Essay: My Game 7 Experience
It used to be when people asked me how it is I could be so in love with the game of basketball I didn’t know what to say. Roughly one million answers to the question exist, and for the good sake of both the questioner’s sanity and my own, I’d respond with some bland, cliché answer just to move the conversation along in as orderly a manner as possible. However lately, I’ve decided to answer it with a more personal response, one that hopefully delivers an actual message. Basketball not only stimulates me through several separate outlets (writing, reading, playing, and watching), but it allows me an emotional vent. Nothing in my life—outside, you know, interacting with friends and family—can effortlessly draw laughter, anger, or sadness from deep inside my body. Basically, the game is intertwined with emotion in a more versatile way than anything else I know. And on Saturday night, even I was surprised at how powerful it can be.
In July of 2007, I was working as a camp counselor, indirectly reinforcing young boys on basic morals their parents had already taught them, while at the same time ruthlessly beating them at four square, tether ball, checkers, and musical chairs (just to name a few). On the sweltering afternoon Kevin Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics, I stood beneath a tent, watching over my group of eight-year-olds as each of them showed off the range of tactics one can use to devour a popsicle. I don’t remember how I heard the news—I’ve narrowed it down to being either a text from a friend, my dad, or WEEI’s news now alert service—but my initial reaction was somewhat of a spasm. I turned my back on the unknowing campers, and softly, quietly, for a span of time that probably lasted no more than 15 seconds, wept. Remembering it now, it was as pure a moment as I’d ever felt in my life, as if the news had altogether stopped Planet Earth’s rotation.
The Boston Celtics, an organization that made me cry many times before (for quite opposite reasons) had done something I’d never thought they’d accomplish in my lifetime. At the time, I didn’t care about winning the championship. That couldn’t be accomplished for another 11 months. But in that single moment, something I deeply cared for was relevant beyond the borders of New England for the first time in my life. And realizing this made me very, very happy.
At around 4 pm on Saturday afternoon, I left my apartment and hopped on the Green Line towards North Station. I was headed to TD Garden to cover Game 7 on behalf of CelticsHub.com. As the train rolled on, and then below Boston’s streets, the possibility of the team’s Big 3 era slowly dying before our eyes in a single night’s time hung in the air of an unseasonably humid day. Upon entering the arena, all that stress and dread that had been bottled up inside disappeared. After receiving my media credential and realizing it could take me just about anywhere I wanted for the rest of the night, I headed to the court and watched Paul Pierce get up a few jumpers. He was the only Celtic on the court, and on his side it was just him, a rebounder, and Chris Brown’s voice blasting through the stadium’s sound system. It was in this moment that I understood why Pierce, sore knee and all, is so great, and a slight tension began to crawl up my spine. I really didn’t want this to be a finale.
I then walked along the sideline towards the other end and took a court side seat about four feet behind Sixers guard Lou Williams. He was getting fed by Philadelphia assistant coach Aaron McKie and must’ve made at least 10 straight shots from the corner. Just past Williams was Elton Brand, pump faking at the elbow. I stared at his broad shoulders that looked as if they were carved from a tree, and instantly understood why Philadelphia chose to pay him all that money.
After a bit of milling around (Hey, there’s Jeff Van Gundy talking on a flip phone!), I made my way to the Celtics locker room. It was smaller than I expected, but nice. Framed pictures of current Celtics and ones from the past hung proudly above each locker. In the front of the room were two TV’s looping film from Game 6’s disappointing loss. National and local reporters, and a couple camera men were swarmed around the center of the room. Those who’d spent the season together were chatting and laughing. Others were locked into their phones or making conversation with a few bench players who were getting dressed.
I stood beside Marquis Daniels’ locker, furiously taking notes on everything around me. Daniels, to my left, had Rick Ross blasting so loud in his Beats By Dre headphones that I thought he had a small speaker stowed somewhere in his locker. On the white board, in between the two TVs, were some pregame strategic notes. I jotted everything down as fast as I could, like a Cold War spy stealing top secret information, feeling smarter by the second.
A few minutes later, most of the reporters began to file out into the hallway to await Doc Rivers’ pregame Q&A. Rivers is a rare breed: a coach both adored and respected by almost everyone around the league, whether it be the media, fellow coaches, broadcasters, opposing players, or his own. When news broke that he signed a five-year extension to stay in Boston days after the gut-blasting 2010 Finals, it cushioned the blow better than anything else ever could (aside from news that Kobe Bryant has been a daily HGH user since 2006). As he made his way through the crowd and in front of a blue “NBA Playoffs” backdrop, about 25 people descended on him like flies to a light. I stood in the back, between Jackie MacMullan and Bob Ryan, and had the presence of mind to record the whole thing on my iPhone. Rivers talked about whether or not the crowd’s noise has an impact (not really), the looks on his player’s faces when they heard Avery Bradley would go under the knife sooner than any of them had seen in their worst nightmares, and what we could expect from Ray Allen.
As I made my way up the elevator to my seat high in the Garden’s “Halo”—an area nearly parallel with the team’s 17 banners—it hit me just exactly what I was present to witness. Roughly three hours from now, I’d be heading in the opposite direction, either deflated or overflowing with childlike euphoria. My seat was with a majority of fellow media members, elevated far from the action. Personally, it wasn’t much of a bother. The view made me feel like an offensive coordinator, above the action with a strategist’s perspective.
Despite most of Game 7 proving to fall in line with the six ugly ones before it, watching it in person was a spectacle. The crowd was insane, yet logical, reacting to everything on the court in a natural way. For example, when Kevin Garnett missed a fast break dunk, the building went from overwhelmingly excited to instantaneously confused in a matter of two seconds. (After it happened, whoever was responsible for the Garden’s music instantly threw on some sped up Fat Man Scoop samples to whip the crowd back into its frenzy, but it was useless. With no replay, we were all left in a daze.)
I know it was probably gross to watch shot after shot clang off the rim on TV, but it was a three point game with four minutes left. Given the context, and all that was at stake, that has to count for something, right? This was far from my first time in a press box, and I knew cheering for either side was to break the Cardinal Law of being a sports writer, but every “Let’s go Celtics” chant made me feel like an alcoholic six months sober at the Kentucky Derby, telling everyone who will listen that I’m really excited to watch some horses run around a track. When Pierce fouled out, the immediate reaction was to boo. Acting as professional as possible, I gently closed my laptop then placed my forehead on it. Because it’s Tuesday, you know how things turned out. Let’s just say I was very pleased with the outcome.
Upon re-entering the locker room after the game, all Celtics present looked like a pack of Death Row inmates who’d just received a collective pardon. As about 20 reporters (some on step ladders trying to get a better angle) crowded around Paul Pierce near the locker’s entranceway, I made my way over to Keyon Dooling’s locker. The veteran was born eight years before me, but as I spoke to him it felt more like 30. This is his 12th year in the league, and this is his sixth team. He might look the least like a professional basketball player as anybody on the roster, but he’s respected by everyone in the organization, and has had an unbelievably positive impact in Boston’s locker room this season.
Throughout his 12 year career, Dooling’s always been too early for the party. At the age of 24, he was shipped from Miami the year before Wade stole Mark Cuban’s heart, and a few years after that, Orlando sold him to New Jersey right before they made their march to the Finals. Each time Dooling was close to winning a championship, he didn’t even know it. I asked him about Rajon Rondo’s performance down the stretch, and he responded with a shaking of the head as he tied his shoes. Dooling said it was something he expected, something he was confident would happen. And who am I to say he’s a liar. All I know is Rondo is my favorite player, and watching him explode for 11 points in the most important two minutes of his team’s season was something I’d never dreamt about being possible.
The Celtics were flying to Miami less than 24 hours after the final buzzer, heavy underdogs against the juggernaut force commonly referred to as LeBron James. Games would be every other night until the series was decided, meaning in possibly a week’s time, the emotions of that night could repeat themselves. The Celtics aren’t predicted to win, nor do I expect them to. But watching them all fight for the opportunity to play for one more championship, through the injuries (Ray Allen is MURDERING his stock as a free agent for the sake of this team right now), knowing it very well could and should be the final hurrah, is something that transcends sports. It makes me feel proud.
Not until I climbed into bed at around 3 am did the overwhelming reality of what I’d just been through begin to set in. It was a night I’d never forget, and one that serves as an unnecessary reminder as to why I love the game of basketball as much as I do. The feelings I had throughout that night couldn’t be manufactured in any other setting. For me, nothing else makes me feel more alive. For those that don’t understand why I’m being so dramatic, the only analogy I can bring to the table is its like a pet dying. Not that I love a group of millionaires whom I’ve never met more than I would my dog, but the disintegration of a team I’ve grown weak at the knees for reminds me that the longer we live, the more we lose. The day Boston no longer sports a Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen lineup will serve as an unmerciful summoning: All things must come to an end.
On the day Danny Ainge traded half his team for one of the 15 greatest basketball players who ever lived, it felt like the Earth had stopped moving. A loss on Saturday night would’ve reminded me that as long as I’m around, it never will.