Photo: Werner Kunz | Flickr
Ed. Note: Evans Clinchy is a Bostonian and active member of the hoops blogosphere. He’s been covering the Celtics for nearly four years, with his writing appearing on CelticsBlog, NESN, and SI (among other places). You can follow him, his thoughts, and his writing on Twitter. He wrote this piece before the start of the Knicks-Celtics series this past weekend.
After taking a good, solid 96 hours or so to process all the thoughts and emotions brought about by the disaster that unfolded Monday afternoon in Copley Square, I was struck by an odd realization: The rhetoric we use to cope when tragedy strikes isn’t so terribly far removed from the basic sportswriting tropes that columnists fall back on when a deadline looms minutes away and they’re struggling to find meaning.
Grit. Grind. Perseverance. Resilience.
Especially in Boston, we’re no stranger to these buzzwords. Every time Rob Gronkowski plays through a nasty injury or Dustin Pedroia gets a little dirty breaking up a double play, we hear them. Sports journalism is a constant quest to assign narrative value to random, fluky, unpredictable events, and when we can’t really make sense of something, there are always easy lexical crutches to lean on.
Boston is tough. Boston has a will to survive. Boston can’t be defeated.
When you hear this stuff in a sports context, it’s no big deal. A little hacky and clichéd, sure, but it’s just sports and none of this really matters, so we’re able to let it slide.
But when you start applying these words to events like Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings, which ended three lives and injured 183? Then it becomes a little difficult to swallow.
Everyone has been throwing around verbiage about the heart and determination of Boston. We’ve heard it from our athletes, our celebrities, our random Twitter friends — hell, even our president. Barack Obama came to Boston on Thursday and gave a stirring speech, one that many are calling the finest oratorical moment of his presidency, in which he talked about how the marathon bombers “picked the wrong city” and that Boston has the resolve to “finish the race.”
It sounds great in a figurative sense, until you realize that thousands of runners quite literally did not finish the race on Monday afternoon, and that since we’re all humans here, every city is the “wrong city.” Obama’s speech was great, but it was only that — a speech. Words are ultimately meaningless. They don’t bring back Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi or Martin Richard; they don’t keep criminals off the streets; they don’t undo history. What happened Monday happened, and no one can change it.
Speaking of empty gestures (and getting to the point, since this is a basketball blog and you’ve already read 400ish words that have very little to do with basketball), there’s been a growing sentiment that as the Celtics begin the NBA playoffs this weekend, fans will support their cause in a display of solidarity with the people of Boston. It’s even been suggested — by a New York media outlet, no less! — that the Celtics are now “America’s team,” that the nation will rally behind the C’s from now until the moment they’re eliminated.
To that, I say: Thanks, America, but no thanks.
Rooting for our sports teams won’t make a difference. It won’t erase what happened Monday. It will simply add to the never-ending pity party, and that’s the last thing this city needs.
Especially during playoff time.
The other great cliché here, besides the one about grit and grind and all that, is that sports are supposed to be a distraction. We watch the games because they’re not real life — they help us get our minds off of everything that really matters, if only for a couple of hours. So once the ball goes up and the Celtics open the Eastern Conference playoffs this weekend, why would we want any sympathy? The sympathy is exactly what we’re trying to forget.
Basketball is not life. It has no terrorists or bombs or manhunts. It’s a diversion. It’s entertainment. And why does it entertain us so? Because we all love friendly rivalry. We watch the games for the trash talk, and the hard fouls, and the guys dunking in each other’s faces. Basketball is war, but it’s fake war. At the end of the day, we’re watching adults play a kid’s game, and it’s OK when things get heated, because that only adds to the fun. No one has their limbs blown off on the Garden parquet.
What’s perfect about the Celtics’ playoff run is that it begins against the Knicks. Boston and New York have both been through tragedy, and thus they know some things are more important than basketball — but they’re also great rivals, so when they do happen to be engaged in a sporting event, it’s the best fake war you can ask for. The Sox and Yanks go back to the sale of the Bambino. Pats-Jets has been great since the start of the Rex Ryan era. Celtics-Knicks… well, there was that time Kevin Garnett said that thing about that breakfast cereal.
Jon Stewart this week referred to Boston and New York as a “sibling rivalry,” noting that “oftentimes the two cities are accusing each other of various levels of suckitude.” I can’t say it better myself, so I don’t know why I’m trying. But the point is this: The Knicks are a perfect opponent for this first-round series. New York will feel your pain, sympathize for your loss, then take the court and try to kick your ass. That’s exactly how it should be.
Here’s what should happen starting with Game 1 on Saturday afternoon. KG and Carmelo Anthony should take their trash talk to all-new, never-before-seen heights. The Knicks should foul Paul Pierce, hard, right in his sore left ankle, and the Celtics should respond with a healthy shove to the bulging disc in Tyson Chandler’s back. Jason Terry and J.R. Smith should trade monster 3-pointers all series long. These two teams should beat the living daylights out of each other for six games at the very least, preferably seven, and it should be fantastic theater from the opening tip to the final buzzer. We deserve that. It won’t make us forget that Monday ever happened, but it will certainly brighten our moods a little bit, if only for a couple of hours.
Doc Rivers responded to Monday’s disaster by telling reporters at practice, “You don’t stop the spirit of Boston.” In a general sense, I’m not sure what that means. But in the sporting world, it’s clear — Boston plays hard, Boston fights dirty, and Boston loves to be hated. Even now.
The Celtics don’t need an entire country to unify behind them. Their own fans will band together, that’s for sure — but as for everyone else, screw ‘em. Let ‘em boo. In fact, I hope they boo louder than ever.