On May 22, 2007, I had just finished my last day working at the Boston television station where I'd been for five years. I was preparing to depart for my new job at ABC News' Washington bureau, so a group of co-workers and I had headed across the street to a local watering hole to hoist a few … and watch the NBA draft lottery.
The Boston Celtics, the basketball team that had won 16 world championships but none since 1986, was one of the lottery participants by virtue of the team's 24-58 record, second worst in the league. Boston was hoping the pingpong balls would bounce their way and yield one of the draft's two big prizes: Ohio State's Greg Oden, a 7-foot man-child, or Kevin Durant, a lanky swingman and prolific scorer who some had called the best college player since "His Airness" himself, Michael Jordan.
Well, we all know how that turned out. Not only did the Celts not get one of the top two picks … the pingpong balls produced pick No. 5, the lowest pick they were eligible for. My jaw dropped, my head was in my hands, and my heart was broken. A funereal atmosphere overtook the gathering. and soon after it broke up.
It was 1997 all over again. That was the year Boston, owner of the league's worst record, lost out on drafting Tim Duncan. Duncan, of course, would go on to win four championships with the San Antonio Spurs and the Celtics were doomed to another decade of mediocrity.
As I walked out the door, I remember saying to no one in particular, "Now we'll find out what Ainge, Danny Ainge, the Celtics general manager, "is really made of."
Let me explain.
I came of age during the '80s in a small town/bedroom community on Boston's rocky North Shore. The Celtics were an obsession among me and my friends. Led by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis "DJ" Johnson, the green team would bring home three championships (1981, 1984 and 1986), while playing in a total of five NBA finals. They were our generation's edition of the previous championship-driven Celtic teams that had once won eight straight championships with legends like Russell, Cousy and Havlicek. The Bird-led team played a hyper-efficient brand of ball, executed by highly skilled and driven players. The truth is, they would destroy most teams, putting up 40 points in the first quarter: Game over.
Tickets to the Boston Garden were tough to come by in those days. (There was no eBay for Stub Hub at the time. I know, hard to believe). My chance to see these "Hoop Gods" in person was often thanks to the generosity of my friends and their parents. My friend Steve's dad would give us tickets on Nov. 5, the birthday that we both shared. Josh's parents would even take us to the now defunct Scotch 'N Sirloin around the corner from the Garden … before settling into prime loge section seats.
Yes, we took our good fortune for granted. Making the NBA finals was routine. It became all so ho-hum. It was sweet. It never occurred to my entitled 15-year-old sports psyche that Boston's hoop dominance wouldn't last forever.
I still remember the 1987 finals like it was yesterday. The Celtics were hobbling with several injuries including a Kevin McHale broken foot. The showtime Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson and James Worthy, ran the hometown team off the floor, winning the championship in six games. Still, we figured, it was merely time to regroup for the following season.