I was watching LeBron James win his first NBA championship with the Heat as I sat down to write this blog and you know what, his first championship could have been my first championship.
I could have a ring, but the Heat beat us in seven games in the Conference Finals.
But most basketball fans were rooting for us in that series — even the fans here in LA were, well were pulling for the Celtics.
Which was odd … I missed all of the Celtic hate in LA I remember. Growing up in Southern Cal, being a Laker fan was engraved in me from a young age. My earliest memories came from playing Keno with my great grandmother Barbra Edwards — “Gammie” as we called her — and the Laker games were always on. She’d name all the players and made sure I knew what it took for the Lakers to win.
I’d wake up early Saturday mornings with my father and watch NBA on NBC… Love that theme song by the way. You know it, I bet you’re humming it now… If not – check it out here — Roundball Rock — as performed by John Tesh.
And I ain’t gonna lie — I had to look it up to find out it was called Roundball Rock AND written by John Tesh.. I had no idea!
Well, if you know your basketball history, that was toward the end of both the Lakers’ and Celts’ run as both teams began to rebuild and Michael started winning championships. I hated Jordan and the Bulls as a kid and thought Jordan would never be better than Magic. But then of course Shaq and Kobe brought the Lakers back to the top and later Bryant was joined by Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum while the Celtics acquired their own big three, bringing in Kevin Garnett (more on him later) and Ray Allen to play with Paul Pierce, to make both teams championship contenders at the same time again.
Of course at this point when the rivalry heated up again, I was already playing professional basketball myself… but people would still ask me, ARE YOU A LAKERS FAN?
No I’m not.
Then they seem appalled. I’d have to go on and explain that the Lakers are now my competition. The best way I get them to understand is by naming a peer of theirs — say Bob in the cubicle down the hall from you — and ask them can you imagine being a fan of Bob?
Then it makes more sense.
As a professional, by no means did I hate the Celtics, they were just one of the games circled on my calendar. The C’s became infamous around the league for their incredible talent and in-your-face playing style. That old-school approach to the game gave me goosebumps and excitement to play against them. As the years went by, I watched and thought to myself these guys play just like me: high energy, in your face, team-first basketball.
And, I’ve got to admit, being a Celtic is something I never saw myself being and boy did I hear it all from back home… from:
“Your grandmother is rolling over in her grave.”
And: “I still hate the Celtics, but I’ll cheer for you.”
To eventually: “I never thought I’d cheer for the Celtics.”
So I guess I’m converting Celtic fans… Okay, okay, I am not. LA was rooting for the Celtics during our Conference Finals Series vs. the Heat because they are the new Laker rival… as well as the rival of every NBA team because every fan outside of Miami hates the Heat. If it’s not the idea of the stars joining, it’s LeBron himself or maybe it’s the Kobe vs. LeBron debate that is a factor… But we all know the Heat was the reason LA fans were rooting for us. If we were playing the Hawks, no one here would have rooted for Boston… But because it was the Heat… That was something I heard a lot, it wasn’t, “I hope you guys win” or “I wish your team the best,” it was simply, “beat the Heat.”
There’s nothing that you can compare playoff basketball to, it is truly an elite experience that you carry with you for the rest of your life. I will never forget Game 7… or Game 6… or Game 5… or just about any of them. In the playoffs, every play is magnified — it’s basketball at its purest form. Part of being a professional is letting go and moving on, but I can’t say that I’ll ever be able to do that with Game 7… or even Game 6, holding a 3-2 lead vs. Miami and a championship just five games away and making history and losing.
The Heat being crowned champs puts a bulls-eye on their back. From a player’s standpoint, you want to play the best and beat the best. There are no handshakes, no hugs… just anything it takes to beat the opponent. I believe the best team won in that series, there are no excuses. Excuses are an easy way to avoid progress, but acceptance allows us to move forward. You have to take wins in the playoffs… they will never be given to you. A loss is a loss.
The Celtics don’t take moral victories. Like the Lakers, anything less than a championship isn’t recognized. I was rooting for OKC to win this series, not because of losing to the Heat, but because of Russell Westbrook (also from UCLA) being like a little brother to me. I’ve watched him work tirelessly to become a player when no one thought much of him. The kid works hard and deserves everything he has.
Speaking of working hard, Garnett is by far the most intense player (and maybe person) that I’ve ever had a chance to be around. His intensity goes far past the basketball court, into shoot-around practice and even the plane and bus. He’s the Ray Lewis of the NBA. If you’ve ever had the chance to see Ray speak in person, it’s a similar experience. (Here is a postgame Ray Lewis speech…after a loss).
I got to play pick up ball with Kevin and played with Paul regularly and they backed me when I was looking to sign with the Celtics, something I’ll forever be indebted for. Seeing an embrace from such guys and seeing them have my back far beyond a summer pickup game is rare with today’s stars. And we had a good team and the fans gave me chills… But we lost.