Why the Boston Celtics' 17th Championship Meant So Much

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Why the Boston Celtics' 17th Championship Meant So Much
(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

There are some things you know you’re never going to forget.

In my sports life, a few of those memories stick out.

There was my first trip to the Boston Garden, when I got to see Larry Bird and the Celtics take on the New Jersey Nets.  I was very young at the time, but knew even then that I would never forget my first glimpse of the famous parquet floor. 

There was the time I hit my first game-winning jumpshot and, even though it was only a summer league game played outside at a park, I was mobbed by my teammates and treated like a king.  A young kid just doesn’t forget that. 

There was the time the Red Sox won their first World Series, snapping an 86-year drought and sending me, and all of Red Sox Nation, into euphoria.  I was a senior in high school, and when Foulke sent that final out over to first base, my whole childhood, spent rooting for a cursed team, was validated.

There was the time I missed two huge free throws in a game that could have extended my high school career and sent my team to the high school regional finals.  In what ended up being my last high school game, I was the goat, and my greatest memory of the agony of defeat could not have come at a worse time. 

And then there was June 17, 2008—the Boston Celtics’ first championship of my lifetime.

To understand just how much that championship means to any Celtics’ fan, you have to first understand the depths of despair that had encompassed the Celtics’ franchise since Larry Bird’s retirement. 

Between his retirement, in 1992, and the 2008 season, the Celtics had only four winning seasons, and not even a single 50-win season.  An organization used to at least contending for a championship every year, the Celtics had quickly become the dregs of the NBA.

For us fans, those years were brutal.  To put it in persepective, I grew up watching guys like Brett Szabo actually start basketball games.  Szabo was bad enough to be out of the NBA after one year, but good enough to start 24 games for the dismal 1996-97 C’s during that year.

My childhood is filled with memories of Szabo, Marty Conlon, Dwayne Shintzius, and Pervis Ellison.  If watching those guys play basketball—in the NBA, no less—isn’t enough to scar somebody for life, I don’t know what is. 

Still, true Celtics followers stayed fans.  In a society that puts a premium on both winning and sports, having a bad team can really drag you down.  Watching your team lose night after night and season after season can cause people to latch on to any hope for better days in the future.

Well, for the Celtics there was no hope.  Even during their best season during the championship drought, the Celtics won only 49 games.  They advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference finals that year, but any observer, even the most biased, knew the Celtics had no chance to win a title.

Had they gotten to the finals, the C’s would have been mauled by the Shaq- and Kobe-led  Lakers, just as the New Jersey Nets they lost to were.  There was never any hope for the Celtics.

Being a Red Sox fan, at least the Sox gave me hope.  They, too, lost year after year, but it was exciting to be their fan because so many of those teams had championship aspirations.

Each spring, the Sox gave me joy by competing for championships.  They may have crushed my hopes every year with their latest devastating loss but, along the way, those teams brought me so many great times.  

With the Celts, each year seemed bleaker than the last, and any hopes were crushed by the knowledge that management would destroy any chance of developing into a true contender.  Not only were the Celtics bad, but they made terrible move after terrible move. 

There was the hiring of Rick Pitino, which started out in glorious fashion when the C’s took down the mighty Chicago Bulls on opening night.  Everything was great until the next game, when the Celtics began a five-game losing streak and Pitino was exposed as a coach way over his head in the NBA game.

The Pitino era failed miserably, and a 36-win season was the best he could muster during his three and a half-year tenure.

Then there were the trades.  Oh man, there were the trades.  Just a hint for future GM’s —when your team is looking to rebuild, don’t trade away all your young talent for aging vets. 

Well, the Celtics decided to go the opposite route, trading away any and all potential stars for decent, aging vets on the downside of their careers.  First, the Celtics got rid of Chauncey Billups midway through his rookie season for the getting-older-by-the-day Kenny Anderson. 

Chauncey had been the third pick in that year’s draft and has obviously developed into a hell of an NBA player, leading his teams to seven straight berths in the conference finals and earning the moniker “Mr. Big Shot” along the way.  But that trade at least helped the Celtics that season, right? 

In fact, Billups was averaging 11 points and 4 assists during his half-season in Boston.  Kenny Anderson, the guy he was traded for, averaged 11 points and 6 assists.  With Billups, the Celtics were 23-28.  With Anderson, 13-18.  Only the mismanaged Celtics could mortgage their future to get worse in the short term.

Next was the Joe Johnson trade.  The C’s traded away Johnson for grizzled vets Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk.  The Johnson trade actually did help in the short term, as the presence of Rogers and Delk helped the C’s into the Eastern Conference Finals.

But, with Shaq and Kobe out west, they had no chance of ever winning a title, so why give up a future star for role players just to help you win a few more games?  The next year, Rogers was in New Jersey, Delk averaged a measly 9.8 points for the Celts, and Joe Johnson was in Phoenix—well on his way to becoming a star.

Finally, after all those bad moves left them with a young, inexperienced and not very talented roster, the Celtics bottomed out.  They finished a terrible 24-58 season and had a 42.8 percent chance of landing the first or second pick in the draft. 

In a draft that supposedly included two can’t miss superstars (Greg Oden has since become an utter disappointment but Kevin Durant has panned out), the Celtics were poised to finally add the needed piece to push them into the NBA’s upper echelon.  Celtics fans, after such a long, dreary period in their franchise, finally regained hope. 

That hope was crushed when the Celtics defied all odds and received the draft’s fifth pick, instead of the coveted one or two slots.  You know the scene in Dumb and Dumber where Lloyd Christmas is in a restaurant with Mary Swanson and ends up getting into a fight with the cook? 

Lloyd punched deep into the cook’s chest, ripped out his heart and put it in a doggy bag.   Well, we as Celtics’ fans were the cook, and management, fate and the sports gods had been Lloyd Christmas, tearing out our collective heart and leaving it in a doggy bag. 

Weeks later, and I am still shocked at how quickly the turnaround occurred, everything was cured.  The Celtics had inexplicably turned Al Jefferson and a bunch of young, unproven players and draft picks into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.  For a Celtics’ fan base yearning for a winner, the trade finally gave us the chance to root for a contender. 

From day one, the new-look C’s surpassed every expectation we had for them.  While most newly-configured teams have a learning curve to gel and become truly elite teams, the Celtics played from opening night like they had been together for years and romped their way to an NBA-best 66-16 season. 

But it wasn’t just the winning that made us so crazy about the team.  In fact, it was far more than the winning.

We were crazy about the Celtics because of their adopted motto, “ubuntu”, meaning “I am because we are.”

I say the Celtics adopted the motto, but they didn’t so much adopt it as they made it a way of life.  A team with three superstars who had never played together was supposed to go through growing pains, struggling to share the spotlight and the ball.

Instead, the team was a cohesive unit from day one, moving the ball with crisp precision for open shots on offense and making quick and seamless defensive rotations on defense.   

We were crazy about the Celtics because of James Posey’s pre-game hugs.  In an era where open displays of affection are frowned upon, Posey’s hugs were a sign of solidarity that most NBA teams just don’t have. 

Before every game, when Posey wrapped his arms around the starters and held them, whispering something into their ear, it was never more clear that the Celtics were brothers working together towards the same goal—an NBA championship. 

We were crazy about the Celtics because of our new stars.  There was Kevin Garnett, whose intense ways worked the Garden crowds into a frenzy.  His selfless play embodied everything the Celtics stood for, and his intensity wore off on all his teammates. 

When KG smacked his head against the basket support, as he did before every game, we marveled at his passion and were in awe of his dedication to winning.  And there was Ray Allen, the consummate professional with the smooth jumpshot and never-ending grace. 

Allen was a class act, and everything that’s right with the NBA.  When he released his picture-perfect three-pointers, the whole crowd just knew it was going in—every miss was a shock.   Neither of our new stars had won a championship, but both thirsted after it with endless desire.

We were crazy about the Celtics because of our old star, Paul Pierce.  Through the years, we had come to love Pierce and his tough, battling spirit.  Pierce had always been the C’s lone ranger and, in 2008, was finally given the opportunity to play with worthy teammates. 

He had gone through his ups and downs in Boston, but had done so much for the community and the organization that he had earned the city’s respect.  We had come to love Pierce and rooted for him on his quest to finally bring a championship to Boston.  We trusted him with the ball in the game’s final moments, and knew he’d do everything he could to take us to the promised land.

So on June 17, 2008, when Pierce did just that and the Celtics hammered the Lakers to win their 17th title, it was a jubilant night for all of us fans.  But that moment was more than just that night.  A moment isn’t merely a snapshot of time, it’s a culmination of all things that occur before it. 

Looking back at all my special moments, none of them would have been so exceptional without the events leading up them.  My first trip to a Celtics game wouldn’t have been nearly as important to me if I hadn’t first fallen in love with the C’s. 

My first game-winning shot wouldn’t have mattered as much if I hadn’t spent so much time practicing to come through when my team needed me the most.

My first Red Sox championship wouldn’t have meant the same if the team hadn’t given me so much joy and so much heartbreak over the years.

My missed free throws wouldn’t have been a big deal if I hadn’t loved my teammates and wanted to win so badly, for me and for them. 

And my first Boston Celtics championship wouldn’t have meant so much to me had it not been for all those disappointing years.  It wouldn’t have meant so much if I hadn’t grown to love every player on the roster, if I hadn’t desperately wanted a championship for each and every one of them. 

It wouldn’t have meant so much if I hadn’t been a Celtics fan since birth and worshipped every past and current Celtics star.

So when the Celtics finally earned that 17th banner, it wasn’t just the 131-92 victory that counted. 

It was everything that led up to the championship, too.

Brought to you by Celtics Town.

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