I can’t wait to hear the Game 3 crowd in Boston. 19,850 butts out of seats, letting these Celtics know they’re at home, playing for a title. It takes me back.
April 28, 2016. My first playoff game in the Garden. A Game 6 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Featuring then-Hawk Al Horford, who went for 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 assists, and 2 steals—a +19 in the win to close out the series. Featuring newest Celtics Isaiah Thomas, who joined the 2015-16 squad at the trade deadline.
It’s the only NBA playoff game I’ve been to.
And it was the last game I went to with my dad.
It was about 20 years after he’d taken me to my first game. Also a loss. To the Timberwolves. Those were the M.L. Carr years. Just before Antoine Walker was drafted. 12 years before the 2008 title. When the C’s would still leave town to make room for the literal circus and play home games in Hartford, about 45 minutes south of where I grew up in western Massachusetts.
Most of the games I’ve seen in person have been Celtics losses. Like, a Wally Szczerbiak out-dueling Paul Pierce type of loss. A collapse against the Damian Lillard-led Blazers. The stuff of that makes for fan heartbreak.
Save two trips to Portland, I always went to games with my Dad.
Who never played a minute of basketball in his life. Who didn’t grow up in Boston—let alone New England. Who was a Bronx-born Jew that kept a baseball signed by the entire 1951 Yankees team in his study. Who never missed a New York Football Giants game and quietly—smugly, wordlessly—held the Super Bowl wins over the heads of our neighboring New England Patriots fans.
Who was still a Celtics fan through and through, despite the conflicts of interest. Who discovered the Celtics over the radio on their run to with the title in ’84, listening from his first house way out in the Berkshires. And went to his first playoff game in ’86. And loved to tell me about the night that Michael Jordan game into the Garden and scored 63.
“And the Bulls still lost!”
Who, once we had a family computer, printed out the regular season schedule every year and pinned it to the kitchen cork board, marking each game with a W or an L. Who was a bit grumpy if we weren’t done eating dinner by tipoff. That’s how I learned to love the Celtics—watching almost every game with my dad in the evenings at our house in Northampton.
I regret that my fandom was on hiatus during the 2007-2008 run. I was in school in Baltimore. We couldn’t get regular season games that weren’t nationally televised in Maryland. No NESN. No Mike and Tommy. I was caught up with college—excited to be out of Massachusetts. At some point, I watched a few playoff games with some other New Englander friends on a barely-functioning common room TV.
I don’t remember where I was when Keven Garnett put on that fresh cap and screamed, “Anything is possible!” I assume Dad and I watched. And I’m ashamed to say I don’t have a picture-perfect story to tell about it.
Maybe that’s why, once I graduated, I made it my business to love the Celtics again. And this time to love the whole NBA. To read every, single piece on Grantland by a new, quirky basketball writer called Zach Lowe. To never miss an issue of Tom Ziller’s email newsletter (what a concept back then!) Good Morning It’s Basketball and devour every one of the pieces he linked. To study every Lee Jenkins and Kevin Arnovitz feature.
I think I wanted to prove myself worthy again. To not miss out on another moment like the 2008 title run. I wanted to watch a title locked in, with my dad.
By the spring of 2016, I’d been in Seattle almost a year. Just over 3,000 miles from the Garden. I was cobbling together freelance gigs trying to make a go of sportswriting. My wife was in grad school.
I called my dad a few a times a week. The first time our relationship had ever been that talkative. We’d break down Celtics games on the phone. Run through my job prospects. And I’d tell him I about my scheme.
“Dad, if we make the playoffs, I’m spending every credit card point I have on a flight to Boston. We have to go to a game.”
He didn’t miss a beat.
“You find the flight, I’ll get the seats.”
We had dinner in the North End. Forgive me for not remembering the name of the Italian spot. Or what I had.
What I remember is that it was early, well before tip. Sunlight still strong through the windows at the front of the dining room.
Then Bill Russell walked in.
The staff whisked him off to a table by himself. He sat down and ordered. Politely. I think.
We were slack-jawed, our pasta cooling in the presence of greatness.
So even though I’d flown across three time zones, we held it together. Let the 11-time champ eat unbothered.
Our seats were the closest we’d be to the court in years. Just behind one of the baskets. Each piece of yellow plastic and metal draped in playoff-only, one-time print XXL t-shirts. Dominique Wilkins, besuited and glad-handing on the court before his pregame TV hit.
So even though the Hawks diced up the Celtics and the lead had ballooned to 28 by the early minutes of the fourth quarter, even though Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder were making mincemeat of the Boston defense, we were still over the moon to finally be at a game together. The thrill of seeing each other for the first time since the holidays. The rush of last minute travel. The noise of the Garden at playoff time. We stayed until the final buzzer; traffic getting onto Storrow Drive be damned.
I remember thinking that I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Still would.
A month later, as Lebron’s eventual-champion Cavaliers took down the Raptors and the Warriors handed Kevin Durant the loss that may have convinced him to leave the Thunder, I missed two back-to-back calls from my mom. Listened to a cryptic voicemail. Excused myself from a meeting and hustled into the office building hallway. Couldn’t get her to pick up.
Over an hour a later, we connected. Dad was in the ER, his skin all-of-a-sudden jaundiced in the last 24 hours. Late-stage pancreatic cancer.
He was gone before December 2016.
Dad didn’t get to see the C’s finish first in the East. Or the King in the Fourth drop 53 against the Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
I think that’s part of why I emailed Jeff Clark in the summer of 2017. Motivated not just to root for two Celtics fans, but to edit and write, too.
For me and for my dad, Andy Pollock.
Because he would have loved watching Marcus Smart become the heart and soul of these Celtics and win the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Because he would have loved watching Jaylen Brown become one of the most aggressive scoring wings in the league.
Because he would’ve loved to see Jayson Tatum’s transformation. 13 assists in his Finals debut. A first-team All-NBA playmaker. The kind of defender who can block Kevin Durant’s jumper. Multiple times.
Because he would have relished this run to The Finals: The emotional whiplash of the first two months, the glimpses of a league-leading defense amidst an aimless ill-fitting offense, the hint of a turnaround, the push-some-chips-in move to get Derrick White, the emergence of Rob Williams as terrifying lob threat and rim protector, and the glory of Playoff Al, the O.G.
So I want to remember.
To savor this.
To remember to appreciate what it is to be a lifelong fan. What it took for this team to get here.
To remember who we’ve shared this journey with. And think fondly of those who aren’t here, though we wish with all our hearts that we could share these precious, exhilarating Finals games with them.
It’s been six years since I saw that Game 6 loss in Boston. Six years since Dad and I mutually agreed to let a legend enjoy his dinner without breathless fan interruptions.
Today, and every game day for the rest of these Finals, I’m thinking of my dad. I’m thanking him for sharing his fandom with me. Because I wouldn’t be who I am without it. I’m holding the bittersweetness of this terrific season close, wearing my Marcus Smart jersey, and cheering for two.