Tuesday, June 17, 2008

NBA Championship Joy: courtesy of JetBlue

Tonight, the Boston Celtics won their 17th championship, after 22 years since the last time a banner was hoisted to the Garden rafters. And, for the first time in about 17 of those years, I actually watched it happen, and it's all thanks to JetBlue.

Let me explain. First, some history: I grew up in Boston. The Celtics were my first sports love. I had (and still have) no interest in baseball, so the Red Sox were worthless to me. The Bruins were fun, but only in person, and it was clear after Bobby Orr retired, there was hardly any joy in the game. The Patriots? Well, they were always bums (except for Steve Grogan), so not much joy there. But like so many sons, it was my father that brought me the joy of the first team to follow. He huddled around a 9" black and white TV, every game, screaming at the Celtics like a coach. As a young boy, he taught me what to look for, what to watch. In short, I was hooked.

Later, as a young man, I watched the great Larry Bird era start. As I grew, divine convergence occurred, and the Celtics general manager became a customer of mine. I gave him heads-up on the newest and greatest gadgets; he rewarded me with tickets. In three seasons, I lived two blocks from the venerable Garden, and saw maybe 10 games a month, thanks to this, many behind the Celtics bench. I was there for the classic "Pigeon Game," where the bird inexplicably landed at halfcourt, urging the team to victory. I saw Laimbeer and Parish tangle, and Rambis and McHale battle on the boards. I saw David Thirdkill, Conner Henry, and Bill Walton. And, in 1986, I saw what is arguably the greatest NBA team of all time dominate the season and win the Sweet 16th banner.

Over the next few years, the Big Three retired. Lenny Bias overdosed, Reggie Lewis had a heart attack, and Red Auerbach faded away. And the game changed: Michael Jordan created the individual highlight player and the team game went out of style. The game became a preening, thug-like mockery of itself. By the time Jordan won his last title, I was done with the NBA. And so it remained, for many years. I tried from time to time to get into it, but the game was simply not the same. I had moved on to my beloved Cowboys and football, and forgot all about the Celtics.

In the last month, I have been traveling quite a bit. I fly JetBlue whenever I can, for reasons I have blogged about repeatedly. About a month ago, I had a cross-country flight. I considered catching up on email, or firing up the iPhone for a video, but I flipped through JetBlue's DirecTV connection, and saw a Celtics playoff game was about to start. What the hell, I thought. After all, I had a 6+ hour flight; why not? I had heard the Celtics had imported a whole new team of all stars this season, so it might be interesting. I tuned in, and was pleasantly surprised: this was a team game again! Even better, the game had changed: big men were shooting three pointers; superstars were more interested in passing that highlight reel shots; rookies playing like veterans. It was a delight, and the game was close, as the Celtics won a Game 5 after an incredible deficit. I was hooked.

As the Finals began, I convinced myself that this was a JetBlue phenomenon. I knew, as the made-for-TV rematch of the Celtics and Lakers began, that the Celtics were destined for a loss. They were a new team, with a bad coach, and that they would quickly revert when faced with the modern day solo acts of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Word came that Game 1 was the Celtics', and I began to hope again. Game 2, I was transfixed: facing the largest playoff deficit in history, just as I flicked on the TV, the Celtics came back to win back to back in Boston. Could it be? Did I dare to hope?

Tonight's Game 6 win culminated the rediscovered love of basketball for me. After tonight's win, capping their championship, the babbling sideline reporter went to the emotional heart of the team, Kevin Garnett, and attempted to stick a microphone in his face. Instead of the usual blather about thanking his teammates, and the other team, he cried. He struggled to find the words. Finally, without warning, he raised up, spread his arms wide, and screamed an unbridled expression of satisfaction and joy. And I was brought to tears by a sport in a way I had not been for nearly two decades.

These were men who had all been superstars on teams that had never seen success, brought together in a last chance for greatness. They were warriors who played not for the shoe contracts, or the commercials, but for the game. They were men who all took a chance: they joined a team that was absolutely the league-worst last year, and all joined for a desperate grasp at greatness...and did just that.

So tonight, I smoke a celebratory Red Auerbach cigar, not for the Celtics, not for JetBlue, but for the rekindling of a joy I had long forgot...and for the players who reminded me that there is still greatness in competition, faith, teamwork, and joy. No, it's not the Big Three; no, the Garden is no longer standing; no, this is not always going to be the case. But for tonight, the Celtics have won a championship again...and won my basketball heart once again.

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