LOS ANGELES — Paul Pierce has been my favorite NBA player since he entered the league as the 10th pick of the 1998 Draft. Through thick and thin, some losing and a LOT of winning, he personified what Boston Celtics basketball was for the last 15 seasons. He was the Captain and The Truth.His draft-night trade, along with Kevin Garnett and others, to New Jersey was made official Friday, which ended his fantastic and Hall of Fame run at the Garden. Such, I felt compelled to reach out and express my love, gratitude and respect for what he meant to me as a gigantic fan.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you for being a true Celtic. Thank you for not giving up on the city and fans when it would have been easy to, especially in the early years. Thank you for always caring. Thank you for always playing hard. Thank you for every pull-up 3 on the fast break, every step back elbow jumper, every spin move in the lane and every fist pump to get the Garden crowd going. Thank you for being the Captain and The Truth and living up to what both of those words actually meant. It was an honor and a privilege to watch you play night-in and night-out, through the grinds of the losing seasons and the supreme joys of the winning ones. Thank you for letting Antoine wiggle and Walter dive on the floor and Scal drop 3s and Rondo drop dimes and Kevin drop 12-letter bombs. Thank you for making it fun to be a Celtics fan again. For making the Garden the place to be in Boston. Thank you for Banner 17 and in your post-Game 6 presser in 2008 for thanking your teammates first. Thank you for making it look so easy and difficult at the same time. Quick anecdote: after the championship, I had to get your jersey (don’t ask why I didn’t have one before, I mean, I’m a grown ass man, we shouldn’t wear jerseys). I just had to. I wanted to wear it around in celebration.
That summer, I went to Atlantic City with my buddies, like we do every year, for our fantasy football draft and one night I wore it out. Wore it to dinner at our traditional Friday spot, Hooters in the Tropicana, and karaoke at Desert Rose, and high-fived every person who said something to me about it because I was proud. The glory had been restored and it meant a lot to rep you. That jersey is still proudly displayed today in my house. Now, I’m a Celtics fan out here in Los Angeles, your hometown, and it’s been difficult at times dealing with the lunacy of fans of that team from here. But we stay strong. And I’ll always stay strong. You’re my guy and it’s been a great ride these last 15 years. You’ll always be the Captain and The Truth and I know you’ll always bleed green. And I’ll be rooting for you next season in 78 games. I hope I’m in the house when you return to Boston for the first time. It’s bound to be a magical moment, and likewise I look forward to the day when “34” is raised to the rafters, where it belongs. Gone but never forgotten, you’re one of a kind.
LOS ANGELES — Late Spring is arguably the best time for sports. With the unpredictability of the NBA and NHL Playoffs, interleague baseball, the randomness of big boxing matches, tennis and golf Grand Slam tournaments, and even horse racing; if the sports planets all align there’s the chance for something special. So when the Devils beat the Kings last Wednesday to avoid a sweep in the Stanley Cup Finals, and then the Heat beat the Celtics to avoid elimination in the NBA Playoffs the next day, the intergalactic sports Gods set up a potentially epic day like Saturday, June 9.
As it turned out, there wasn’t just two or three of the previously mentioned events planned, but all six. I mean, why wouldn’t there be. It isn’t often you get a horse going for the Triple Crown, a tennis great trying to complete the career Grand Slam, your favorite baseball team playing against the best young player since Junior Griffey, a potential Stanley Cup deciding game, an NBA Playoffs Game 7 and a big-time prize fight featuring who many consider the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. All in one day!!?! A sports guy’s dream.
However, when I’ll Have Another’s trainer Doug O’Neill pulled the horse, who already had a pair of stunning come-from-behind wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, on Friday morning after noticing signs of arthritis/tendinitis in its leg, the Gods proved they had other plans. We now know those were nightmarish ones, especially for those with northeast rooting interests, like myself.
We’ll start with the Red Sox, who are on the precipice of a disaster .500 season (seriously, Adrian Gonzalez, you suck). They got things going in the southern directional with a 4-2 loss to the hotshots from Washington (who would later sweep Boston after Sunday’s win). While I failed to watch a single inning of this contest, I didn’t have high hopes after Stephen Strasburg (6 innings, 2 runs, 13 Ks) and Bryce Harper (3-for-5, 3 RBIs and a HR) dominated the squad the day before. You know it’s a bad sign when I just expect a disastrous performance before a pitch is ever thrown; 2004 and 2007 seem soooo long ago.
Shortly there after Boston’s “L,” the rest of the field that would’ve been an asterisk to I’ll Have Another’s historic Triple Crown (he was going off at 4-5 odds as late as last Thursday) took to the track at Belmont Park before a less-than optimally hyped crowd of over 85,000 (who bet over $15M). There was a group of us watching at The Daily Pint in Santa Monica for our friend Joe’s birthday or perhaps I would’ve skipped the race entirely. Back in the day, I wouldn’t have missed a big race. There was a harness racing track near my house in Maine and my buddies and I would roll over and lay some action down; always made it more interesting. Alas, I had zero interest, but the historic mile-and-a-half jaunt ended up being a dramatic race despite the favorite’s absence. Union Rags came from behind to claim the victory but will be a distant memory to what might have been. Legendary trainer Bob Baffert once again had his horse Place, as Paynter came up just short.
Now, I’m not a hockey fan, but the hometown Kings being a game away from clinching the first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s history, and with the puck dropping on Game 5 a half hour before Heat/Celtics Game 7, was enough to garner at least 30 minutes of my viewing time. Our now 5-man crew shifted over to Busby’s where we’d be able to watch both events and then possibly the Bradley/Pacquiao fight later on. The move proved to be a smart one as we posted up right in front of a TV with the basketball game on, with the hockey on directly behind us for easy viewing. I turned my head every now and again to check the score; we were updated on what was happening by the groans/cheers from the other patrons. There were mostly groans as the Devils extended the series with a 2-1 win.
Of course, my focus was solely on the Celtics, who were seeking their 3rd NBA Finals appearance in the five years of the Big Three Era and a revenge victory over Miami, which took out Boston in 5 games in last year’s Eastern Conference semis. It was a torridly-close affair but the Celtics managed to have a not-so comfortable 7-point lead at halftime, however, with just 12 minutes left to play it was dead even. The way Miami came back didn’t leave a good feeling in my gut, and as the time on the game clock dwindled it became apparent that the new golden era in Boston was coming to an unceremonious end. The Heat finished off the 101-88 win to advance to the NBA Finals against the youthfully athletic Oklahoma City Thunder and their dynamic and questionably fashionable duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. What made the loss even more obnoxious, was that suddenly we were surrounded by Heat fans, fans who were noticeably silent for the previous 36 game minutes. All that was left for me to do was lick my wounds, and devour my turkey burger, and prepare for the pugilistic showdown.
I suppose we should have taken this has a sign of weird things to come, but the fight’s start was delayed by nearly an hour as 1) Manny Pacquaio, apparently a huge Celtics fan (finally, something to like about him) refused to get ready until the basketball game was over, and 2) Pacquiao, after getting ready, had to walk on the treadmill for a lengthy period of time to loosen up his calves, which he’s had problems with tightness in throughout his training camp. Meanwhile, the HBO announcing team was running out of things to talk about as everyone waited. It was beyond bizarre. Meanwhile, Bradley was gloved up and ready to go, pacing around backstage while Pacquaio went on with his shenanigans. The whole scene was bizarre, to say the least.
Finally, just after 9pm pacific time — only an hour or so after it was supposed to get underway — the boxers made their way to the ring, Michael Buffer did this overpriced thing (did you know he gets close to $5 million to be a boxing announcer for big fights?) and the dance began. It was clear from the get-go that Pacquiao was there to fight and quell the thoughts his 12-round triumph over Juan Manuel Marquez some months back wasn’t earned. The WBO champ was aggressive and closed rounds strongly, while Bradley tried to fight off Pacquiao’s his flurries. The challenger didn’t do a good job of it. Midway through the fight I tweeted out that a knockout was looming in the coming rounds. It never came.
Bradley, who we later found out broke his foot in the fourth round, fought admirably to close the bout, but by then most assumed it was a forgone conclusion he was the big loser. When it was finally over and Bradley’s cornermen lifted him up, Jim Lampley commented on the irony, since it appeared he was soundly defeated. It was even reported Bradley told promoter Bob Arum that he gave all he could but even then couldn’t defeat Pacquiao. It wasn’t until Buffer read the first score of 115-113 that I knew something was up. And even though the round went to Pacquiao, that someone could even think the fight was that close was ludicrous was not a good sign if he hoped to continue his 7-year unbeaten streak.
Then Buffer said the second judges scores; “115-113 for Bradley” and you knew right then Bradley was going to win. The final judge’s score of 115-113 for Bradley didn’t even need to be read but when it was there was a good 15-20 seconds of silence inside Busby’s while we all soaked in what we just heard and what that meant for Pacquiao, a sitting-in-jail Floyd Mayweather and the sport of boxing. What it meant for Bradley was a rematch (one that was already predetermined, ironically) and a bigger payday and a still unblemished record. Twitter was aghast with notions of a fix and it was tough to argue. Inside Busby’s, some clown in a LeBron James jersey was running around yelling his outrage to any one would listen. Many did not. On my drive home, I wondered what Mayweather’s reaction must have been when learning of the outcome. Surely a smirk was involved.
In the end, only Maria Sharapova was able to come through to win the French Open and complete her career Grand Slam. Still, she’s getting married to former Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic so a complete victory is not awarded in my book. On top of all the sports brokenheartedness, it was the first weekend in nearly three months without “Game of Thrones,” and it was the last for probably a year with a Mad Men episode.
So much hope, so much promise when the sun rose that day all for not. Sometimes stars shine bright but their alignment is a little off. Maybe next time.