Last night, the Brooklyn Nets visited the TD Garden to play the Boston Celtics. The national attention focused on the event had nothing to do with the basketball being played, which over the course of the evening ranged from generally mediocre to outright terrible. Under most circumstances, the game would have been unwatchable, except for the most devoted and die-hard fans. However, last night was not “most circumstances.” Not, anyway, for fans of the Boston Celtics (or, to a lesser extent, for fans of professional basketball in general).
For the first time since they were traded away last summer, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were returning to the TD Garden. For the first time, when the two of them entered the back of the arena, they had to turn left instead of right – to the visitor’s locker rooms instead of those for the home team. For Paul, the Truth, it was the only time treading that path in his 15 year NBA career. For Kevin, the Big Ticket, it was the first since his days playing in Minnesota, over 6 tumultuous, career-altering years ago. Already, some people reading this might be rolling their eyes and scoffing about how serious my tone is while talking about basketball players. There is a cynical part of me that agrees; it is patently ridiculous the extent to which people force narratives onto sports, imbuing every event with imagined dramatic significance, and becoming emotionally invested far beyond the level which is objectively acceptable for a game (no matter how enjoyable it is to watch).
The fan narrative we’ve constructed around Paul Pierce goes something like this: in 1998, the Kansas alumni was drafted with the 10th overall pick by the Boston Celtics. Despite being, historically, the most successful and celebrated franchise in basketball, the Celtics had been mired in mediocrity for the better part of a decade, due to a combination of injuries (forcing Larry Bird and Kevin McHale to retire), tragedy (the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis), and poor drafting/coaching. However, despite high hopes with the drafting of Pierce and the hiring of Rick Pitino as general manager/coach, the team’s fortunes failed to improve. Pierce was seen as immature, a locker-room cancer, a “thug”; culminating in 2000 when, at a Boston nightclub, he was stabbed 11 times in the face, neck, and chest. He nearly died, but was saved by a teammate rushing him to the hospital in time for emergency lung surgery. He came back the next season and played all 82 games and led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1988. Although the Celtics lost the series to the Nets, Pierce had cemented his stature as a star after leading a comeback from 21 points down in the 4th quarter to win Game 3. However, the success proved unsustainable: the Celtics continued to lose for the next several seasons.
This is where this narrative joins with the one we have constructed around Kevin Garnett. I won’t go too much into his background, but briefly: KG was drafted to the NBA directly out of high school and had played his entire career with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He had earned the Most Valuable Player award in 2004 and was already considered a future Hall of Famer, one of the best power forwards (and possibly greatest defensive player) in the history of basketball. However, the wretched management of the team prevented KG from ever seeing sustained success, and in 2007 demanded a trade. As a result of a series of complicated maneuvers by the Boston general manager, Danny Ainge, KG ended up in Boston, next to Paul Pierce and another star, Ray Allen, traded that same summer from the Seattle SuperSonics (RIP).
In that first season, KG, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen led the Boston Celtics to a championship, the first for the team since 1986. Along the way, KG earned Defensive Player of the Year and Paul Pierce won the Finals MVP. More than that, Paul and KG (no disrespect meant to Ray Allen by not including him, here) completely changed the culture of the team and the way the team related to the city of Boston. For the next five seasons, although they were never able to win another title, they kept the Celtics consistently fun to watch and relevant in the postseason picture.
That, anyway, is the narrative. The strange thing about sports narratives, though, is the way they fit all of the facts of the matter (nothing I wrote above is untrue), but are utterly impossible to verify. They are based on a collective, subjective interpretation of events on the part of the fan-base, with little or no input from the players, coaches, or executives themselves. The players smile and say the same pre-packaged, league-approved things. We never really know how sincere they are when they talk about how much they love the city and the fans. It is, literally, their job. Just like actors are paid the big bucks to promote movies and get people to fill the seats in the theater, the star players are given their millions to promote the team and get people to fill the stadium.
Further, what exactly does it mean when we talk about “the culture” of a team? Or the team’s “relationship” with its fan base? If we want to be completely cynical, there is no such thing as team culture: for the most part, the personnel that make up any given basketball team changes dramatically from season-to-season (or even within a season). It is just a bunch of people that have really liked basketball for a long time hanging out for a while (and, in fact, many of them spent their youth on the AAU circuit, which is notorious for being completely uninterested in team-building as opposed to promoting players to college scouts). And what relationship does the team have with its fans, except for the business reality that if you plop any sports team down in an appreciably sized city people will pay to see it (unless its Milwaukee).
And there are all sorts of pessimistic explanations for why people like sports so much. Some of it is the redirection of ancient tribal instincts: when we watch a team a lot, and recognize the players, our brain can’t understand the distinction between seeing a face a lot and not actually knowing the person, so we identify with them as if they were a friend or member of our tribe. And we root for our tribe against this abstract “other” represented by the more unknown faces of the other team. Some of it is simply our desire to take part in a communal experience, to not be left out, to tap into something we hear referenced in popular culture. Tied up in both of these is the idea of regional pride: people are always naturally proud about the place they grew up, and fans begin to see it as a referendum on the city, and thus themselves, when their team plays one of those other asshole cities (looking at you, Dallas).
These arguments aren’t wrong, per se. They are grounded in reality and have been fairly extensively documented. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that our attachment to sports is meaningless or pointless. And last night, in the TD Garden, we had some proof of the converse, when the players show their love and respect back to the city. During the first quarter of the game, over the Jumbo-Trons that loom over the court, tribute videos were played, honoring Pierce and KG’s times in Boston. The tribute videos are only 60 seconds long and, in montage form, recount the same narratives I already explained earlier.
I will be the first to admit that I got a little teary-eyed watching those, as ridiculous as that sounds. But I am not the only one. In the press conference after the game, both Pierce and KG were visually choked up and teary-eyed. Pierce sighed and said that he couldn’t sleep the night before, thinking about the moment he stepped into the arena again. He said he was seconds away from breaking down and crying during the tribute video. Seeing the soft side of KG is especially jarring, considering that, in general, the only emotion he tends to express is a combination of rage and pants-shitting insanity.
And it is moments like last night that remind you that these teams, these players, are not just objects for our psychological quirks, they are people, too. Most enter the league before they are legally able to drink (KG was 19, Pierce was 20). Although legally adults, I am sure all of you reading this know first hand that people in this age range are still kids in more ways than not. Kids who have spent their entire lives loving basketball and dreaming of being the best basketball player in the world.
In the case of Pierce, do you think it means nothing to him that he essentially grew up while playing for the Boston Celtics? He joined them as a 20 year old kid and left them as a 35 year old. The team stuck with him, committed to him even when he was widely considered too immature to be a real star or on-court leader. They made him team captain, and in the end he was not only rewarded with an NBA championship, the highest award in basketball, but a Finals MVP trophy, an acknowledgement that you, individually, led the team there. Of course Boston as a city means something to him; psychology works both ways. Just as we fans irrationally identified with Pierce, he irrationally identified with us.
For KG, the narrative is a little different but the conclusion is the same. For someone with a borderline psychotic competitive streak who loves the game of basketball, it was painful to be stuck in Minnesota (sorry, Minnesota, nobody else likes lakes that much). The team’s management never treated him with respect or made significant efforts to improve the team so he could compete on the highest level. He felt slighted by them, insulted; he came to Boston and was instantly embraced and afforded the same level of passion and respect given to Pierce, who had been there far longer. He was embraced by the city and rewarded with a championship. Of course he emotionally identifies with Boston. I mean, does this look like the face of somebody incapable of feeling human emotion?
The players, like us, are fans of the sport. They play for the same reasons we watch them play. We became fans of the sport because at some point as kids we were introduced to the game. Maybe we didn’t understand what we were watching, but people were cheering and enjoying it so we decided to buy in. Pierce, KG, and the others went through the same thing (though, clearly, they became a bit more committed). We have some semblance of a shared experience here, a shared nostalgia, that connects us through the sport. That has to count for something.
Maybe it is still nebulous just what it means for a team to have a “culture,” or for that culture to have a relationship to its city. And maybe the narratives we build up around our favorite teams and figures get pretty silly (I, especially, find the whole metaphor of the game as a battle and the players as warriors that is used ad nauseum to be pretty goofy and tiresome). But it is nice to remember that the players, too, can be emotional and buy into these ideas, no matter how ludicrous or arbitrary they might be in a completely objective sense. Who needs objectivity anyway? After all, we could just watch the Harlem Globetrotters every night if we decided emotional investment in specific teams wasn’t worth the effort (and rooting for the Washington Generals must be better than being a Milwaukee Bucks fan). Or we could go even further: if we were completely objective we wouldn’t be playing or watching sports, or at least not ones with such complicated sets of strange rules. Then again, maybe there is something special about basketball … it will still be in vogue even when the otters inevitably take over the world.