(Show me the way to go home)
I went to a Celtics game last night. First one ever. Now, before you clutch your pearls and recoil in horror with cries of, “But you said you were a sports fan!” allow me to explain. My family is not made up of basketball people. We’re all about the baseball and the football and, during the long, cold, cruel New England winters, we’ve been known to get just a wee bit obsessive about hockey. My brother, a former college and high school defenseman and current Bauer/Nike intern, sort of steered the ship on that one. And during the interminable month of February where the only football on the horizon is the Pro Bowl (*shrugs*), and baseball exists on another planet where pitchers and catchers squat and toss in the February sun without benefit of a ski parka, hockey has been known to help us pass the time. But you may have heard about this lockout thing that’s happening…
And so, to steel myself for the LONGEST. MONTH. EVER. beginning February 7th, I decided to check out a C’s game last night and see if I couldn’t be swayed by the parquet. Didn’t hurt that I was offered free $80 tickets either and the promise of overpriced sporting arena beer is a siren song I have long since learned not to fight. But what do you know? Basketball games are fun.
To be fair, I am not a basketball neophyte. In junior high, (yes, junior high, I’m a mere pup at 24 so shut up about it), I dated the star basketball player. I suppose that would make me the BWOC. As you can imagine, my 13-year-old heart went pitter pat at the thought of lay-ups and free throws and 3-second violations. Truth be told, that’s probably where my fascination with athletes started. I even played a bit myself. I wasn’t any good, mind you. Well, no good at shooting anyway. In my freshman year of high school, I racked up a grand total of five points, three of which were free throws. But I was ace at rebounding. “The Big White Banger” as my dad used to call me. Nevertheless, I soon realized that b-ball was not my game and I turned my marginal athletic talents to softball where my knees remind me every morning that catchers have it tough. That lasted a few years until college when I realized that what tangentially sports-related talents I had were better spent writing about others much more adept at pick off plays and three pointers than myself. And here I am now.
Unlike most people who’ve fallen out of love with a sport and who can’t seem to remember why, I remember exactly when I stopped paying attention to basketball. 1992. Larry Bird watches his number 33 hoisted to the rafters of the Boston Garden and I stop caring so much about basketball. Sure, I watched the first Dream Team just like everyone else and I laughed at Lithuania’s tie-dyed uniforms. I cheered for Magic and was genuinely afraid for him when he was diagnosed with HIV. And I watched MJ retire…and unretire…and retire…and unretire…and retire again. But it stopped being as big a deal to me as it had once been. Listen, I grew up in New England. Bird was, and to a large degree, still is, it. He’s the one. He’s the standard by which most New Englanders under the age of forty measure greatness. Yes, we’ve got our Tom Bradys and our Bill Russells and our Bobby Orrs and now, our Curt Schillings, but there was something special about Bird. He didn’t really belong to any one generation. He spanned the game and allowed parents and children to marvel together. I know he’s been romanticized in the years since his retirement but in a way, he’s become more than a basketball player, and more than the hope of a region. He’s become a cultural touchstone. I still think one of the best commercials ever is the one with Bird and Jordan playing “nothing but net” for a McDonald’s Big Mac. “Over the highway, through the window…”
So, suffice it to say, I could never get myself excited about Paul Pierce and Shaquille O’Neal the way I could about Bird and Magic. Largely, this is because the culture of the game has changed since then, and not in small ways. That’s part of what makes basketball different from baseball. You can leave baseball for ten years and when you come back, things will look pretty much the same as when you left. The players might be a bit bigger, the home runs might go a little longer but the culture of the game hasn’t changed. You turn your back on basketball for a minute and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have been replaced by LeBron James and Allen Iverson. It’s a different game.
That said, I accepted the tickets to last night’s game because I figured it might be time for me to give basketball another shot. (Horrible pun most definitely not intended). Ten minutes after taking my seat, I realized something. Part of what makes basketball seem so boring on television – the constant scoring so that no one basket means much in the greater scheme of things – is what makes it so enjoyable in person. You get to clap and cheer every few seconds. And when someone executes an especially sweet move – like Paul Pierce’s beautiful spinning, twisting, lay-up after a steal over the head of Jason Kidd – you get to cheer louder.
Heckling the opposing team from fifteen rows away is much more fun than yelling at your TV as well. And if ever there was a player that I hated with the white hot passion of a thousand exploding suns, it’s the Nets’s Jason Kidd. And now he knows it.
Basketball games also lend themselves to good conversation. Amy and I spent a good deal of time discussing the ranch we imagined that sports mascots live at in their off-season and whether or not the Celtics’ Lucky has an inferiority complex when he meets up with Notre Dame’s Fighting Leprechaun. I made friends with the kid near the end of my row who was sporting a brand, spankin’ new Rodney Harrison jersey, complete with Super Bowl XXXIX patch. Because there will be more scoring – unlike baseball, football or hockey where you run the risk of missing the game’s only points – you don’t have to gnaw your fingernails down to bloody nubs during the game. That’s not to say that I won’t, come playoff time, because I tend to internalize sports pressure and let off steam at inopportune moments (witness two weeks ago Sunday as I threw my Chapstick, water bottle, wireless mouse and everything else within reach at the TV when the Pats allowed a touchdown to the Steelers), but I’m just saying, perhaps stress isn’t quite so integral this time around. I even noticed that the man in the row behind me bore a passing resemblance to Derek “Muppet Boy” Jeter and I worked up an irrational hatred for him despite the fact that he was clearly a Celts fan and cheering for my team. I’m telling you, were this baseball, I wouldn’t have noticed if the people in the row behind me were even wearing clothes, let alone who they looked like.
So basketball and me? We may become friends again after all. I might stop drying my hair during the SportsDesk highlights in the morning when they spotlight the C’s. I might start loving Waltah too. A man who didn’t, I might add, find himself traded to the opponent Suns on Walter McCarty Bobblehead Night last week as that would have been, in the words and inflection of John Stewart, “aaaaawkward.” I might just get caught up in this madness after all. I might “Love this Game.” Call me a bandwagoner if you want, but I prefer to think of it as a prodigal fan returning home. I’ll never stop romanticizing Larry Legend but there might be some room in my Patriot blue and Red Sox red heart for a little Celtics green after all.