My dad is a stats man. Since he doesn't have a television at the house, and he probably wouldn't watch it much even if he did, he doesn't ever end up watching any of the Celtics games each year. But he follows it online, seeing how the young players are improving, figuring out where the team will end up in the draft, dissecting all of Danny Ainge's baffling front office moves.
Whenever he gets the notion, he'll put down his current thoughts about the Celtic's status in an e-mail and send it along, and I'll write back with my interpretation, along with what I'd seen on Sportcenter and the glimpses of Celtics games that I'd caught that year. But each season it finally reaches a point with me where the team has just made so many bewildering moves and trampled on my hopes so much that I just can't take it anymore. And when my dad sends me one of those e-mails, I'll write him back and just say "I'm done." I just reach a point where I simply can't spend any more precious time thinking about a Celtics team that has done virtually everything to convince their fan base that they have no idea what they're doing. Around the time the lottery rolls around, I perk up and join back in, researching likely picks for the team and trying to figure out if they have the players to make the leap to the playoffs this year. Each year, my hope returns, a little bit diminished from the time before, but it returns.
But this is it. I can't root for this team anymore, I can't wait for this team anymore, I can't do it. I'm done.
I first got into NBA basketball in the fall 1995, after the Rockets had just won their second championship. I was just starting 6th grade, and my dad handed me an issue of Sport magazine that someone had left behind at work. It was the NBA preview for the coming year. I don't know what happened to me - maybe it was just the time in my life or some part of my personality, maybe I just needed a new interest - but it just took. I read that issue over and over and over, hundreds of times, dog-earing the pages, memorizing their player rankings - Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan were the only "A+" players, but there were lots of "A" players: Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway, Clyde Drexler, Mitch Richmond, Chris Webber. In some ways, I've never shaken those rankings from my mind - 12 years later, Juwan Howard is still a "B+" player. I'm quite sure I'm the only one who thinks so.
Eventually I cut out all the player pictures and stuck them on the wall around my bed with sticky tack. I would lay there at night, looking at them: there was KJ, grimacing as he drove into a crowded lane. There was cocky Nick Van Exel, disdainfully beating his man off the dribble. There was young Glenn Robinson, gliding to the hoop. There was Karl Malone, lofting a two-handed set shot. I would stare at those pictures and dream of that grace and skill. It was that next year, with no skills, no knowledge of the actual rules of basketball, and absolutely no talent, that I joined the school basketball team for the first time. It was those pictures that made me believe I had it in me.
The issue declared it a virtual lock that the Rockets would three-peat, beating the Magic in the Finals again. They figured that high-school draft pick Kevin Garnett was going to be a huge disaster for Minnesota. They figured the return of Jordan would be dramatic but wouldn't be enough to launch his team to a championship. And it figured the Celtics weren't going anywhere fast. On this matter - and this matter alone, I think - they were quite correct.
I began rooting for the Celtics that season. Sure, I followed the whole league - I knew every player in it for those first three or four years - but it was the Celtics that captured me. They were the hometown team, with this grand history of awkward white guys who played with tenacity and fluidity and success. That year they went 33-49, and drafted a young forward from Kentucky named Antoine Walker whom I believed would be the savior of the franchise. My mom photocopied me Dan Ryan's Boston Globe article about the Celtics selecting Walker, and I hung it on my wall next to the pictures, where Walker's picture smiled out at me, his arms still raised in victory from the stock photo they used for the article: a picture of him celebrating on the court after Kentucky won the national title that year. I was sure that would be us, soon.
But it wasn't us. Chicago won another title that year, on their way to a second three-peat, and our general manager, M.L. Carr, decided to try his and at coaching. The Celtics went an abysmal 15-67, almost an NBA record, and an embarrassment to a fan base used to failure from the hard-luck Red Sox, and the laughably incompetent Patriots, but not from their proud, resilient Celtics. Radio call-in stations were flooded with fans who spewed hatred at Carr, and publicly pleaded for run-and-gun college coach Rick Pitino to come up and save the franchise. People even wrote comic songs about it, I still remember one playing over the radio. "Oh, Rick Pitino, come to Bos-ton. 'Cause M.L. Carr's killin' me..."
And Pitino came. And I waited for it to happen. I knew it was going to happen. And then the NBA draft rolled around.
It was the year of Tim Duncan. Admittedly, there were other players that people were looking forward to - a lanky senior forward from Utah named Keith Van Horn. A flashy playmaker from Colorado named Chauncey Billups. A versatile swingman named Tim Thomas. Some people were even talking about taking a risk on this high school kid from Mount Zion named Tracy McGrady. But was Duncan everyone wanted, and everyone knew it. And the Celtics fans knew we had him all but locked up. I'd watched our team tank all season, waiting for Duncan to come and save us.
Because of unusual trades and the addition of two different expansion teams the year before who weren't allowed to receive the top pick, the Celtics had an astronomically good chance of getting the top pick. In addition, they were also receiving another pick from Dallas, to whom they'd quite brilliantly traded Eric Montross for the rights to, in addition to the getting to move up and select Walker the year before. You can't blame Dallas, of course, for moving down in the draft that year. After all, there were loads of players still available: Derek Fisher, Pedrag Stojakavich, Jermaine O'Neal, Steve Nash, even Kobe Bryant. Dallas, naturally, selected Samaki Walker. I'd like to bet they eventually regretted that.
I bring all this up so that you can see that things weren't all that black-and-white right then. We didn't know who was going to hit big and who was going to bust. I thought maybe all these high-school kids could work out, but they seemed to be too big a risk, I didn't know then who would be big, except for this: I knew I wanted Tim Duncan. I knew he was going to change everything. I knew that it was the dawn of a new era.
But it never happened. The ping-pong balls bounced differently than they should have bounced, differently than they were supposed to bounce, and we ended up with the 3rd and 6th picks. We picked up Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer, both of whom the team quickly decided weren't going to pan out and started shopping them around. Tim Duncan joined David Robinson on the Spurs and led them to a championship two years later. Pitino came, traded all our players for fresh blood, traded those players again, and then left after it became quite clear that no fresh blood, least of all his, was ever going to change our losing ways.
We drafted player after player so uninteresting that every detail about them has already faded from my memory: Jérome Moïso, Josip Sesar, Joseph Forte, Darius Songaila, Dahntay Jones. Jim O'Brian came and left. We traded Chauncey Billups for Kenny Anderson. We traded away Joe Johnson for Tony Delk. Paul Pierce got stabbed in a bar by a random fan. I knew how he felt. We traded Vitaly Potapenko and Kenny Anderson for Vin Baker, who promptly went crazy. I knew how he felt.
Danny Ainge arrived, and promised fresh blood and more talent. We traded Antoine Walker for Raef Lafrenz, then traded again to get him back, then traded him away again for literally nothing. Then we traded Raef Lafrenz, too. We traded to get Ricky Davis, then traded just to get rid of him. We traded desperately, treating each move like a blackjack hand, waiting for that lucky hand that would let us bust the dealer. We kept adding more young players and subtracting the young players we'd traded for the time before, waiting for that one who would take us there. Take us back where we belonged, on the top of the heap. Take us to the place I'd dreamed about, lying on my bed, staring at a grainy black-and-white photo on the wall. I just kept waiting. And I wound up back here again on lottery night, 10 years later. Waiting for Greg Oden. Waiting for Kevin Durant. Waiting for that player to take us there.
But Oden's not coming. Durant's not coming. No one is coming, no one is going to show up and save us, save me from all this waiting, all this hoping, all this dreaming that someday my team will get it back again. And I'm through waiting.