At risk of sounding like a hater or a party-pooper, watching the Celtics and their fans celebrate the franchise’s 17th NBA championship last night brought a question to mind:
Does this championship mean as much to Boston fans as the last one (1986)? Does what the team accomplished in ’08 give Celtics fans the same feeling as what Spurs fans felt in ’07, or that Lakers fans had from ’00-02?
The reason I ask is because those aforementioned championship teams were squads that had gone through a lengthy growth process with their fans together, squads where the key players had meant something to the fan base for years. The ’08 Celtics are many things, but they can’t claim that.
Look at it this way: Say you’ve been playing pickup ball with the same group of guys for years. You’ve been through the wars together, won and lost together — maybe you guys even used to lose a lot. But after playing together for so long, you finally found the right formula, finally figured it out, and at one point you knew you held status as the best squad on your court. Does that feeling compare at all to if you’d struggled with those guys for years, and one day when somebody was hurt or maybe even one of you moved away, you just happened to pick up the two best guys who walked into the gym next and beat everyone in your path?
Take the ’07 Spurs. The organization drafted Tim Duncan 10 years before, and the San Antonio fans watched him build a Hall of Fame career from that point on. The Spurs had also drafted Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and the fans watched them grow from role players into stars. San Antonio picked up Bruce Bowen just as he was coming into his own as a player, and the ’06-07 season was his sixth with the Spurs. Long story short, most of San Antonio’s core guys had a history with the city’s fans and with the organization. A genuine connection had developed there. That was their team, those were their guys, and winning it all was that much more special because it signified a journey they’d all taken together.
With the three-peat Lakers, you had the same thing. By the time L.A. won the first ‘chip in 2000, the fanbase had watched Kobe literally grow from the boy the team acquired in ’96 to a man while wearing a Lakers uniform. They’d picked up Shaq that same year as well, going through a few years of postseason failures with him before winning in ’00. Derek Fisher was also a guy the Lakers had drafted in ’96, the same season they traded for Robert Horry. Some of L.A.’s key role players — Ron Harper, Glen Rice, Brian Shaw — were very recent pickups, but in general the core of the ’00 Lakers had been with the team long enough to develop that bond with the fans. Hell, if you discount a few pit stops in other cities, A.C. Green (who, if you remember, started all 82 games for the ’00 squad) had been with the Lakers since 1985; he represented an actual on-court link to the Showtime era.
Do the Celtics fans have that same kind of bond with the group that won the championship last night? Is this title as special to them as it would have been to, say, New York Giants fans after this year’s Super Bowl? Are the ’08 Celtics a collection of their guys? Or did the C’s just — to use a term Red Sox fans loved to use pre-2004 — “buy” a championship?
Obviously Paul Pierce holds a strong connection to Boston fans. The team drafted him back in ’98 and he’s been there through the best and worst of times. Kendrick Perkins has been with the C’s since 2003, and coming out of high school, the fans have watched him grow up in front of their eyes. Tony Allen‘s been there a few years. Rajon Rondo and Leon Powe are also Boston-cultivated draft picks, but this is just their second year. Other than that, every other significant player on the team — Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, James Posey, Eddie House, Sam Cassell, P.J. Brown — was picked up within the last 12 months. The C’s fans that I know quickly adopted those aforementioned acquisitions as “their guys” during the season, but there’s no way they could have developed the same connection to KG, Ray, Posey and P.J. the same way L.A. fans did with Shaq, Kobe, Fisher and A.C. in ’00, or the way San Antonio fans did with Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Bowen in ’07.
This year’s Celtics in no way resembled the team that was playing at TD Banknorth Garden one year ago. When Boston was winning 20-something games in ’06-07, were their fans as passionate then as they are now? (I’ve heard the question asked of many Celtics fans: “Where were you all last year?”) After Danny Ainge pulled off the moves to land KG and Ray, how long did it take for the current C’s to feel like “their” team?
Granted, with the way pro sports operates now, we’re only going to see more teams like the ’08 Celtics, more teams that were “bought” for the short-term goal of winning a title at the expense of later becoming, well, what we saw happen with the ’06 Miami Heat. We’re going to see more teams winning ‘chips with recently-acquired high-priced guys. There’s nothing wrong with that; again, I’m not hating on anyone or any team. That’s just how it is today.
But does it make a championship mean any less than one earned with a collection of long-tenured players? If you’re a Boston fan, did you just witness a championship won by “your” Celtics? Or simply “the” Celtics?