Ezy Reading: Of The Boston Celtics And A Grandmother’s Orders

Evan Kanarakis

It’s a difficult thing for me to explain to others, this obsession I have for the Boston Celtics.

I’ve written in the past about the origins of my affinity for all things New England sports, but the basic root of it all was born from a promise I made to my American grandmother in 1984 at the age of nine. Seated on a stool in her wood-paneled Peabody, Massachusetts bar — ‘The Warren Lunch’ — and sipping on a coke she’d just poured for me, Helen sternly asked me to sit up straight and pay attention because she had something important to share with me. As she then proceeded to explain, regardless of the fact I was living in Australia and being brought up there, as her grandson I had to now understand that it was my duty — nay, my birthright — that I would forever be a dedicated, devoted fan of the Boston Celtics, the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Bruins and the New England Patriots. “You might have your rugby and your cricket — or whatever it is they call it — back home, and that’s fine”, she offered. “But no grandson of mine is going to end up cheering for a New York team. You hear me?”

I nodded and solemnly took heed of Helen’s demands.

With that, over the next twenty-three years I grew up in Australia a dedicated fan of Boston’s major professional sporting teams. What started as something that helped make me feel more connected to my extended family on the other side of the world soon grew into a legitimate interest, and before too long when talking about the Red Sox, Patriots and others I started using that most horrible of over-obsessive fan referencing: the ‘we’. As in, “hopefully we can have a great season this year.”

Thanks to the generosity of family, friends, and the occasional season-ticket holder patron of my grandmother’s bar, on the rare occasion of a return visit to America I was afforded the opportunity to take in many a New England sporting event. I remember walking into the Warren Lunch one afternoon in 1988 when I was about thirteen and wearing a Boston Red Sox sweatshirt. Four or five drunk, excited regulars jumped off their stools and started screaming at me in thick Massachusetts accents, “BO-SOX! BO-SOX!! YEAH, BABY!! WAY TO GO THE DOWN UND-AH!” I’ll never forget the sight of my grandmother behind the bar beaming with pride, no doubt assured that she’d had a positive hand in my upbringing.

Of all the New England teams, however, it was the Boston Celtics to whom I became most devoted. Part of it certainly has to do with the fact that I took to playing basketball at an early age (there isn’t exactly much baseball, gridiron or ice hockey on offer in country Australia), but a great deal was also due to the fact I’d been lucky enough to witness the Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish era in person. Anchored by the original ‘Big Three’, the Celtics of the 1980’s won three NBA Championships, certainly would have won more if not for unfortunate, hard luck injuries, and their winning 1986 team is still regarded as perhaps the best in NBA history. To watch a team of that caliber at the tender age of nine, needless to say it left an impression upon me. Growing up back in Australia, my walls were soon adorned with Celtics posters and memorabilia, and I craned my neck for any items of news and information I could get as to the team’s ongoing successes and failures.

After 1986 unfortunately, as many Bostonians are all too aware, the Celtic’s fortunes changed. While the franchise had won 16 championships, more than any other team, the combination of those aforementioned cruel injuries, the death of two young stars of the future (Len Bias and Reggie Lewis), and sheer, dumb luck (perhaps most notably the 1997 NBA Draft debacle) cursed the Celtics to twenty-one lean years without another ring. I’d been hooked in long ago, however, and so through the nineties and into the new century, I gritted my teeth and tried to vainly cheer on a constantly revolving door of players that included such names as Montross, Radja, Abdelnaby, and Walker to some sort of real, sustained success. It never came. At the start of the 2006-2007 season the Celtics suffered the loss of their patriarch Red Auerbach at the age of 89, and they went on to record the second worst record in the league with 24 wins and 58 losses (including a franchise-worst 18 game losing streak). While I was now living in New England and enjoying the long-overdue successes of the Red Sox and Patriots, my Celtics had become irrelevant among most locals.

We’d finally hit absolute rock bottom.

Then, in June and July of 2007 the core of the team dramatically changed with the off-season trade acquisitions of thirty-something superstars Ray Allen from Seattle and Kevin Garnett from Minnesota to join long-suffering Celtics captain Paul Pierce on the one Boston roster. Put simply, this was a series of maneuvers by the Celtic front office and a commitment from ownership to improve and improve now that had appeared impossible to most outside observers just a few months earlier. With some of the biggest names in the NBA now united as a new ‘Big Three’, veteran role-players jumped at the opportunity to join the team, and several key pieces to the new-look Celtics franchise came together.

Expectations were understandably high for Boston in the 2007-2008 season, but few predicted exactly how successful the team would be. Jelling as one cohesive unit, the Celtics secured the NBA’s greatest single-season turnaround and a league best 66-16 winning mark anchored by the number one defense in the league. With the playoffs came new hurdles and the team struggled through two seven-game series against Atlanta and Cleveland before managing to topple a tough Detroit Pistons team in the Eastern Conference Finals. This, of course, set up a dream NBA Finals match-up of Boston versus their longtime historic rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers.

I’m no sportswriter so it’s best I leave the details of what exactly transpired on the court this season for the Boston Celtics to others, and indeed more than enough has already been written on this elsewhere. Needless to say, from a longtime, embattled fan’s perspective, this was what I’d been waiting for since the last glory days of the 1980’s. Completely enthralled by my team’s successes, I often received puzzled looks from locals here in Maine and down in Massachusetts who found it odd for someone with an Australian accent to be so passionately committed to the team. Talk of ‘bandwagon’ Celtics fans inevitably emerged in the national media, just as it had a few years before with Red Sox and Patriots victories, but beyond the soaring demand and prices for tickets, I wasn’t too bothered. It was great to finally see the Celtics relevant again among New Englanders, embraced by a whole new legion of fans as well as those of the old days now returning to the fore. Above all, it was just nice for me to actually be here in person to experience it all. Stretching my Visa card to the absolute limit I secured tickets to Games 2 and the deciding Game 6 of the Finals. There was simply no way that after so many years of losing seasons and of being limited to brief five-second highlights of my favorite team while back in Australia that I was going to miss out on the chance to realize the dream of not just watching the Celtics compete in an NBA Finals, but of watching them compete against the L.A Lakers.

The entire series was filled with memorable drama — Paul Pierce’s return from injury in Game 1, Leon Powe’s career breakout in Game 2, and the greatest comeback in Finals history in Game 4. But Game 6 will always remain with me as one of the most exciting, satisfying experiences of my life. From the get-go the Celtics played the kind of game that had already defined their season to that point- selfless, free from ego, and marked by intense defensive play with key contributions across the board from every single player on the roster. The contrast to Los Angeles and Kobe Bryant’s temperamental, one-man-rules-the-team mentality was starkly in evidence. As the crowd grew louder and louder the Celtic’s narrow lead mushroomed into a decisive, historical rout. Seconds on the game clock continued to tick by and before long any anxieties about Los Angeles staging a potential comeback rally faded.

Throughout the TD Banknorth Garden fans reached levels of frenzied excitement capped by hugs and high-fives with total strangers. Sights of past Celtic greatness — Larry Bird’s retired number hanging from the rafters, former players Bill Russell, Jo Jo White and John Havlicek all in attendance, even legendary announcer Johnny Most’s retired silver microphone — all flashed on the jumbotron as if to solidify the reminder that, as one radio broadcaster later put it, the NBA crown was finally returning to its original throne. My voice hoarse from cheering, buoyed on by many a beer, and the memory of so many lean, lonely years as a Celtics fan, at about the four-minute mark in the fourth quarter I suddenly caught myself jumping up and down on the spot, fists raised the air and screaming out in disbelief, “Holy shit, it’s actually happening! This is actually happening! We’re doing it! Holy shit!” A calm hand grabbed at my shoulder from behind. It was a Celtics fan that must have easily been in his seventies. Smiling broadly he nodded knowingly and assured me, “It’s happening, son! Believe it! Title number seventeen. Believe it!” With that, 18,000 fans broke into a yell of ‘SEVENTEEN!! SEVENTEEN!!’ that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Before I knew it the game clock was ticking ‘3, 2, 1…’ and down to zero. The buzzer sounded and the building exploded into one blurred roar of deafening cheers. Players rushed onto the court in celebration, green and white confetti poured down from the ceiling and, as they presented the championship trophy to the team, it was finally all over. The Boston Celtics had defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 131-92 and 4-2 in the best-of-seven NBA Finals series to capture their 17th title, and their first since 1986.

Try as I might, words really can’t explain just how extraordinary the moment was. I was happy for the embattled players of the Celtics roster whose tears and unrestrained jubilation belied any notion that money is all that matters to many of these athletes. I was happy for those genuinely giddy fans around me who now shared how cleansing it felt to be able to unburden their miseries of the dark years. I loved the way in which something as seemingly trivial as sports might now, at least for a little while, help some people forget the worries and challenges of their everyday lives as they united in celebration. There are surely plenty of worse role models than a classy, humble team of players who, like Kevin Garnett, in the thick of their victory, took the time to acknowledge and thank the legends who had come before, asking for Bill Russell’s blessing that they’d made him proud. And, as ‘We Are The Champions’ echoed through the Garden’s speakers, I thought back to a promise I’d made my grandmother at the Warren Lunch bar in 1984, now long closed since her passing a few years ago. I tipped my hat to Helen back in 2004 for extending us a little luck from beyond when the Red Sox won their first title since 1918. I knew baseball had always been her personal favorite but nonetheless I contemplated, with gratitude, the wealth of experiences she’d opened me up to by declaring I become a Boston allegiant. Impossible as it may be to explain to others how much this victory meant to me, and insane as it may appear to those same individuals that I’m so emotionally tied to the fortunes of a sporting franchise, I’m beyond the point of return now, and you’ve only got my grandmother to blame.

Good luck with that.

For now, I’m lost in the ether of a Boston Celtics NBA Championship. I can still hear the old Warren Lunch crowd celebrating in sheer delight at a Larry Bird-led win. And I can see Helen, beaming with pride, approving of her Australian grandson’s unfettered loyalty to her hometown’s hard-court heroes.

Ezy Reading is out every month. Letters can be sent to feedback@thecud.com.au with the title ‘Ezy Reading’ in the header…