By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
My eight week-old son isn’t a Celtics fan.
Sure, he’s got the requisite green onesie, kindly gifted by a family member. His dad and grandfather are just about the biggest Celtics fans around. But he slept through almost every game of the NBA playoffs, only waking to interrupt important stretches of play with his cries. He even had the nerve to blow out his diaper during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. A metaphor for the team’s performance, perhaps?
He’s eight weeks old. I'll give him a break. It will be several years before he understands, and only then if he cares to, the storied history of the franchise. He can't grasp the good will generated by this recent on-the-fly rebuild that has the team poised to contend well into the next decade. He's concerned about his next nap, his next meal, the threat of an unexpected barrage of kisses from our dog.
In May of 1983, the month I came home from the maternity ward, the Celtics were swept from the second round of the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks. The loss motivated Red Auerbach to flip backup center Rick Robey to the Phoenix Suns for future Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson. The Green went on to collect trophies in 1984 and 1986, but I don’t remember them.
My early memories as a Celtics fan featured an aging Robert Parish, and occasionally Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, flanked by rising star Reggie Lewis, trying but failing to knock off Eastern Conference also-rans like the Knicks, Pistons and Cavs. All while Michael Jordan’s Bulls piled up the hardware amidst constant media fawning. My dad and I would have "bedtime talks" about hoops that occasionally veered back to the glory years of the franchise. It seemed better than the state of affairs at the time.
And so, I insisted the great Bill Russell's jersey No. 6 was on the back of my t-shirt in the town rec league every winter. He was in the book of NBA legends I checked out of the library more than a couple of times. Dad also told me about the guys who didn't get their own chapters but made significant contributions to Celtics lore. Guys like Tom "Satch" Sanders, Charlie Scott, Gerald Henderson.
As the '80s transitioned to the '90s, "Celtic Pride" had gone out with short shorts. Everybody on the school bus (and I grew up in Massachusetts) was a Bulls fan. Celtics fans were living in the past with black and white TVs and those memorably raspy Johnny Most calls.
While hot takes about Eric Montross or Acie Earl's future failed to garner ratings at the lunch table, it was those bedtime talks that stuck with me through middle school and the Rick Pitino mess of my high school years. The Celtics spent the better part of two decades in basketball purgatory, only emerging when two veteran All-Stars climbed aboard to pull Paul Pierce from the mire and collectively lift the franchise back to respectability.
And I don’t want my son’s fan experience to be anything like mine.
I don’t want LeBron.
If what Stephen A. Smith says is qualitatively more than just braying into the void, that the Celtics actually have a shot, importing a soon-to-be 34-year-old James for a quickie run at a title is the equivalent of what is known in pro wrestling parlance as a “cheap pop.” You know, “finally, the Rock ... has come back ... to Corpus Christi.” Yaaay. Gets ‘em every time.
Will I be excited if the Celtics, with LeBron, go to the NBA Finals next season? Of course. But what happens in a year or two when he decides the princess is in another castle? As much flak as Ray Allen gets in this city, at least he stuck around for five seasons. I don’t want my son to come of age as a Celtics fan hearing about how great things were when he was too young to understand, before LeBron left and the Celtics were forced to scramble, just like the Cavs (twice) and the Heat before them.
Signing James means you're getting rid of Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward from Jump Street. While those players, in a vacuum, aren’t on the same level as the so-called King, they’re darned good, quite a bit younger, and destined to stick around a lot longer, provided Irving signs an extension. If not, the team still retains flexibility without LeBron’s salary muddying up the ledger.
What does a LeBron cameo mean for the team's rising stars? It marginalizes them. And perhaps even hastens their departure.
This season, just three players in the entire Eastern Conference remained on the same team they played for at the end of the 2011-12 campaign: DeMar DeRozan, Kemba Walker, and God bless him, Udonis Haslem. So it’s not a slam dunk that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are wearing green when the day arrives and my son decides he wants to watch Celtics games with me every night. But out west, the Warriors and Spurs have retained core players from their championship seasons. The Mavs still have Dirk. Westbrook is still with the Thunder and the Grizzlies continue to employ Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
I know a lot of people have compared Tatum to Pierce; wouldn’t it be something if he was the next homegrown franchise player in Boston?
With LeBron around, Tatum sits in the background.
The 2017-18 season, for me, was always about the big picture. I figured Irving would be the superstar, Hayward would provide a dynamic wing presence, and Al Horford would do Al Horford things. I wanted to find out if the young guys could hang and create a depth of talent to potentially rival the Warriors over the next few seasons.
When I was a kid, the presence of a talented but brittle Big Three core was rendered moot because it didn't have Len Bias, because Brian Shaw took off for Greece that one year, because Auerbach couldn't re-stock the cupboard picking from the back end of the first round every June. By the time Reggie Lewis was tragically cut down in the prime of his career, the window had already closed. The Celtics wouldn’t get out of the second round following a run to the 1988 conference finals.
Tatum, Brown and Rozier can hang, and Boston can compete with at least a couple of those guys in the mix for the next few seasons. It’s the best case scenario from five years ago: the Celtics signed and traded for a core of established star players and they’ve converted on their draft picks. The team has what it takes to keep the window open for the foreseeable future. Why should Danny Ainge break the glass for a hotshot date with Golden State next spring?
LeBron James has also sent the Celtics packing five of the last eight years.
This is Boston. This city doesn’t welcome the enemy. You never saw Red load up on ex-Lakers. Sure, a couple of washed up Yankees have plied their trades for the Red Sox over the years, and I remember when Chris Nilan started punching out Canadiens in black and gold rather than bashing his knuckles on Bruins skulls. But Nilan was a local guy to begin with.
Boston builds winners. Ainge’s team has all the makings of one. His team got to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals with two All-Stars sitting on the bench. They’re set up to be in title contention for the next several years. They may want him, but they don’t need LeBron chewing up minutes and swallowing his supporting cast with his usage and his cult of personality. Just like I got sick of Jordan in the '90s, I’m tired of watching him whine and carry on and make everything about himself every spring. He can’t help it; these behaviors were emboldened during his teenage years - it wasn’t from listening to a Nas CD. Meanwhile, use of “LeBron” and “legacy” in the same sentence every spring rivals the noise produced by a chorus of screaming cicadas emerging for the summer.
Go ahead and ridicule me for wanting something more than the transactional handoff of a championship trophy. Maybe it’s because it seems like 90 percent of people are Patriots fans first. After two decades of remarkable success in this city, who has time for the journey anymore? But I’m a Celtics fan, and I want to take the ride.
I hope my son joins me. I hope the team is still relevant five or six years from now. And I think that future is far brighter without making a move for LeBron.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.
Click here for all Celtics updates from 98.5 The Sports Hub.