Greenwashed

The Boston Celtics may be on the downside of what has been a good run. Their storyline, always more generous than it should've been, doesn't reflect that.
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I have come to bury the Celtics, not to praise them. Allow me to cast handfuls of dirt upon the casket as quickly as I can while so many others linger over it. It may be indecent to speak ill of the dead so soon after the passing, but urgency is of the moment. Now, before the decadent and decrepit is swathed in elegy and remembered through rhapsody, is the hour for us to fully remember something that had grown ugly.

These Celtics were histrionic. Whether it was a dull Wednesday in March or an ugly playoff series in May, a Boston game was always unnecessarily imbued with meaning that bled well past the parquet. That is no crime, and not even one of the Celtics making; fans and media were forever locating new moral lessons and hyperextended real-world parallels in Celtics basketball. Fault lies with these boors for getting lost in the delusion that the fiction which attended their games justified a reality that the players turned increasingly ugly. There was a real resonance to Boston’s Big Three title in ‘07-08, but it curdled along with the team in the years since.

A Celtic would go hunting for conflict, something prosaic would suddenly transform into a referendum on justice. By Friday night, in the sixth and final game of the team’s series against the Knicks, the folly of this petty machismo was laid bare. The depleted Celtics creaked toward one last feeble defeat, and 18,000 Boston fans were reduced to helping their heroes Kevin Garnett and Jordan Crawford win the only game still within a halfway crook’s reach: the crowd lustily taunted Carmelo Anthony because another man may have had sex with his estranged wife. No one appears to have shouted out all that was missing—“Worldstar!” Some empire, some end.

***

Memorializing the unbecoming episodes is important because they comprise a counterhistory to the heroic prevailing narrative and contemporaneous mythology surrounding the Celtics team that first took form in 2007. Regardless of the corrupt bargains which brought Ray Allen and Garnett to Boston, each arrived with a sense of deserved redemption. These two proud and long-suffering professionals—“proud,” “long-suffering” “professionals,” if you’re so inclined—would team with the incumbent president of Boston’s basketball society, Paul Pierce, and nobly win themselves a championship. They did so that first season, defeating the Lakers in an NBA Finals that was immediately bathed in narrative bathos, per Celtics custom.

Boston never won so much again, although an uninitiated observer would have to be excused for believing otherwise given the reverence the Celtics have commanded over the past six seasons. Pierce, Garnett, and Allen were protagonists in oft-told tales about hardened veterans achieving professional salvation, validating toil with championship glory, and then boldly saddling up for however many last rides. Doc Rivers was the workaday coach whose brilliance, as with the unexpected prom queen’s beauty once her glasses came off, was finally revealed to have been staring back at us the whole time. And in Rajon Rondo, the most compelling and youngest of the team’s stars, there was another story, of an unlikely star initially aloof and later invaluable, forged in Garnett’s searing intensity. The 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals were new chapters in a rivalry with the Lakers that has helped to curate NBA history. A feud with the Miami Heat was nothing less than a basketball cataclysm, an old-fashioned battle in heaven. It was all very good theater, honestly, if necessarily not the whole truth.

A good sports story, almost by definition, is an exercise in agenda-advancement and an appeal to emotions, and there’s no harm in that. But a good story can excuse churlish behavior by diverting attention elsewhere, or elevate empty bluster to rallying rhetoric, or subsume crassness and cruelty—belittling a role player as a “cancer patient,” to take one example from Garnett—into an acceptable cost of leadership. A multitude of sins, then, absorbed into something bigger and cleaner and more easily sold than the truth.

The Celtics might be forgiven for starring in these good stories. They did not devise or propel the largely feckless media environment which surrounds them; they certainly are not the first beneficiaries of Boston’s romantic overestimation of its own indispensability and pluck, nor the national media’s willingness to play along. Yet stripped of their narrative, the Celtics of recent vintage have been a competitive basketball team occasionally great, oftentimes less than that, and almost never appealing. This is at least in part because these Celtics have shown every indication of having internalized the storytelling and relied upon it to absolve themselves. They believe their own stuff, in other words. And that’s why an accounting, quite aside from the natural one that follows a first-round elimination, would seem to be in order.

***

Without question, winning an NBA title is a distinguished accomplishment, irrespective of any ill-gotten personnel windfall enabled by GM friendships or melodramatic wheelchair scares. But the Celtics are not an epochal team; one title does not define an era, particularly when set against other, better decorated contemporaries. This is all fine—the Celtics get to keep the rings, and the moments they authored that year will endure on their own. The plain story is important, though, because Boston has stumbled at various playoff stages since 2008, devolving from championship standard bearers to grandiose neighborhood bullies.

The real Celtics, or at least the team that has revealed itself after that championship season, are the team eliminated by New York last week. That series was a characteristically enervating Celtics playoff tussle marked by ugly games, sporadic offense, absurd posturing, and grinding basketball. In that way, it was an apt capstone for a Boston season in which injuries, age, and underwhelming additions, like Jason Terry, left the Celtics helpless in winter’s approach. Undeterred, Boston bowed out only after Crawford renewed a sucker’s fight with Anthony that Garnett had started earlier in the year—Crawford did so while running from the bench after a game in which he did not play, of course—and Terry celebrated relatively modest accomplishments as though he were winning’s dispositive element.

New York, moderately ascendant despite its own flaws, shuffled forward, the latest opponent to leave the Celtics, still lathered up in their own toxic fugazy brio, planning for next year. Neither came out looking great, honestly—recall that the Knicks almost dressed for their own funeral—but only one moved on, and seemed at all ready to face the future.

Crawford and Terry were Celtic newcomers this season. That they authored the latest entries in Boston’s burgeoning canon of you-played-yourself moments could be seen as a reflection of the culture in which they were immersed. Led by Pierce, lurching from one exaggerated moment to the next with admittedly great effect, and Garnett, vigilantly seeking out the most insignificant foes to provoke, the post-title Celtics have steadily vitiated their dignity and character, evincing sclerotic vanity and misguided masculinity as often as their vaunted poise and sophistication.

The heralded feats of these Celtics—playing well while injured, seizing opportunity amid swelling pressure—have been matched by embarrassments. While the narrative has almost reluctantly lagged behind, Boston has revealed itself as a team committed to the pusillanimous: intimidating Jose Calderon, elbowing Quentin Richardson, sending messages through Timofey Mozgov.

No indignity has been too frivolous or desperate. In the midst of a 2008 blowout victory at home, 6’10” Garnett got down on hands and knees to welcome rookie guard Jerryd Bayless to the NBA with a sneer. Garnett used a preseason game the following year to body Yi Jianlian, of all people. The next season he punched Channing Frye. Garnett, though the most foolish and physical, has not acted alone. Following a November win in 2010 that counted for nothing, Paul Pierce seized upon the prevailing populist rage to subtweet and mock LeBron James for The Decision. Apparently immune to the concept, Pierce failed to grasp the irony that he, who has assiduously cultivated the notion that even the slightest bump might cause a career-threatening injury, would jab at someone else for trafficking in drama. Pierce has been no less aggrieved when fighting or simply falling over for no reason, again and again and again. Character reflects leadership, and it’s clear who has guided Boston. The Celtics have embraced these demonstrative excesses, relishing whatever competitive advantages they earn, seemingly secure in the knowledge that their storyline protects them from being called what they have become.

***

For those who have looked on and grimaced, there has been some solace in how Boston has been recast as a foil, even to flawed, dopey teams like this year’s Knicks. During the recent, reliably celebrated tenure of near misses, the Celtics have shone brightest when reflecting light cast by the truly luminescent. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Dwight Howard in his halcyon, not-so-long-ago youth. Now even Carmelo Anthony. All have allowed Boston to shimmer, but only when catching hints of individual brilliances that ascended to burn brighter in the upper atmosphere, as the Celtics fell back to earth.

If you’re feeling generous, it could be said that the Celtics extract greatness from foes, demanding a higher form of basketball. But as the team’s latest iteration struggled even to reach 90 points in too many games, the Celtics were betrayed as something less flattering, an unpleasant inevitability instead of a true challenge: a big green speed bump.

So, yes, remember the good times. But the Celtics do not deserve a hero’s farewell, and they arguably don’t even deserve flowers. This particular Celtics team, especially, does not deserve the encomia and devotionals that have been massing on the narrative horizon all season. Recognize the good, but not at the expense of the bad. And consider that by the end, the Celtics were most notable for what they lacked—not only a point guard, but more importantly the grace to deserve the old storyline that enveloped them, even as they chipped and chipped against its edifice.


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