My daughter was crying. We were waiting for a green light on Olympic Boulevard, returning home from a Stanley Cup celebration that never happened. A depressed Kings fan pulled up to our right, glanced over and mouthed the word, “Awwwww.” He alerted his passenger, another depressed Kings fan, who leaned over to catch a glimpse. They only stared for a second or two, probably remembering the days when sports made them cry. And then the light turned green and they drove away.
This happened on Wednesday night. Sports only brought my daughter to tears one other time: On a Saturday at Staples, after the Bruins had defeated her Kings while I wore a Bruins sweatshirt, donned a Boston cap and respectfully cheered for the champs. I say “respectfully” because we bought Kings tickets this season and I liked everyone sitting around us. Nothing sucks more than a visiting fan crashing your section and cheering obnoxiously for his team. That’s what every Clippers game is like. I didn’t want to be That Guy. I hate That Guy. We all hate That Guy.
So I downshifted a few notches. And even though I prepared her before that Bruins game — Look, this is Daddy’s team, just like the Kings are your team, and if I ever teach you anything in life other than “stay off the pole,” “don’t date a Lakers fan” and “don’t text naked pictures of yourself under any circumstances ever,” it’s that you only have one team for every sport — she couldn’t handle it when it happened. She felt betrayed. When the Kings nearly tied the game in the final seconds, ultimately falling short, I pumped my fist and caught her glaring with one of those “You will pay” death stares.
And just like that, she started crying. I remained sympathetic while being secretly delighted, like she had passed some sort of “Fledgling Sports Fan” hurdle or something. On the way home, I discreetly snapped an iPhone picture of her post-cry for a keepsake — you know, “Here’s the first time sports ever made my daughter cry” — only she caught me taking it, flipped out like a Real World roommate and scratched my right arm so hard that it bled. She didn’t talk to me for two hours. And that’s when I knew my daughter liked sports.
I always assumed my kids would care … but you never know with this stuff. My son’s favorite celebrity right now? Michael Jackson. He loves Michael and werewolves, in that order, so you can only imagine how he feels about Thriller. I never, ever could have predicted this. That’s parenthood. You roll with the whims of your kids. At the same time, there had to be some trick for hooking my daughter on sports beyond the old standby of “taking her to games and seeing if she likes it.” After she turned 5, I asked a few friends with older children for tips. The same suggestion kept popping up: You can’t necessarily make them follow your team, but you can steer them away from your least favorite teams. Good advice. Even if it’s difficult to sway a Los Angeles native toward Boston teams playing 3,000 miles away — don’t rule me out, by the way — I could brainwash her to despise the Lakers (as covered in 2010′s “The Color Purple” column), any team with the words “New York” in its name, and the Lakers a second time just to be safe. After that? Her call. This seemed like a fair compromise. Really, I just wanted her to care. Of the 75 greatest moments of my life, sports were involved in at least 20 of them.
(Fine, I’m totally lying. It’s probably 30. Maybe even 40.)
Hopefully, she would care. Hopefully.
Starting last October, the Kings became my daughter’s first favorite team. Hockey moves at a different, more frenetic pace than other live sports — it’s tailor-made for the ADD Generation, and that’s before you include fans yelling things like “HEY SMITH, YOU SUCK!” or sarcastically singing a goalie’s last name. It’s also a more personable crowd: more lifers and diehards, fewer front-runners, less corporate, just friendlier and more engaged. You always hear that hockey players are the best interviews, but you rarely hear anyone say hockey fans are the best live event fans. They are. Of the four major sports, only hockey is significantly better in person.
I always thought my daughter would be a basketball fan — she loves playing hoops and even likes going to Clippers games. (She won’t attend Lakers games because “the Lakers fans are there.” Let’s just say the brainwashing worked.) Imagine my surprise when she fell for the Kings within minutes of her first game, even asking the lady next to us, “Who’s the best player?” The answer was playmaker Anze Kopitar, but only because Jonathan Quick hadn’t morphed into an octopus Jedi yet. She watched Kopi skate around for a few shifts, ultimately deciding, “I want to get his jersey!” because, as you know, little kids are the biggest front-runners on the planet. We showed up for the next period with my daughter proudly showing off her black no. 11 jersey. She was hooked. There was no going back.
We spent the next six months attending Kings games. She learned about hockey on the fly, grasping “power plays” and “icing” pretty quickly but being stymied by the vagaries of the “offsides” rule. (I’m still not sure she understands it.) She loved the concept of overtime, and the fact that the word “death” is involved. She really loved shootouts. She noticed things that I haven’t noticed for years — you know, like how linesmen use the boards to hop up before a puck hits their skates, or how goalies spray water in their faces OCD-style during every single break. She hated how the fans treated Dustin Penner, their slumping left wing who couldn’t buy a break, frequently yelling out, “COME ON PENNER!” right after someone razzed him. A hierarchy developed for her: Kopitar first, then Drew Doughty (their handsome star defenseman), then Penner, then Quick. Those became her four guys.
As April approached, I started prepping her for the playoffs. So there’s this thing called the Stanley Cup. It’s a big trophy that looks like a mammoth cup. You can drink out of it and hold it over your head. Everyone wants to hold it, so everyone tries harder in the playoffs. You have to beat the same team four times before they beat you four times. Then, you have to do it again. Then, you have to do it again. And if you do it a fourth time, you get the Cup. And what happens is, they hand the Cup to the captain, and he skates around and kisses it, and he hands it to a teammate, and that guy skates around, and it’s fucking awesome. Excuse me, freaking awesome.
She didn’t get it. There were more than a few dumb questions like, “So if they beat the first team four times, THAT’S when they win the Cup?” Eventually, she figured it out. You know the rest. The no. 8-seeded Kings stole the first two games in Vancouver, morphed into a juggernaut and never looked back. My daughter attended all but one of their home playoff games. More than once she wondered, “Why didn’t they always try this hard?,” like she was auditioning for her own “Because It’s the Cup” commercial. The short answer: That’s hockey. Teams catch fire. It happens every year.
They made the finals when she was sound asleep, thanks to an overtime goal from Penner in Phoenix. After two wins in Jersey, she did the math and realized that Wednesday night could double as Cup Night … you know, assuming they won Game 3. Which they did. The Kings scored four times, Quick notched another spectacular shutout, my daughter broke her unofficial record for “Most attempts to start a ‘Let’s Go Kings!’ chant,” and she even unearthed a semi-creative heckle for future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur (“Hey Marty, you’re older than my grandpa!!!”). When Kopi scored their second goal on a spectacular bang-bang play that my friend Lewis (my only Kings friend) described as “some 1980s Russian Olympic hockey shit,” she totally flipped out, jumping up and down with her arms raised, high-fiving everyone in our section and even running down to pound the glass like a maniac. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen her that happy — not ever.
So Wednesday’s game … man.
I tried to warn her. I tried to prepare her: “Look, this is sports, you never know, you can’t just assume they’re going to win.” She wouldn’t hear it. She kept saying, “Dad, stop it, just stop. They’re going to win.” She had the whole night planned in her head, inadvertently jinxing it with questions like, “Who gets to hold the Cup first again?” and “How long will they pass it around?” She insisted on arriving 40 minutes early for warm-ups. On the way there, she leaned out her window and waved to anyone wearing a Kings jersey. We made it downtown and realized it had morphed into a sea of Kings jerseys — more than we had ever seen. She was delighted.
“Look at all the jerseys!!!!” she gushed. “Did the Lakers ever have this many?”
And I just watched the whole thing happen, unable to stop it, knowing the entire time, “Oh God, tonight’s probably the night … her first stomach-punch loss.”
I felt that way about all their fans, actually. The Kings have been kicking around for 44 seasons, with those years ranging mostly from “unhappy” to “forgettable.” They had exactly two “eras” that anyone remembers (Marcel Dionne/Rogie Vachon and Gretzky), one miracle (a 5-0 comeback to save the series against the ’82 Oilers), one Stanley Cup finalist (the ’93 Kings) and one genuinely heartbreaking moment (the McSorley game). Kings fans weren’t tortured like Canucks fans or insanely bitter like Leafs fans. They weren’t really anything. What were they? Even they didn’t know. Suddenly their boys started winning games, and they kept winning, and the Lakers and Clippers disappeared, and Kings flags started popping up on cars, and locals started wearing Kings jerseys, and Quick was getting Kobe-like “M-V-P” chants, and wait a second … what the hell was happening?
By Game 4, they were immersed in one of those improbable Vegas movie montages where the chips are piling up, the blackjacks keep coming and everyone is laughing in delight. Before the game, longtime season-ticket holders posed for pictures with the rink behind them, almost like they were preparing for a wedding or something. Even Julia (the patient soul who sits next to us and spent the season fielding my daughter’s annoying questions) was shockingly optimistic for a grizzled hockey veteran. When I obeyed all jinxing rules by saying, “Man, it seems like everyone thinks you’re going to win tonight — that would make me nervous,” Julia answered quickly, “Oh, we’re winning tonight.”
They never saw it coming. After New Jersey scored a stunning go-ahead goal with under five minutes to play, the crowd reacted like Don Draper and the fellas during last weekend’s office surprise on Mad Men. Nobody handled it worse than my daughter. She almost started crying right then. I vainly attempted the whole “There’s still time, you have to think good thoughts” parental routine. The clock kept ticking. The Kings took a dumb penalty. Tears started forming. I talked her off the ledge, rubbed her shoulders, did whatever I could to prevent a meltdown. With 50 seconds remaining, the Kings pulled Quick and almost immediately yielded an empty-netter. Time to get her out of there. Fast. We zoomed up the aisle as she buried her face in one of those annoying white towels that everyone waves now. She kept it together until we reached our car. And then, waterworks.
Remember that scene when Forrest Gump finds out about his son, digests the news, then worries that the boy is just as stupid as he is? For two terrible seconds, he’s thinking to himself, Oh, no, I hope I didn’t ruin this kid. That’s how I felt when I watched my daughter sobbing. Why did I do this to her? Why would I pull her into this fan vortex where you’re probably going to end up unhappy more than happy?
Then I remembered something. Sports is a metaphor for life. Everything is black and white on the surface. You win, you lose, you laugh, you cry, you cheer, you boo, and most of all, you care. Lurking underneath that surface, that’s where all the good stuff is — the memories, the connections, the love, the fans, the layers that make sports what they are. It’s not about watching your team win the Cup as much as that moment when you wake up thinking, In 12 hours, I might watch my team win the Cup. It’s about sitting in the same chair for Game 5 because that chair worked for you in Game 3 and Game 4, and somehow, this has to mean something. It’s about using a urinal between periods, realizing that you’re peeing on a Devils card, then eventually realizing that some evil genius placed Devils cards in every single urinal. It’s about leaning out of a window to yell at people wearing the same jersey as you, and it’s about noticing an airport security guy staring at your Celtics jersey and knowing he’ll say, “You think they win tonight?” before he does. It’s about being an NBA fan but avoiding this year’s Western Conference finals because you still can’t believe they ripped your team away, and it’s about crying after that same series because you can’t believe your little unassuming city might win the title. It’s about posing for pictures before a Stanley Cup clincher, then regretting after the fact that you did. It’s about two strangers watching you cry at a stoplight. It’s black and white, but it’s not.
Only 12 hours later, I flew cross-country to watch the Celtics play Miami in Boston. My wife couldn’t believe it. We were committed to a party in Los Angeles the following night. Who flies cross-country and back in 24 hours?
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why can’t you just watch it from home?”
Because it’s my favorite Celtics team in 25 years. Because there was real history at stake — the LeBron/Wade era hanging in the balance, the Big Three possibly playing their final home game, the distinct possibility of either LeBron’s greatest game or LeBrondown III (with no in-between). Because I wanted to be there with my dad. Because I wanted to stroll down Causeway Street, see that familiar sea of green, feel like I never left. Because I wanted to savor those “Let’s Go Celtics” chants, hear the accents, enjoy that only-works-in-person moment before tip-off when a wired Garnett bumps fists with every opposing player, stomps over to the foul line near Boston’s bench and yells at his fans. Because we spent five years watching Rondo, Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Doc fighting to maintain something that mattered to them — and to us — even as teammates kept changing, bad breaks kept happening, trade rumors kept swirling and there were multiple reasons for any one of them to pack it in.
Their improbable turnaround wasn’t about money, numbers, accolades, headlines, commercials, brands or contract runs. These four guys loved playing together, loved their coach and loved their fans. It’s really that simple. When the trade deadline was looming last March, right as the season appeared to be splintering, something interesting happened: They fought to stay together. Their coach called the Big Four (that’s what they are now) into his office and asked if they believed they could win the 2012 title. They said yes. Over the span of four days, they nearly swept the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors all on the road, showing astonishing resolve. At the same time, nobody was bowling over Danny Ainge with killer offers. He decided to keep them together for one last run. You never know.
Three months later, Derrick Rose was rehabbing his knee, Miami was imploding and the creaky Celtics needed one more victory for the most improbable Finals trip in franchise history. They were so banged up, even their coach was battling a herniated disk. An injured coach??? As casualties kept piling up and the boys kept chugging along, undaunted, they started resonating with Boston fans like the ’87 Celtics, ’76 Celtics and ’69 Celtics once upon a time. This was totally different than 2008′s whirlwind of a fantasy season. We knew these guys now. The best teams are like dogs — even if it’s most fun when they’re puppies, the most meaningful moments come later, after they’ve lost a step or two, when you know them about as well as you know anything. It’s not about Rondo throwing an ESP alley-oop to Garnett, or Allen sneaking off a double screen to nail a 3, or Pierce gritting his way through a 6-for-19 and somehow making the game’s biggest shot. It’s about the familiarity of those moments more than anything, and how they intersect with the franchise’s history as a whole. This isn’t a great team, it’s a great Celtics team — one that Red would have loved — and over everything else, that’s why we will always remember the 2012 Celtics.
And that’s why I flew back. Unlike Wednesday night’s Kings game, any signs of overconfidence were tempered by Miami having the best player on the floor (and, probably, the world). Boston fans hoped the Heat would splinter and Celtics pride would prevail, but deep down, we knew LeBron had one of those petrifying 45-point monsters lurking in him. That’s another reason I flew back. Either …
A. The Celtics were making the Finals.
B. LeBron was playing one of his greatest games.
C. A and B.
And there was no “D.”
You know what happened by now. LeBron strolled out with a creepy look on his face, a relaxed, detached expression that said … well … we didn’t know. Was he pissed off? Had he checked out? Had he finally turned on his teammates? He was barely interacting with them, lost in his own little world, like he was wearing headphones we couldn’t see. He was definitely playing hard, but you couldn’t interpret what the overall vibe meant. Was this like a Dwight Howard thing? Like, “I’m here to do my job, and I’m going to try hard, just know that I’m here because I have to be?” Had the pressure finally broken him? Was he feuding with Wade? What was his agenda?
And then … the shots started going in. Swish. Swish. Swish. It’s like Miami realized, “Oh yeah, the Celtics don’t have anyone who can guard LeBron James,” and more important, LeBron realized it. He stopped worrying about sharing the ball, getting teammates involved, swinging it to the open man, being liked. Maybe LeBron said to himself, “Fuck it, I’m playing all 48 minutes, I’m scoring at least 50 points, and if we still blow this game, nobody can blame me.” Maybe he said, “Wade already has a ring, it’s time to get mine.” Maybe someone (Wade?) said to him, “Enough with this me-then-you-then-me crap, it’s your team, hog the ball, do your thing and take us home.” Maybe Game 5′s embarrassing defeat, as well as the humiliating “Good Job, Good Effort” kid and 36 hours of “Should they break up the Heat?” stories pissed him off. Maybe Worldwide Wes gave him an awesome pregame speech along the lines of the chef from Vision Quest.
I don’t know what happened. I just know the shots wouldn’t stop going in. After about the fifth dagger in a row (he made 10 straight), the crowd started groaning on every make — shades of Philly’s Andrew Toney ripping our hearts out 30 years ago. If you’ve ever been in the building for one of those games, you know there isn’t a deadlier sound. He single-handedly murdered one of the giddiest Celtics crowds I can remember. Thirty points in the first half. Thirty! All with that blank look on his face. It was like watching surveillance video of a serial killer coldly dismembering a body and sticking the parts in the fridge. Only we were right there.
You can’t imagine what this was like to witness in person. I know Michael Jordan had similarly astonishing games, and others, too, but not with stakes like that. This wasn’t just an elimination game. This was LeBron James’s entire career being put on trial … and it only took an hour for him to tell the jury, “Go home. I’m one of the best players ever. Stop picking me apart. Stop talking about the things I can’t do. Stop holding me to standards that have never been applied to any other NBA player. Stop blaming me for an admittedly dumb decision I never should have made. Stop saying I’m weak. Stop saying that I don’t want to win. Stop. Just … stop.”
As a Celtics fan, I was devastated. As a basketball fan, I appreciated the performance for what it was. One of the greatest players ever was playing one of his greatest games ever. He swallowed up every other relevant story line. Needless to say, the Celtics couldn’t match him — especially Pierce, who’s worn down from four weeks of battling Andre Iguodala, Shane Battier and LeBron on one leg and appears to be running on fumes of his fumes’ fumes at this point. The fans were so shell-shocked that many (including me and my father) filed out with three minutes remaining, not because we were lousy fans, not to beat the traffic, but because we didn’t want to be there anymore. We wanted to get away from LeBron. He ruined what should have been a magical night. We never really had a chance to cheer, swing the game, rally our guys, anything. He pointed a remote control at us and pressed “MUTE.” It was like being in a car accident. LeBron James ran over 18,000 people.
Leaving the arena, I noticed that same relentlessly eerie silence from the previous night in Los Angeles. Two different sports, two different coasts, same sound. My father and I strolled slowly back to his Beacon Hill house, moving like zombies with hundreds of other fans. You could hear horns beeping, bottles getting kicked, that’s about it. If I were 9 years old, I would have been crying just as hard as I did after the ’78 Sox-Yankees playoff game. I stopped crying about sports a long time ago. I never stopped caring. This one hurt.
“I’m sorry you flew back for that one,” my father finally said.
“I’m not sorry,” I said. “That was an amazing performance. I’m glad I was there.”
I don’t know if I totally meant it. We started talking, rehashed the game, tried to figure out what happened. We both agreed that LeBron couldn’t possibly play that well again, and that Pierce couldn’t possibly play that poorly. We talked about missed chances in the second and third quarters, all the different times Boston could have swung the momentum with one basket. We remembered that this particular Celtics team never plays two lousy games in a row, and that Miami hasn’t exactly been a house of horrors for them. By the end of the walk, we had rallied. The Celtics were still alive. One game, winner take all. You never know.
That departure went a little better than Wednesday’s exit from Staples Center. After coming apart at that stoplight, my daughter only cried for another minute, finally redirecting her anger toward me. You know, because that’s what daughters do.
“You don’t even care about the Kings,” she hissed. “You only care about your stupid Boston teams.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “I care because they’re your team.”
“But you don’t REALLY care, you’re not a Kings fan.”
“Then you don’t understand,” she decided. “You don’t understand what it’s like. You have NO idea.”
But that’s the thing about sports … I do.