interesting: the question of why we care, or why we continue to care all these years later. It’s funny that you you should bring up the soulless gutting of last year’s team as one possible moment where we easily could have said “you know what, this just isn’t for me anymore”. But there’s been so many of those off ramps over the years and here we both are. I was reading CB’s piece about Dino Radja’s election into the 2018 Hall of Fame and it dawned on me that I’ve been telling the story of my Celtics fandom all wrong. I usually point to 1992 as the year when my family’s bootleg satellite dish in Ottawa first beamed programming from a Boston RSN into my living room; my dad connected his disdain with modernity and adoration of the Celtics’ tradition to my budding love for all things sports and competition and just like that, changed the course of my life (a story I told Amos Barshad years ago when we were exchanging notes on why we care).
But that’s not the point. I’d completely missed the part about Dino’s arrival to the NBA and how he was meant to join Reggie Lewis coming off of McHale’s retirement. Talk about a turning point in Celtics history, oof. And while I remember him being really good, relatively speaking (the Celtics stunk for a while before my investment in them eventually paid off), I had completely forgotten our treatment of him:
In 1997, Rick Pitino assured Radja that he was going to be a big part of the Boston offense, which assuaged Radja’s worries that he might be traded. Pitino then traded Radja later that summer to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Clarence Weatherspoon and Michael Cage. The trade was voided due to Radja failing a physical due to his chronically injured knee. Boston then waived him following the voided trade.
Pretty callous, huh? Does this story seem familiar to you at all?
BILL: I should have been excited for Pitino and initially, I kinda was. The energy of a fresh start and bringing all those young players in should have endeared Pitino with the fan base, but people forget what the second half of Pitino’s “Larry Bird is not walking through that door” meltdown was. He didn’t just try and separate himself from the franchise’s history and success and slyly lower the bar, he attacked the fans and the city. “All the negativity that’s in this town sucks.” I’m not a Boston guy, but that always rubbed me the wrong way.
But that kind of gets to what I wanted to talk about. When the ship was taking on water, Pitino tried to write his own narrative and implored fans to grab a bucket with him and the Celtics. He didn’t want to talk about how he was responsible for hitting the iceberg. It wasn’t that the team was losing. It was that the fans didn’t support their losing effort. Pitino will say anything to justify his job. We’ve seen that now in his departure from Louisville. But why do fans do that? We make excuses when our team is losing and we bask in the glory of victory when they win. BUT WHY?
ROMY: Let’s just say this: I think that we’re lucky. We’re lucky because Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge are a great cover for a tempestuous passion (or pathology, depending on how you look at it) that I think has long been out of my control. The way I recall it, I chose the Celtics, but when I really think about it, I think they chose me. And the longer I’ve stuck with the many rosters, failed trades, referring scandals, putrescent past front office regimes, heartbreaking tragedies and heartwarming triumphs -- and all the moments in between, the more I think that I’m going to be Sister Jean, 178 years old, rocking a backwards hat and carrying a green pom pom to games. Who doesn’t want that in their future? I mean, a colleague at my very first job once introduced me to her friend as “This is Romy, she’s obsessed with cats and basketball”.
BILL: I’m married to all this now and I’ve never been happier, but I’ll say this: Ainge and Stevens--particularly Stevens--has completely changed the way I’ve looked at sports. It’s like when somebody you’re dating is vegetarian so you become vegetarian. Because of Brad, I’ve bought into the growth mindset mantra. I don’t see wins and loses anymore, just steady improvement. Frankly, it’s taken some of the emotion out of the game. When they raise Banner 18 someday, I don’t know if I’ll feel joy or just a momentary pang of woohoo and a want for training camp to start up again because of some missed free throws in Game 6. You can always get better, right? I swear that by the time Stevens steps down after his quest to always be better the next day, he’ll spend his days on the dark side of the moon as Dr. Manhattan because there’s nothing to improve on.
ROMY: You’re the Runaway Bride (I realize that an obscure Julia Roberts reference might fall on deaf ears, but so be it)! It’s interesting, right? Because as much as I liked Doc as the Big Three era coach, he completely rubs me the wrong way now (I was also, admittedly, on the “fire Doc” train and was ecstatic when people showed up to a game I went to with paper bags on their heads in protest).
BILL: Don’t get my started on Doc Rivers. When the going gets tough, the tough gets himself traded out of town to the Clippers for a first round draft pick. Maybe that’s just the narrative I assigned him when he left, but I agree with you. Doc Now is not Doc Then.
ROMY: The same can be said about players that were unceremoniously discarded by the franchise; it’s almost as though they instantly depreciate the moment they leave Boston. Now is that because absent of the amazing surroundings that Stevens & Co. have created, they actually lose some of their Celtics luster? Or is it just the way we perceive it to be? There’s actually no way to see this but unequivocally when it comes to Crowder, Bradley, and IT, both on and off the court, it’s a pretty strange phenomenon…
BILL: We all have some Tommy in us when it comes to the Celtics, but I don’t think it’s all perception. It circles back to Brad. DAD BRAD. Players actually get better because he’s scout leader. The team actually plays better than the sum of their parts because he loosened them up with bad jokes at the back of the bus. And I like I said, that growth mindset has seeped into my fan life. After every quarter, every half, every game, and every season, I can see the team getting better and that’s been the fuel for my fire because I’m pretty confident that leads to Banner 18. Oh my, am I the dog owner that’s starting to look like his dog? Oh no, or am I the dog?
ROMY: I find it interesting that you’ve so bought into the Stevens curriculum that you, as a fan, have tempered your wild emotional flailing! I remain as insane as I ever was. I’d known about the grit theory before it came out that Stevens was an acolyte (and lambasted my parents for spoiling me by reinforcing my smarts instead of my effort level) but it’s something else for that theory to leap out of the Celtics’ culture and into your operating system as a fan. Is it just that you’ve somehow reached Operating Thetan levels of fandom and spiritual synchronicity with the team? Does it make you feel like you’ve accessed the core of the Celtics philosophy that grants you more closeness to their Ubuntu?
BILL: Admittedly, I Googled “Operating Thetan.”
But no, I still yell at the TV and hate LeBron. My blood still boils whenever we play the Lakers and yes, my heart aches when players get traded. When AB got dealt to Detroit, it was like a junior high crush moving away. Avery didn’t just play for the Celtics. He was the Celtics. I believe that. And as much as Brad Stevens might pump up the process, I think he believed that, too.
I don’t know how many times I’ve referenced Moneyball (the movie) on CelticsBlog, but it’s just so relevant here. People forget that while Billy Bean put all his trust into that system, he was really putting faith in the players. I can’t wait for Brad Pitt to be playing Brad Stevens in ten years.
Thanks, Doc. This robot may have just found his human heart.
ROMY: Here’s to our blood boiling! And you’re right, there is no system without humans. The cheerleaders might have killed Red Auerbach, but he got the last word; a coach that as brilliant and ingenuous as Brad is, knows that there’s a reason why the players play and the coaches coach: to get the most out of each player as they are, while also getting them to cede to the team. The fact that this ethos will guide the Celtics regardless of who shows up every fall (or in the case of this season, every game) feels like something we can put our fitful faith in.