A Noble End for the Celtics

Being a sports fan is normally a suckers bet. It is expensive, time-consuming, and, above all, emotionally draining. As fans, our relationship with professional athletes is insanely asymmetrical: they could never care nearly as much about us as we do about them. We even react differently to winning and losing. The reason so many Patriots fans were aghast at the team partying after their Super Bowl loss was that we couldn’t imagine doing it ourselves. That’s not to say the Pats did anything wrong, just that they exist in a separate sphere from us fans.

By far the worst, though, are the athletes who take us for granted, forgetting that it’s the fans who pay their salaries and are the very reason they can enjoy such a nice life. Exhibit 1A of this was LeBron James’ infamous “Decision” TV special, when he spat all over Cleveland on his way to South Beach.

All of which is a long way of saying that the 2011-2012 Boston Celtics were one of my favorite teams in a long time. They played injured and got farther with the tank on empty than anybody could have reasonably expected. They were also entertaining as hell: Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett are not characters that just come along everyday in sports. Rondo’s inventive play alone makes him unique, but, it’s his ever-fixed expression (or lack thereof) that makes him so transfixing. And KG is of course crazy, but who ever heard of a 36-year-old player actually getting better with age? Clearly, the Celtics weren’t just a bunch of athletes doing their jobs — there was a discernible passion fueling them. This was the rare team that not only seemed to care, but seemed to care in the same way the fans did.

In the wake of LeBron’s infamous Decision in 2010, there was no shortage of stories and columns written trying to ascertain exactly what the whole spectacle meant. My favorite of those was by Will Leitch, who, writing for New York magazine’s website, captured the sports fan’s dilemma perfectly. Just after LeBron announced where he was taking his talents, Leitch wrote:

Loving sports, by definition, requires a certain suspension of disbelief and logic. We are all pouring our hearts and souls into cheering for men (and women) who do not care about us, who are not like us, who are not the type of people we would ever associate with (or even meet) in real life. We deify them because it is hard to find people to deify in the real world: Sports spans every age group, ethnic group, political persuasion, and all else that serves to divide us, separate us. We cheer for athletes because sports does not matter, not really. We cheer because sports is, ultimately, harmless.

And we trust that they will at least pretend. We trust that they will recognize the ultimate ludicrousness of this whole enterprise, that these are grown men wearing tank tops, throwing a ball up and around, running on wood, that this all exists because we allow it to exist, that the illusion must be maintained. We trust that they understand how good they have it, how much we give them, against our own self-interest. We trust that they are not laughing at us.

That trust felt broken tonight.

He went on wonder whether, with that trust broken, watching the NBA could ever be the same. Of course, once the games started, even last season, it pretty much was. But this Celtics team lived up to that trust more than just about any other. They understood the illusion that is sports and respected it, if by nothing else burning themselves out every night this past month. When they talked about how great the fans were, it didn’t sound like boilerplate, but actually like they meant it. When Garnett and Rondo stormed off the court without exchanging handshakes after losing Game 7 in Miami, it was no doubt classless and intemperate. It’s also exactly what we might have done in a moment of such disappointment.

A lot was made of how fans stayed and chanted “Let’s Go Celtics,” in the waning moments of the Heat’s Game 6 blowout win at the Garden. We patted ourselves on the backs and talked about how there weren’t too many other fan bases out there that would do that. That’s likely true, but it’s also worth remembering that there aren’t too many other teams that would have inspired this fan base to do that.