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."
Growing Up Green
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.
The End of the Run
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.
But shortly after the draft, the "future superstar" Len Bias died unexpectedly and it was all downhill for the Cs. The following years were painful ones for the once-proud Boston Celtics and their fan base -- the premature deaths of Bias and Reggie Lewis, the hiring's of Rick Pitino, ML Carr and Dave Gavitt. For a team with a leprechaun as its mascot, it was bad luck after more bad luck.
A Beantown Renaissance -- for Some.
Since 2001, it was two other Boston professional sports franchises that built traditions of excellence. The Patriots won three championships with their shining knight of a quarterback Tom Brady, their genius coach Belichick and a team-first philosophy. And, oh yes, did I mention the Red Sox finally broke the 86-year-old "curse of the bambino" in 2004? (Only to win another three years later!) It seemed every year there were celebrations complete with duck boat parades down Boylston Street. Hub sports fans never had it so good. The angst-ridden days of Bill Buckner and Steve Grogan were ancient history. Who cared if the Celtics weren't competing for a championship?
Yeah, you guessed it: I did.
In fact, you might say I was envious. Don't get me wrong, I love the Pats and Sox. But my once-proud team became a punch line. Together with the Bruins, the winter sports season in Boston was deemed irrelevant by the local media. The months of February and March were marked by consistently uninspiring performances. There might be one article in the local papers, and often there were no highlights in the sports block of local television newscasts. If either team was lucky enough to make their respective post-season tournament, it was usually one and done.
Still, I continued to follow the squad and wore my faded Kevin McHale No. 32 jersey. I endured the friendly teasing of friends. "Green 17!" they would yell at me, referring to the team's 17th championship that seemed so far away, a pipe dream. As recently as one year ago, it appeared that management was going with talented but young (and certainly not championship-caliber) ballplayers.
While I may have been distraught after the 2007 NBA lottery, Danny Ainge, apparently, was not. On draft day, he packaged that No. 5 pick to get future Hall of Famer Ray Allen and then the piece de resistance, the Big Ticket: Kevin Garnett. The Celtics were relevant again ... no, the Celtics were championship contenders again. New England could no longer hibernate between the football and baseball seasons.
I had moved to Washington by the Garnett trade. I followed the press conference live on the Web. It was all so surreal. I even ordered the "NBA league pass" on cable so I could follow my favorite team from afar. I watched 50 plus regular season, became a hoops blog enthusiast, and listened to streaming sports radio on several Web sites. After The Washington Post, it was my required daily reading, listening and watching.
This season has been well documented.
The Celtics shot their way to a 66-16 record, an NBA best, led by three championship-starved superstars. Their team defense was, perhaps, the best ever seen in the league's history. They were once again the talk of the town. There were multiple articles in the local papers, local sports anchors were reporting from the Garden, and games were routinely sold out again. No longer did I seem like such a square. My team was back and it was hip to be a fan. And then, in April, the playoffs finally arrived.
After two seven-game series with the Hawks and Cavaliers, the Cs -- like Hillary Clinton -- found their voice. They beat Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals and then faced their old nemesis, the Los Angeles Lakers, in the NBA finals. Only this Laker team was overmatched from the get-go, and the Cs won it in six.
A taunt just one year ago, "Green 17" was now a reality.
Seeing Paul Pierce, this generation's Bird, clutch the championship trophy produced a feeling and satisfaction deep down for me that the Red Sox and Patriots championships could not. The Celtics are one of professional sports' signature franchises, and only now do the planets seem truly aligned in the New England Sports Universe. No longer do I, or other Celtics fans, need to be green with envy.