I like baseball.
Well, perhaps I should qualify that. I like baseball fields. For as much as I like the game of basketball, it’s played in the dark. Granted, arenas are no longer the cramped dens of second-hand smoke that they were forty or more years ago, and with HD television broadcasts requiring high intensity lighting, they are also brighter than they used to be, but still, no one would confuse the inside of The Garden with Fenway Park.
It has to be the combination of green grass and blue sky—which is probably one of the reasons why Tropicana “Field” seems such a bizarre place (another contributing factor: Tropicana “Field” resembles nothing so much as an Astro-turfed pole barn).
There’s just something about a clear sunny summer day before the game starts, even before the crowd shows up, that suggests anything is possible.
Of course, once the first pitch is thrown, it’s a different matter entirely, and I’m as much a victim of the attention-span shortening side-effects of the information age as the next guy.
But there’s something about that ‘anything is possible’ feel of green grass and a limitless blue sky.
It’s like the run up to a new basketball season. The new year for basketball fans is not the beginning of January. It’s somewhere in October.
For fans of teams that did not win the championship, there’s the hope (well-founded or otherwise) that this year will be better than the last.
For fans of that one team that carried off the trophy, there’s nervous anticipation, but also excitement. And, if we’re not kidding ourselves, there are increasing opportunities to remind the rest of the league’s fans that the team you cheer for was better than the teams they cheered for, and that this either marks you as a more astute student of the game, or it means that your city is better than theirs, or any of the various ways in which supporting a team taps into the tribal id.
So here are your Boston Celtics. They finished the preseason with a 2-2 record, winning the first two games and then playing the final two with an odd assortment of lineups. They have a new coach, a couple new faces, and right now, even though sportsbooks don’t give them good odds of winning the title, they have—in theory—as good a chance as any team in the league: 1 in 30.
The way you feel right now? This is as good as it gets for fans of many teams.
I’m coming up on the 40th anniversary of my fateful plunge into sports fandom. My five year old self picked the Vikings, and I suppose I should still be supporting the team.
But I’m not.
It became clear to me five or six years ago that Vikings management doesn’t really care if the Vikings win the Super Bowl. And in a moment of rare insight as a sports fan, I realized that there is absolutely no point in me caring whether the Vikings win or lose if the people who write the checks don’t care. I couldn’t see the point of investing a chunk of my happiness in an outcome that the team’s owners were not particularly concerned about. It’s like going to a restaurant that serves bad food. What’s the point? If the restaurant owner doesn’t care if the food’s bad, the odds you’ll get good food are pretty slim indeed.
With that in view, what must it be like to cheer for the Magic? For the Kings? For the Wolves? For the Wizards or for the Hornets or Pelicans?
For these fans, I can’t imagine that anything during the regular season can top the anticipation of the regular season. This is the time of year when you can still convince yourselves that management actually cares about winning more than anything else, and that the moves that were made over the past three months were done with a view toward eventually contending for a title.
The difference for us as Celtics fans is that we have sound reasons to believe that management actually wants to win a championship, and that the moves they make are undertaken with that expressed goal in mind.
Detractors view the departure of Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens’ simultaneous move to the front office as reasons to believe the Celtics are going to take a step backward, but that’s not necessarily the case. Where coaches and managers with other teams have little to no job security, we have no reason to doubt Wyc Grousbeck when he says that Brad and Danny could keep their jobs as long as they wanted.
That means both of these moves were made by choice. This wasn’t a quit-or-be-fired moment for a guy who bucked conventional wisdom in back-to-back years and drafted Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. In fact, if the Celtics overachieve this year, it will likely be due to a young core that Ainge has assembled through the draft. Along with Tatum and Brown, the C’s rotation looks to include Marcus Smart, both Grant and Rob Williams, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard and Romeo Langford, for a total of eight players that were drafted by Ainge.
Ainge retired because he lost the drive that made him an effective GM. And similar logic likely holds for Stevens. Sure, there was always a chance that his new boss would start off by replacing him, but it’s a certainty that he could’ve had another NBA coaching job in a heartbeat if he wanted one. That Stevens quit coaching entirely suggests that he realized that he’d lost the drive that made him a good coach—or that he had reached the limit of what he could do as an NBA coach.
Now I’m not saying that Ime Udoka is guaranteed to succeed where Stevens fell short (taking three short-handed teams to the ECF in four years is not failing by any stretch of imagination). But I think it is interesting to note that the choice of a new GM and a new coach were made with significant input from a successful GM and a successful coach who both had the perspicacity to realize their own deficiencies.
Another reason why I’m looking forward to this season is the good ol’ “nobody believed in us” card.
In the run up to the NFL championship in 1940, George Halas, the coach of the Chicago Bears, posted newspaper clippings throughout the team’s locker room quoting Washington’s coach, who called the Bears “crybabies” and “quitters.” The Bears subsequently trounced Washington 73-0, the greatest margin of victory in league history.
For at least this long, and maybe longer, coaches and players have used slights—real or imagined—for motivation.
As summer has turned into fall, the conventional view of the Celtics is that they’re mid-pack when it comes to the Eastern Conference hierarchy. The consensus seems to place them somewhere around 4th or 5th. But that argument is pretty hard to construct now that the rubber is this close to meeting the road. Are the Sixers—or the Nets, for that matter—clearly superior to the Celtics?
And, while we’re on the subject, are the Hawks clearly superior to the Celtics? After all the Hawks just went to the ECF and lost, which is nothing more than what the Celtics did—again, short-handed—in three of the previous four seasons.
The C’s have a young core assembled through the draft that seems bent on improving from year to year. If my expectations are that the Celtics will be a better team this season than last, it’s because I believe that so many of their players will be better this season than last. In addition to that young core, Boston has finally added some veteran depth to the bench. Josh Richardson may be a spot starter, but I think his greatest contributions will come with the second unit which has sorely lacked experience over the past few years. Much the same can be said of Dennis Schroder, who seems to have put his money where his mouth is when it comes to winning, choosing a veteran’s minimum deal with Boston over a larger contract offer from Los Angeles.
Al Horford figures to be a valuable contributor, too. Yes, he’s older than the last time we saw him, but he’s always had an old man’s game that should age well. Al is crafty and smart. He seems to have realized quite early on that you don’t have to sprint to the right spot on defense if you’re already there. He’s also one of those guys whose true contribution can’t be measured with a yardstick. Al has a knack for making life easier for the players around him at both ends of the court. He is exceptionally good at drawing attention away from the ball handler on offense and at anticipating the other team’s schemes when playing defense.
In short, what we have with the Celtics this season is a team that is almost certainly better than the consensus and highly motivated to prove that.
I can’t wait.