Preface: There’s a lot of wrongness in the world and sports is largely a distraction from them. However, it can also be a bonding experience and object lesson for that same troubled world. So, I’ll try to frame this sentiment in the context of sports - not to dismiss or diminish the rest of what is going on elsewhere.
“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” ― Andy Bernard (The Office)
There’s something special about this team. That’s not a guarantee of anything, mind you. Everything could fall apart at any moment, and that’s part of the point here. Winning an NBA championship is very, very difficult and rarely does it occur without drama and overcoming ginormous obstacles along the way. So while we sit on the proverbial edges of our seats and stress out over every missed free throw, let’s also embrace the moments that make this kind of playoff run memorable.
My wife has this wonderful quirk where she’ll pinch pennies on “stuff” that we buy for everyday use, but she’ll willingly sign up for more expensive (within reason) vacations. The reason: “I want to invest in making memories.” I love that so much.
Every single year, we start with the same fundamental goal: Raising another banner in the rafters. The vast majority of the time, that dream dissolves. Sometimes right away, sometimes in the middle of the year, and sometimes not until the last seconds of an elimination game.
Right now, that dream is still very much in high def technicolor and it is glorious. This team understands the moment, knows what is at stake, and has bought in completely. That... is... rare.
After winning Game 5 in Miami and being on the precipice of The NBA Finals, the moment wasn’t lost on Jaylen Brown. “This is a great opportunity. Leave everything on the floor. You don’t want any feelings of regret. We got an opportunity with this group that’s special, so let’s not take that for granted,” he said.
So much has to go right for a championship to happen, some of which is completely out of the team’s control. You need to have stars in their prime. You need to have the right mix of players around them. You need to have the right coach for that moment. You also need to to be as close to “full health” as you can hope for at this time of year, get an occasional favorable matchup, and have a bunch of lucky bounces go your way.
But perhaps the single biggest thing you need, is also the hardest to define and replicate. You need 100% complete buy-in from every rotation player on the team. The 2008 team called it “Ubuntu.” Every team starts out the season talking about buying in and playing for each other, to the point where it has become a cliché. But when it actually happens, it blossoms beyond the cliché and evolves into the team’s personality.
“Let’s come out Friday on our home floor and play the best version of basketball we’ve played all season,” Brown said of tonight’s Game 6. “It’s a big game for us. At the same time, breathe. Relax. Sometimes, we can be too tense because we know how important these moments are. Just come out and play our game and we’ll be fine.”
This is largely the same core players from last season. That’s not to diminish the impact of Al Horford, Derrick White, and others. But much of this team was here last year and they were never able to get on the same page. I firmly believe that Brad Stevens is a phenomenal coach that got multiple teams to buy in (with several of these same players!). But for whatever reason, the message wasn’t getting through anymore. Enter Ime Udoka.
It didn’t happen overnight, but through consistent, brutally honest (but caring) communication, he got through to them. Now they’ll run through walls for him and each other. And the team gets credit for that as well. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart in particular had to take lessons learned in the past, apply it to the present, and channel that hard earned wisdom on the future.
And here’s the key point. Even though it has all clicked into place in this very moment, that doesn’t mean it will always be this way for these guys going forward. We’ve seen it time and time again. Teams win at a high level one year, come back the next year with expectations of repeating the same formula, and somehow coming up short. Sometimes it is overconfidence, sometimes it is lack of urgency, sometimes it is just a different mix being slightly off. Just because the core of this group is young doesn’t guarantee sustained success.
Which is all the more reason to embrace this moment and this team. The journey is not over, the goal has not been met. With a chance to eliminate the Heat, Tatum said, “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s going to be fun.”
We’ve still got five more wins before we can truly celebrate. But I’m determined to appreciate this ride for everything that it is in the moment.
My son is at about the same age that I was when the Celtics won the championship in 1986. That was the year that cemented my fandom for life. I don’t know what his passions will be when he grows up, but it has been a blast watching him embrace this team with me the last few months. We are investing in memories and I wouldn’t have it any other way.