Category Archives: Boston Celtics

Tuning back in for the Celtics (and Isaiah Thomas)

Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart on the court for the Boston Celtics, 2017.

Thomas and Smart, back in the day (a.k.a., three seasons ago). Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons

I wonder what my 12-year-old self would think: endless channels, a nice TV in the living room with all the sports I could reasonably want available, and yet I’m opting for a responsible bedtime over watching overtime more often than not. I suppose I’d just have to tell him that 37 is fine, but it comes with its own set of challenges. Nice TV, though.

But one thing helping to break out of this funk lately is the Boston Celtics. A 7-1 start to the season, looking to make it 8-1, and matching up with Isaiah Thomas now leading the Washington Wizards certainly seems worth plopping myself down on the couch to take in all four quarters in mostly rapt attention.

The timing was excellent. It was a collision of two legitimately enjoyable eras of basketball: Thomas’ gang of overachievers and the current group, led (in marketing at least, and likely much more) by Kemba Walker but much closer in spirit to the united squad that upended so much of the superstar-based conversation that bogs down so much in the NBA. While the chronic weirdness and mystery that surrounds all things Kyrie Irving was exhausting, the biggest disappointment in last season was Irving’s indecision plunging the Celtics into the kind of drama that follows, say, LeBron James anytime he’s within three years of a new contract. That brand of is-he-staying-or-leaving nonsense overshadows the actual games, sinks teams and makes the game being played a drag. Continue reading

Outcasts, antique stores and Larry Bird

Rare is the instance where I can recall myself as a little kid and not instantly cringe with regret. So bear with me while I hang onto one of those moments. All it took was a glance out a window while driving around in Tennessee, of all places.

Pigeon Forge, specifically, is where I spotted a sign reading “OLD BASEBALL CARDS” in the window of an antique shop this week, and I filed it away as an activity for later. I was hoping to find a cache of 1970s or early ’80s baseball cards, something where I could walk away with some cool, weird stuff without having to break a $10 bill.

Instead, sitting near old Life magazines and tin Coke ads, were dozens and dozens of Larry Bird basketball cards. And I cannot undersell the incredible percentage of Bird cards — all from between 1990 and 1993 — in this box. If there were 400 sports cards in top-loaders up for grabs at a dollar apiece, about 100 featured a mullet-free Bird at the end of his career. Fleer, Topps, Upper Deck, Skybox and NBA Hoops were all present and accounted for. There were a lot of duplicates and a few I remembered picking up in fifth grade, but none of them hit me until I noticed this one, a 1992-93 Fleer card. I don’t know if it’s even worth the dollar. Obviously, I grabbed it. Continue reading

Rajon Rondo, basketball’s answer to Pedro

In the face of logic and ravages of age, the Boston Celtics are in the midst of a revival and have a real shot at making a run in the NBA playoffs.

But in Game 1, the Celtics came out flat against the Atlanta Hawks. A bad call on a jump ball caused their point guard to lose his temper and bump a referee. They lost, and had to play the second game without him.

They did win, bringing the series back to Boston tied 1-1. After the game, that guard was apologetic and thankful to his teammates, but also surprisingly brash.

“I feel like we’ve already won the series,” he said.

Meet Rajon Rondo, basketball’s answer to the one and only Pedro Martinez. Continue reading

Every peak has a valley, and so on

Larry Bird, 1991 NBA Hoops checklist

I’d like to think that, somewhere, Larry Bird was bummed.

So, it’s been quiet around here, mainly thanks to an epic trip to Chicago. I landed last week, and eight hours later, Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks were lifting the Stanley Cup on the Flyers’ home ice, sending the city into a frenzy. It was unbridled mayhem, nothing but good-natured folks going out of their minds over their hockey team finally reaching the promised land, 49 years after their last trip.

Last night, I was in Massachusetts, again just in time for another championship game. This time, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers were writing the next chapter in their history, taking their series to a Game 7.

Needless to say, it didn’t go as well.

♦ ♦ ♦

First, the Hawks. Of course, I’m a Bruins fan first. The Bruins might mean more to me than any other team I follow, really. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the Blackhawks, dating to the days of Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios (who, at 48, is still kicking with the Atlanta Thrashers. Amazing). They’re an original six team, they play in one of my favorite cities, my friends all love them unconditionally, and if that weren’t enough, they have, easily, the best uniform in sports. This year, they were especially fun, with toothless Duncan Keith holding down the blue line and a front three of Toews, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane terrorizing NHL defenses.

Partying at Comiskey. From left to right: Me, a hoosier, a Cubs fan, Mrs. Jason Varitek and a White Sox fan, all united for the Hawks.

As was our plan, my friends and I made our way to Comiskey Park for the White Sox/Tigers game, with plans to keep tabs on Game 6 as best as possible. And thanks to the Bullpen Bar, that wasn’t very hard at all. Except for one magical inning where the Other Sox scored seven runs, there wasn’t much baseball watched. This was all about the Cup.

The game ended, and the center field scoreboard switched to the Hawks. Down 4-3, the Flyers tied it and sent the game to overtime. But Kane scored that beautiful, no-angle goal, and the place went crazy. By this point, I had totally bought in to the Hawks, wearing the sweater I’d picked up years earlier to the game. I was jumping on top of people, screaming, generally making an ass of myself, but all in good spirits.

The next two days were fantastic. I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the Hawks’ goal foghorn and the Fratellis’ “Chelsea Dagger,” which has become their anthem. We found the team at a bar the night after partying with the Stanley Cup, and then two million Chicago crazies packed downtown for the parade. By the end of it, I was totally exhausted, but satisfied. Nothing feels better than when your team takes it all home, and for these folks who’d waited so long, it felt great to see them have their day. I’m glad they let me be a part of it.

♦ ♦ ♦

Then, there’s the Celtics. They will likely always suffer the fact that I’m just not as into basketball as I am most other sports.

It wasn’t always that way. In fact, the Celtics were the first team I really fell in love with, in elementary school following the twilight of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, collecting basketball cards to match. Bird’s retirement offered up my first broken heart as a fan, and Reggie Lewis’ death not long after, well, there are still no words for that one.

But basketball changed as the 1990s went on. The Celtics went from great to good to bad, but more than that, the NBA took a turn I couldn’t stand. The referees were horrible (and are somehow worse now), the Knicks and Heat turned the game into a league-wide wrestling match, and the last interesting dude in the game, Michael Jordan, retired in 1998. With him gone, my focus on basketball went, and so did the Celtics.

Dovetailing perfectly with all that was the rise of the Lakers. To summarize, the Lakers represent just about everything I despise in sports. Their “Showtime” attitude, their ridiculous cavalcade of celebrity fans, their $10,000 seats, Phil Jackson’s Montana-sized ego, and, of course, Kobe Bryant. There’s not enough harm that could come to the Lakers to satisfy me. Naturally, going into last night, they’d won four championships since 2000.

Since 2007-08, the Celtics have mattered. With the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the maturating of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, and the continuing cool of Paul Pierce, the Celtics turned the ship around and reclaimed basketball glory in 2008. And that was nice, though the Celtics’ win seemed just as cool that year as the Lakers’ loss. But I’ll still watch the Celtics, still root for them, and always root for Paul Pierce, who was a baby the last year I really tuned into a full season end-to-end.

So, the night began at a restaurant in Dartmouth, Mass., eating a pizza at the bar and watching the first half. At halftime, following some great work by Rondo and Garnett, the Celtics were up 40-34, and feelings were mostly good. They were still getting out-rebounded and missing easy shots, and the Lakers still had that guy on their side.

For the second half, the show moved to a bar in New Bedford just a quick walk from my apartment, where a band was playing, which I appreciated. If this were the Bruins or the Red Sox, I wouldn’t want that kind of distraction. But I was feeling anxious, and not having to hear the announcers helped.

The third quarter looked great. Garnett was imposing his will, the Celtics ran up a lead, and going into the fourth, I felt slightly better than OK.

In the fourth quarter, it started again. Boston’s complete inability to hit a shot, which had killed them in Game 6, was back for an encore performance. And the Lakers were hitting shots. And soon enough, they had a lead.

With about six minutes left, I went home, and flicked over to Family Guy on Adult Swim. I had seen enough of the Celtics this year to know how this movie ended. After about 10 minutes, I checked online to see that, yeah, they were down by six with about a minute to go. Soon, it was outside for a walk, where the game was visible through a few windows. Through a curtain, there were all those yellow shirts storming the court, with the volume up high enough to hear the chaos in the arena. There was no doubt now.

For a real sports fan, the peaks are few and amazing. The valleys can’t be avoided.

Ten greats I never saw

He was so good for so long. Just look at him in this picture; is there anywhere else he’d want to be? Incidentally, this is one of my favorite baseball cards.

I’ve always loved the history of my favorite sports, whether it’s diving back into baseball’s dead-ball era or recreating the magic of the old Garden-era Bruins and Celtics in my head. It’s a lot of fun to look back and see what came before my sports consciousness began around 1988 or so.

And with that, I’ve developed a list of favorites that predate my own fandom. Of course, this skews towards some New England legends, but how else could it be, right?

1. Carl Yastrzemski
Boston Red Sox, 1961-83
Just one look at his stats is enough to send me into convulsions. How else to react to a career, spanning 23 seasons, that began as a phenom replacing a legend and ended as the elder statesman of a league? Yaz was great from about 1963-1970, but was very good the entire way, moving from the outfield to first base, then back to the outfield, and back to first base again, before winding up his time as a designated hitter.

He was a tireless worker who hit forever, but this is my favorite tidbit about him: After moving to first base in 1974 to accommodate a young Jim Rice, Yaz moved back to left field for the 1975 ALCS, and then spent the full 1977 season there, where, at age 37, he went errorless and captured his seventh and final gold glove. And (I’m basing this on highlight reels, of course), he could move. How many 37-year-old outfielders have you heard of who could really cover their ground? I’m guessing Ichiro next year could do it, but it’s a short list to be sure.

2. Bill Russell
Boston Celtics, 1956-69
When looking at Bill Russell, what jumps out first is that he was a winner. His Celtics won 11 championships in his 13-season run, while he redefined what players could do on the defensive side of the ball. Wilt Chamberlain scored more? That’s great. But I’ll take Russell as my center any day, and he’s second only to Michael Jordan in my list of NBA greats.

But what puts Russell over the top for me is his behavior and demeanor as a man. Playing in a horribly racist environment in Boston during the 1960s, Russell used the hate sent towards him as motivation, shutting out the bigotry and refusing to compromise. And he was more than a basketball player. As he famously said, “basketball is what I do. It is not who I am.”

3. Bobby Orr
Boston Bruins, 1966-76; Chicago Blackhawks, 1976-1979
Three consecutive Hart trophies as the NHL’s MVP, eight consecutive Norris trophies as the league’s best defenseman, two Conn Smythe trophies as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs, delivered the Bruins’ last two Cups, was the only defenseman to win the Art Ross trophy as the league’s leading scorer (and he did it twice), led the league in plus/minus six times, completely changed the game of hockey and how defense could be played, and of course there’s that goal he scored.

Honestly, what else is there to say? There will only be one number 4.

4. Terry O’Reilly
Boston Bruins, 1972-85
I can’t think of another athlete who did more with less. O’Reilly was not the strongest skater and not the most gifted athlete. But he worked, and worked, and turned himself into an elite scorer, leading the Bruins with 90 points in 1977-78, and eventually served as their captain in his final two seasons.

And memorably, if you crossed him, he had no issue with beating the ever-loving shit out of you.

5. Ted Williams
Boston Red Sox, 1939-60
When the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived plies his trade in your backyard, it’s hard not to go back and appreciate it. Last hitter to hit .400 (.406 in 1941 of course), 1942 and ’46 MVP, 521 career home runs, a career OPS of 1.119 and three fantastic nicknames (Teddy Ballgame, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid) would be enough. But these are three things that stand out for me:

  1. When he first enlisted in the Navy, doctors realized his vision was 20-10, or to put it another way, the best they’d ever seen.
  2. He inspired the greatest piece of sports writing ever, John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
  3. His pregame batting practice ritual of hitting home runs, followed by shouting, “that’s right, I’m Ted Williams! I’m Ted Fucking Williams!”

6. Bill Lee
Boston Red Sox, 1969-78; Montreal Expos, 1979-82
The Spaceman has made a nice little life for himself pontificating on all things pure in baseball, sharing his left-brained views in The Wrong Stuff and The Little Red (Sox) Book, as well as appearing in Ken Burns’ epic Baseball documentary. But beyond his opinions on the designated hitter, drugs, and aluminum bats, Lee also takes time to visit Cuba, bringing the game and plenty of equipment to the poor but baseball-loving country.

And, for what it’s worth, he was also a hell of a pitcher. He was a key to the Sox’ pennant-winning rotation in 1975, racking up 119 wins and a 3.62 era in a 14-year career that ended with a walkout from Montreal in protest of teammate Rodney Scott’s release.

7. Luis Tiant
Cleveland Indians, 1964-69; Minnesota Twins, 1970; Boston Red Sox, 1971-78; New York Yankees, 1979-80; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1981; California Angels, 1982
The accent, the crazy mustache, the gyrating windup and the “Looo-EEEE!” chant of the Fenway faithful all add up to as colorful a character as has ever taken the mound for the Red Sox. But we’re also talking about a dominant presence, too. As evidence, let’s look at his Game 1 start in the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds: a complete-game shutout, limiting the Big Red Machine of Morgan, Bench and Rose to five hits in a tidy 100 pitches.

But let’s look at his Game 4 performance, too: another win, another complete game, this time over a whopping 155 pitches, giving up four runs and striking out four. Gutty? I’d say so.

8. Gordie Howe
Detroit Red Wings, 1947-71; Houston Aeros, 1973-77; New England/Hartford Whalers, 1977-80
Like Yaz, Howe played forever, and by the time he retired, he was the proud owner of several records, including most goals and points in a career (later to be broken by another Kick Saves favorite, Wayne Gretzky). But let’s take a look at his last year, at age 51, with the Whalers:

80 games, 15 goals, 26 assists, 41 points

For random comparison’s sake, let’s also look the 2009-10 season of our favorite current Bruin, Patrice Bergeron (who is a snappy 24 years old):

73 games, 19 goals, 33 assists, 52 points

I think it goes without saying that players aren’t supposed to be that good when they’re 51 years old.

9. Wayne Cashman
Boston Bruins, 1964-65, 1967-82
Like Yaz, Cashman spanned three decades with one team, and like Howe and O’Reilly, he was as tough as they come. He gets lost in the shuffle of great Bruins behind the likes of Orr, O’Reilly, Derek Sanderson and Johnny Bucyk, but Cashman carved out a stellar career of his own, scoring 277 goals and racking up 1,041 penalty minutes as a hard-working right wing. Most memorably, he served as the Bruins’ captain from 1977 until he retired in ’83, leading Don Cherry’s Lunch Pail A.C.

10. Dave Cowens
Boston Celtics 1970-80; Milwaukee Bucks 1982-83
This is almost completely anecdotal, as I’ve never seen full games of Cowens and only snippets of highlights here and there. But from what I know, he was a 6’9″ center who had to battle the likes of Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, won the 1973 MVP, led the Celtics to two banners in 1974 and ’76, and was basically forced to play much bigger than his frame. It’s easy to get behind someone who plays with such abandon all the time.

I always gravitated toward overachievers and hard workers, and it’s easy to say that pretty much everyone on this list were never short on effort in their careers. I didn’t get to see them, but I’m glad they were memorable enough for me to think about.