Once I made it my goal to play on the varsity team during my senior year, my training kicked into overdrive. Nearly everything took a back seat to working out, practicing and running drills. I was so single-mindedly devoted to this process that I couldn't imagine failure.
Of course, many things are clear in retrospect. I was working out, but my routine hadn't been designed by anyone with personal training expertise. It had, in fact, been designed by me, a high school kid who one short year ago hadn't been able to run down the block or carry a 100-pound box of weights. Furthermore, I was practicing and running drills without the benefit of an actual basketball coach -- or even a coach-like father figure -- to provide guidance.
The point is, I was working hard, but the results weren't nearly as effective as I imagined.
But I was training in a bubble of my own creation. I often practiced alone, or I played in the intramural league (which, as noted, was crappy crap basketball), or I went to outdoor courts where I was unconsciously or semi-consciously choosing competition that didn't intimidate me. That's not to say I didn't occasionally play -- and play well -- against solid competition. But I wasn't exactly being forged in the fires of adversity.
Frankly, I was winning too often against inferior competition. It inflated my sense of where I was as a basketball player.
Now, I said "nearly everything" came second to my obsession with playing basketball. There were a few things that managed to sneak in and wrestle away some of my spare time. One of those things was watching basketball. The Celtics had been struggling all season, due mostly to a) age and b) injuries to Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. But as the season was coming to a close, Bird and McHale seemed relatively healthy, and the Celtics went on a tear. They had won seven games in a row and were hot on the heels of Pat Riley's Knicks, who were leading the Atlantic Division.
On April 3, my mom took me and my buddy Greg to a Celtics-Pacers game at Market Square Arena, which was a great place to experience a live game. Honestly, I'm not a big fan of these new luxury arenas. They make the game feel like a sideshow. Market Square Arena, the old Chicago Stadium, the Boston Garden (although I never made it to the old Gah-den for a game)...those places were basketball Meccas. You went there to live a basketball game. The new arenas were built to attract as many people as possible, to make basketball seem like a family outing, or a place to take your date, or a venue to entertain clients. In short, they were built to make money, not enhance the basketball viewing experience.
Anyway, it was a great game. The previous season, the Pacers had pushed the Celtics to the limit in a very heated first round series. In the fifth and final game -- this was back when the first round series were best-of-five -- Bird, who already had a bad back, knocked himself out diving for a loose ball. He came back in dramatic fashion, scored 32 points (to go along with 9 rebounds and 7 assists in only 33 minutes), and finished off the Pacers in his last truly legendary playoff performance. Here are some highlights:
With that playoff series as a backdrop, every game against these teams seemed to have greater meaning. The crowd was electric.
Boston fell behind by 17 points early in the fourth before stating a late rally. The crowd was giving the Celtics absolute hell. That, in itself, was quite a turnaround, because Bird was from Indiana and therefore the Celtics usually got a lot of support in Indiana. (Former Pacers guard Vern Fleming once joked after a home win over the C's that "It was nice to come away with a win at the Garden.") Anyway, during a fourth quarter timeout, with everybody around us cussing and damning the Celts, Greg turned to my mom and said, "Thanks for taking us to the game, Mrs. McHale."
Remember: Kevin McHale was on the Celtics back then, and was still a major star in the league. The people around us went dead silent. They must have thought we were related to McHale. Hell, they may have thought my mom was Kevin's wife. Whatever they thought, the cussing and damning got a little muted in our section for the remainder of the game.
The Celtics almost stole the game. Near the end, Boston was down a couple points when Bird badly missed a three-pointer that might have won it. The C's were forced to foul, the Pacers hit their free throws, and Boston lost 101-97.
During the game, Bird had received a brutal shot in the back from wanna-be rival Chuck Person. Person -- who struggles that night, scoring only 8 points on 3-for-15 shooting -- had apparently decided the best way to make a name for himself in the league was to stoke this supposed rivalry with Bird, so he was always trying to go one-on-one against Larry, and occasionally that meant getting physical or taking cheap shots. Well, this particular cheap shot sent Bird to the floor.
Bird got up slowly and left the game, which was part of why the Pacers built that 17-point lead. But Bird came back and finished the game -- he had 16 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists but shot only 8-for-20 -- so I figured everything was okay.
It wasn't. Either the blow or the fall (or both) had aggravated his back injury. Bird missed the rest of the regular season. He returned for four playoff games, struggled through the Olympics -- that was the year of the Dream Team -- and then retired. So, although I didn't know it at the time, I had been there for Larry's last regular season game.
Bird's absence didn't hurt the Celtics. They finished the season with eight straight wins -- including a 97-86 home win over the Bulls, who were on pace for 70 wins at the time -- and stole the division title from the Knicks.
Another thing I had time for was my hopeless crush on my friend Cindy. Amazingly, I'd had a crush on her for over two years without making anything near what you'd call a "move." I didn't even have her phone number yet. This changed near the end of the school year. It went down like this. Most of the juniors in my school were set to take the SAT on Saturday, May 2. My entire class was on pins and needles.
I was extra nervous. Firstly because the Celtics -- who had swept the Pacers in the first round despite Bird's continuing absence -- were opening their second round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers that day, which meant I was going to miss the game. This really pissed me off. I couldn't believe my academic future was coming between me and a Celtics playoff game. Sure, I was going to record the game, but I felt like my inability to watch the game live could actually affect the outcome. No, really. I kind of believed it.
I had a second reason to be nervous. On Friday, I had been talking to Cindy about the SAT -- she was freaking out too -- and, for reasons unknown, I blurted out, "Heyyouwannagivemeacallsometime?"
"What?" she asked, apparently unable to decipher my word mush.
Haltingly, I repeated, "Do you want to...give me...a call...sometime?"
She gave me what I remember was a huge smile and said, "I'd love to!" I'm pretty sure something inside me either melted or exploded. Maybe both things happen. I don't really understand human anatomy.
So I went into the SAT thinking about everything but taking the most important test of my life to date. Would the Celtics win? Would Cindy call me? Could Cindy call me? Would the Celtics win? I knew I should be focusing, preparing myself for test taking. But those two things seemed more important than anything else could possibly be. Until the test administrator set the ScanTron form and question booklet in front of me. It hit me then, for the very first that, that "Oh fuck! I have to take the SAT!"
Sweat started to gush from my pores.
I don't remember anything about that test. Not a single thing. I blanked it from my mind. I walked out in a haze, just like everybody else who had taken it. Seriously, the image of stunned test takers shuffling out of my school looked like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie.
My buddy Dave D. and I shambled across the street to his house to find out the result of the Celts-Cavs game. During his early childhood, his family had lived in a little town just outside of Cleveland, so Dave was (and is) a huge fan of the Browns and the Cavaliers, two of history's most depressing teams. So whenever those squads were any good -- and the Cavs had tied the Trail Blazers for the second-best record in the league that season, so they were pretty good -- Dave got extra worked up.
As it turned out, the game was just ending. Well, technically speaking. It had apparently ended a long time ago, but even back then David Stern was forcing teams to play the full 48 minutes even in the case of a blowout. Which is exactly what this was. The Celtics lost 101-76.
I felt so incredibly low. The SAT had fried my brain and I was pretty certain I had bombed it. Then I walked in on the end of an ass kicking, where my team was the ass getting kicked. I drove home and my mom reminded me that I had to mow the lawn. Back then, because we had a dog, "mowing the lawn" meant more than just cutting the grass. Before firing up the lawn mower, I had to pull out the pooper scooper and clean up the care packages my dog, Pookie, had left throughout our giant back yard. (For the record, Pookie was named after the teddy bear owned by Garfield.)
That was my day: Eff up the SAT, see the Celtics get humiliated, scoop up shit and mow the lawn. Cue the confetti.
My mom brought me a glass of water when I was finished cutting the grass. We were talking about SAT when I heard the phone ring. I literally threw my cup aside and went running helter-skelter into the house.
"Hello," I said into the receiver, slightly out of breath.
"Hey, is this Matt?" It was Cindy.
"Yeah!" I said, sounding way too excited.
"I told you I'd call," she said, explaining why she had, in fact, called me.
"I know!" I said, still too excited. No, really, I was waaaaay too excited. You'd think I'd just seen a double complete rainbow or something.
I managed to not scare her off by being a complete and total spaz, and we had one of those stupid, teenage first phone calls. It was short, but felt totally sweet. For me, it redeemed what had been a pretty crappy day.
When my mom asked how the call went, I said something totally lame like, "It was a really nice call." I probably sighed in happiness, presumably with cartoon hearts circling my head. Did I mention I was a huge dork back then? (Some people who know me now would argue I should use a strikethrough on the "back then" part.)
With the SAT out of the way, I resumed my basketball über alles lifestyle, save for a) the occasional phone calls to or from Cindy, b) nights out with my buddies, or c) shifts at the Ponderosa.
I should also point out that I had to watch the Celtics get eliminated by the Cavaliers. The C's actually recovered from their Game 1 blowout by winning Game 2 in Cleveland 104-98 behind Robert Parish's game-high 27 points. Mind you, the Cavs had lost only six home games all season. Boston then won Game 3 too. Reggie Lewis was on fire. Team chemistry was great. It looked like the Celtics were on a collision course for an Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Bulls.
Then Bird came back.
Here's the thing. The Celtics had been forced to play long stretches without Bird. They had found a rotation that worked. Everything was clicking. And, frankly, the team was feeding off Reggie Lewis, who had taken over as the team leader. But when Bird came back, things changed. On paper, Larry's return should have pushed Boston to the next level. Instead, Bird disrupted the flow that had been established while he was rehabbing.
The Celtics brought Larry back for Game 4, probably hoping to fire up the crowd and the team, and therefore take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Credit the Cavaliers -- who really were a very good team -- for weathering the storm. Bird didn't play well (4 points, 1-for-5, 2 rebounds, 3 assists), but Reggie Lewis was on fire (42 points, 16-for-28). The game was close all the way. It was tied at the end of regulation. The final play was drawn up for Lewis, who inexplicably dumped it off the Bird at the last second. Bird missed the shot and the game went to OT. At the end of OT, the Celts had the ball down two. Lewis again deferred to Bird...who again missed a buzzer-beater.
The teams traded home blowouts over the next three games. The Cavaliers finished the Celtics off in Game 7 in Cleveland as Bird ended his NBA career by scoring 12 points in a 122-104 loss. And at the end of that series, I was (rather painfully) forced to admit (if only to myself) that the Celtics had -- in this particular instance -- been better without Larry Bird. It was one of the saddest days of my young life.
But life always goes on. And I had training to take my mind off of Larry's last game.