It's not about the house.

Friday, June 6, 2008

I Can’t Handle The Truth

All through high school, basketball was my sport. It was the only varsity letter I ever got, in fact, and from the boys team to boot. There was a girls team, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun. Why would I want to get all gussied up and ride the bus to an away game with a bunch of girls?

What’s that? How come they let me join the boys team if there was a girl one? Oh, you’re misunderstanding me: I didn’t play. Lord no. I kept the books.

I was that person at the table, courtside, making little tick marks in a little tab. Did it for baseball, too, my senior year (so I guess I lied: I guess basketball was not my only varsity letter) but baseball – as I’m sure will not surprise you – was infinitely more laid back. I’d lie in the grass in my surfer socks and minidresses, with my little silver boom box playing 1999, and count off the positions while practicing my curly Ks.

But in basketball, they yelled at you.

I honestly don’t remember most of what I was writing down in that record book, but I do know that the best part of every match-up would be when some boy – preferably from the opposing team – would rack up five personal fouls. I’d signal the ref, and he would eject the dirty bastard from the game. Nine times out of ten the kid would storm the table, insisting that the foul in question had only been #4. Sometimes he'd insist with swear words; sometimes in an outside voice. And I would swear-word, outside-voice back at him, telling him he'd better get a math tutor because he sure as hell didn’t have a parquet career ahead of him if he couldn’t get through a game without knocking five people down.

Oh boy, that shit was fun!

Even better, though, was getting to learn the ins and outs of a fast-moving sport. I dare say I knew the game – how to watch a game, that is – better than the boys (and girls) who actually played. And how to watch it was important back then because, back then, everyone was watching basketball.

Those were the glory days – the Bird/McHale/Parish days – and for all intents and purposes the Celtics were our only team. You loved the Red Sox, of course, for being such storied losers, and you rooted for the Patriots even though you knew down in your heart the Bears would crush them in the end. I think there might have even been a hockey team in town then, too – I think there might still be, in fact – but nobody's given a flying puck about them since Bobby Orr. No, for most of pro-sports history the Celtics were the only thing that allowed you to hold your head up when you called yourself Bostonian. Or Worcesterian. Or Whereverish.

And when I say everyone was watching, I mean everyone. To wit: at the end of each school year, from sixth grade right on through graduation, my friend Dawn Yules had a sleepover at her house. Ten or twelve of us would bring a backpack to Awards Day, and when it was over we’d take off our Izod dresses and our espadrilles, pile into Mrs. Yules's Cherokee, and pile out an hour later at Riverside Park. We’d ride roller coasters until it got dark outside, go home and spalsh around in her nightlighted in-ground pool, then put on our pyjamas and watch the Celtics (usually) kick some Laker ass. Every year. From sixth grade right on through graduation.

So you see: if this was how a bunch of thirteen-year-old girls chose to spend their first-day-of-vacation slumber party, it’s safe to say that everyone was watching.

But then, a week after our final sleepover – a week after we graduated, and a week after the Celts won what would turn out to be their last championship for at least twenty years – K.C. and the sunshine gang drafted a Maryland forward by the name of Lenny Bias.

For those of you who didn’t gasp on reading that, I should explain that poor Len Bias up and died less than forty-eight hours after getting the call. And (not to sound too cold-hearted or anything, but) for the Celtics it was all downhill from there. The Lakers bested them in ’87, then one by one, Bird, Parish, and McHale all retired from the game and moved away. Since that time, well, suffice to say that Riverside Park is a SixFlags now. The last I checked, they were charging $50 to get in.

By which I mean it’s been a long time since I watched a Celtics game, and I’m not the only one who tuned them out. I'm sorry, but it was embarrassing. We love our losers here in this town as much as most folks love their champions, but we could not wrap our foam fingers around this. The Celtics, you understand, are not supposed to lose.

So for twenty years (or let’s say fifteen, to be fair) we all but forgot they existed. And when I say “we” here, I mean “me and the folks I know.” I’m sure somebody was paying attention all those decades, I just don’t know who that somebody was. All me and my folks knew was that Paul Pierce (a.k.a. “The Motherfucking Truth” – a nickname given to him by a Laker, by the way) was out there playing his heart out for us on a losing team. We appreciated that he never gave up on us and left; it was even almost good a few years ago, when Antoine Walker was playing Scottie Pippen to his Michael J. But the fact remained that, while everybody else in this swamp of a town was racking up Lombardi trophies and World Series rings, the boys in green just couldn’t push it through.

Then, last year, the team got tired of being a footnote in Title Town. The back office went shopping. The Truth came out to motherfucking play. And, since Day One, they prevailed.

Still, though, I wasn’t watching. I’d gotten out of practice through the years. Couldn’t remember anymore what all those little tick marks in the chart book used to mean. Was no longer used to keeping up with that much back-and-forth on a teeny-tiny court. I’d grown accustomed to a grassy, expansive diamond, or to a hundred-yard gridiron with Astroturf. I'd come to like my points accumulated slowly every hour and a half, punctuated liberally with breaks to use the john. The single basketball game that I tried to watch felt like an entire baseball season compressed into one night: early points marginally exciting with enough drama going on, but I didn’t really care until the final clock ticked down.

Even without my bottom on the couch for them, however, the Celtics wound up with the best record in the league this year. Even better (for me; because you know how I love a good narrative), they had a tough time in the playoffs, going six games in one series and seven in the next (a pair of sweeps would have bored me all to tears). Then finally, as if to bring it all back home, the hated L.A. Lakers won the Conference West.

(Also, I don’t know if it’s related, but Six Flags (née Riverside) recently cut its ticket-price in half. Therefore perhaps these are the '80s, after all.)

So I had to watch it, right? For the story of it and for the remember-when. I had to watch it for the old clips – of the clothesline, and the sauna series – that the networks were guaranteed to dig out of the vault. I had to get my chance to see the old boys suited on the sidelines, if they'd be there: Magic and Kareem and Larry, Danny Ainge and McHale and the Chief. And I had to see old Nicholson in his dumb shades at the courtside – really, really hoping that the crowd would imitate his voice to shout “You can’t handle The Truth!”

I thought the game was on at 7:00, but it didn’t start till nine, so I was watching the pre-game hype when Johnny burst through the front door hollering something about the baseball game. The Sox had moved their first pitch up a couple hours so that folks like me wouldn’t feel the need to choose, but I’d forgotten. And shame on me, because the Sox were at home against the Devil Rays – a.k.a. The Team We Hate When New York's Not In Town.

There’d been a fight, a proverbial Bench-Clearing Brawl, and Johnny’d run home from the pub to watch the replay of it with me. We changed the channel on the TeeVee, and he reenacted the kerfuffle in the living room a dozen times before they finally showed the clip. Coco Crisp throwing his helmet, charging the mound, leaning like Neo from the sissy punch the belly-itcher threw, then coming right back up with a jawbreaker of his own, and -- BOOM! Dugouts spilling people out like so much porridge.

By the time 9:00 rolled round and the Celtics game was starting, there was no hope of getting him to change the channel. Johnny is a baseball guy to start with (actually, he was a hockey guy to start with, but since the strike a couple years ago even he doesn't give a hoo about the Bruins anymore) and, since he only landed in the Hub in '86, he’s got no nostalgic feeling for what's going on downtown. When I reached for the clicker, Johnny said “What if there’s another fight? We don’t want to miss it!” I tried to explain to him that there’s never another fight, but finally I just gave up and went to watch basketball in the bedroom.

Where, of course, I promptly fell asleep.

The Celts bested the Lakers last night, and apparently it was a hell of a game. Me, though, I didn't see a second of it, because I was at a private slumber party of my own. Paul Pierce got hurt and came back in again; I snored. The crowd chanted “Beat L.A.!” just like they used to in the glory days; I smacked my lips and muttered for them to quiet down. I do know Nicholson stayed home, so I guess he can't handle the Truth -- but if you're going to look at it that way, then neither can I.

Because apparently, (I hadn’t noticed, but) I am not fifteen anymore. Evidently, too, this isn't 1984. It also seems that 39-year-old, 2008-me is no longer riveted by basketball. And, big rumor has it, alcohol’s a sedative.

The truth hurts, Jack, old boy.

But The Truth is Beauty.

At least, from what I hear.

Oh, and apparently there was another fight in the baseball game, after all. Not a bench-clearing brawl, though. No, these two guys didn’t even have to get off the dugout bench to hit each other.

Ah, Boston sports. Every day inventing a new way to make us proud.

1 comment:

DonnaStaf said...

They asked me once to keep score at a basketball game once when the boys played city ball. I explained that I'd NEVER kept score before and that they were taking a chance with me. They assured me they didn't care and pointed out the buttons on the board...Then, the refs whistle blew for the first foul, the players stopped dead, ball dropped out of the player's hands (bounce, bounce bounce), silence overtook the gym, heads spun to the booth as I (in slo-mo) reached for the button... as my hair stood on end, my body jerked convulsively and I drooled a little as I touched the button ...see...Unknown to me..there was an electrical short that gave you a 110 v jolt when you stopped the clock... The clock ran non stop for the rest of the game (f-me once shame on you- f- me twice shame on me...)