The City and The Celtics

The Celtics aren’t what they were just a few seasons ago. The city of Boston is continually changing, too.
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Late on a Monday afternoon, I tune in to watch my Celtics. They'll always be my Celtics—though on days like this, it's hard to recall why. It's wet, foggy, and gray in Northeast Portland. Boston is 3,000 miles away. Somehow, it seems farther.

Here, it's 4:30 in the afternoon and 52 degrees out; there, it's well below freezing, and it's game time. The Celts are taking on the Charlotte Hornets, and it's clear from the jump that this won’t end well. Jared Sullinger is forcing jump shots and they're not falling; Tyler Zeller is trying to establish the post early and it's not working. Evan Turner is ineffectual, as ever. Kemba Walker is attacking the Celtics' interior D with impunity. At some point I blinked and opened my eyes to discover Boston down 15-4.

These aren't the Celtics I remember. Two years ago, Sullinger and Zeller would have been Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett; Turner would have been Rajon Rondo. The Hornets would have been the Bobcats. And I would have been there.

A lot has changed.

***

I spent nine years in Boston, all of them around basketball in some capacity. My first real job after college was as a journalist covering the Celtics in their late-2000s glory days, rubbing elbows with KG, Pierce, and the rest of them. I loved that team. I admired those guys to no end for their diligence and unselfish play, but it was more than that. I was compelled by their monomaniacal drive to validate themselves. The Celtics’ Big Three were all a decade-plus into their careers, and none of them had but sniffed the Finals before 2008. They were desperate to change that. The determination to win consumed the team in that first year. Once they had won, a sense of pride and accomplishment reverberated through the locker room in the seasons after. The team had become living proof that hard work paid off. Covering that group was more than a job—it was an experience that helped shape my worldview.

I left the city this past summer. I enjoyed my time there, but there was little reason to stay. My college friends had all scattered across America. My grandparents, who had lived in Boston all my life, were both dead and gone. My grandmother passed away in April; we sold the old family house in June. By August, I was ready to pack my bags and try a new life somewhere else. Portland made sense to me. It was far away, both literally and figuratively. It was something different. It was time.

To me, it made sense to leave Boston behind, since all the heroes I'd come of age with were doing the same. Garnett was in Brooklyn, Pierce in D.C. Doc Rivers had moved to Los Angeles. Ray Allen was off enjoying his pseudo-retirement in Connecticut. Kendrick Perkins was going on four years in Oklahoma City. Rajon Rondo, though I didn't know it at the time, was heading for Dallas soon, as was Jeff Green for Memphis. I hated seeing each of those guys go, but I understood their reasons. The city wears on you after a while. You appreciate it while you're there, and it builds your character immeasurably, but when it's time to move on, you're ready.

When Rondo returned just after New Year's, taking on the Celtics in unfamiliar Mavericks blue, I watched dispassionately. There was no bitterness or resentment—to me, Rondo was another in a long line of guys who left Boston when it was time to do so. I could sympathize. I watched as Rondo played the game of his life against his old teammates, carving them up and carrying the Mavs to a double-digit win. I remember thinking in the fourth quarter, with the outcome of the game long decided, that the only question left was whom Rondo would hug postgame. Did he even have any friends left in Boston?

I eventually got my answer. Rondo embraced Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger, then gave Brad Stevens a cordial handshake. It’s odd: These three men now qualify as elder Celtics. The players are still youngsters at the relative starts of their careers. Stevens arrived in Boston 18 months ago. There are 21 jerseys hanging from the Garden’s rafters, but this current Celtics squad doesn’t fit into the team’s rich lineage. They’re a foundering mish-mash of personnel going through a transitional period. What they’re transitioning toward, exactly, is difficult to suss out.

***

Boston is deceptively amenable to transition. For those who are unfamiliar with the city firsthand but build their conception of it through pop culture, it might be jarring to know the truth. The best way to describe it is that there are two Bostons. One is the Boston we see in movies like The Town or The Fighter: gritty, working-class folks with roots firmly planted in the town for generations. That group is unfailingly true to itself in ways both good (loyalty to friends and family, a belief in tradition) and bad (latent racism and a propensity for class warfare).

Then there's the other Boston. While half the city is inhabited by the lifers, the other half is a generation of carpetbaggers and passers-by. They parachute in for whatever reason—to attend one of the city's numerous colleges or universities, or to chase a prestigious job with a financial firm on State Street or one of the many tech startups sprouting up in the areas surrounding MIT—and don’t tend to stick around for long. They come; they go; they get on with their lives.

A perplexing question is precisely what role the Celtics play in the age-old struggle between these two competing populations. There was a time when Red Auerbach's squad embodied the spirit of that first group—those 1960s teams were loaded with proud, loyal men who spent many years earning the city's trust and admiration. Bill Russell. Sam Jones, K.C. Jones. Satch Sanders. Jim Loscutoff, Frank Ramsey. The great Tom Heinsohn. These players were (and continue to be) institutions in Boston. Which is not to say their relationship with the city was always perfect. On the contrary, Russell spent years at odds with the (predominantly white, male) fans all around him. But all of those men, even Russell, stuck with the city and grew with it and are ultimately remembered as a part of it. That, if you’ll pardon the cliché, has traditionally been the Celtic way.

I don't know which Boston this current incarnation of the Celtics represent. It's hard to imagine any of these Celtics with a number hanging from those aforementioned rafters someday. Pierce will certainly get his, as likely will Garnett and maybe Allen or Rondo, but things might go dark for a while after that. I'm not sure what, besides futility, we'll remember about the decade of Celtics history between 2010 and '20.

Of course, it's silly to demand that every moment of a team's history fit neatly and beautifully into a capital-E Era. Sometimes time just passes and stuff just happens. Life can be arbitrary, and so can basketball. Boston is lucky enough already to have 17 championships. What did we do to deserve a dynasty in the 1960s, then another in the '70s, another in the '80s and one last title in 2008, all with completely different casts of characters? We'd be blessed even if the next century were one long title drought.

***

I keep saying "we." I'm part of that second Boston. I'm one of the passers-by, and I spent most of my time in the city surrounded by other transients. I showed up for my first year of college and lived in a dorm with roommates from Washington, D.C., rural Iowa, and Tokyo. I graduated and got jobs with coworkers from Baltimore, Palo Alto, and Dublin. Boston is like anywhere else—it's part of the melting pot.

I value my relationship with Boston, and I like to think all former Celtics do, too. But allegiance, memory, and feeling can’t do much to meliorate the depressive effects of watching Gerald Wallace and Jae Crowder get blown off the court on a nightly basis.

***

The Celtics lost to Charlotte. Sullinger was a warhorse in the paint down the stretch, fighting for a couple of late buckets to keep the final score respectable, but it was no use. Then again, is it ever? In the grand scheme of things, with a team that’s struggling to stay within 10 games of .500, it’s hard to celebrate the wins or mourn the losses.

The hardest thing about watching these Celtics now is not understanding where they are headed. You can't live for the moment with this group, treating every game like it's life or death. You have to look at the bigger picture. That is, if you want to stay sane.

Rondo and Green have moved on. If I were a betting man, I’d say Brandon Bass will be next. As for the group that remains, I wonder about them. What does the future hold?

I still think about my Celtics a lot—whether Stevens can guide them back to the top, whether Smart can be the next Rondo, and so on—but these questions don't keep me up at night the way they might have years ago. I am more removed now, more distant. My old fandom feels far away, separated by many miles and years. But the memories linger here in Portland, the same way they do in Los Angeles, Washington, Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Memphis. The Celtic pride may fade, but it never dissipates altogether.


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