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Our teams: Three are hot, and one is not

In sports, there is a certain nobility about the art of losing well and it should command much greater respect than our contemporary, over-wrought culture begrudgingly allows.

You can hate to lose and should; fight fiercely to avoid it. But everyone loses sooner or later. Lombardi was wrong! Winning is not the only thing. For every winner, there has to be a loser. You could look it up.

No game is waged with more intensity than post-season professional hockey where the ultimate prize, an old and nicked silver mug, is contested with a fury and bitterness unsurpassed. Yet in the end, they line up and shake hands, and if you watch closely these pageants as they unfold every spring, I defy you to be unmoved by their dogged sincerity. These tender moments are every bit as much a tribute to the loser as a celebration of the winner. All wars – the metaphorical and the real – should end in such a way.

Losing with dignity and poise further ennobles winning, no matter the game, and not just in sport. Any fool can be happy and gracious, charming and charitable when a winner. It’s when you have just gotten your clock cleaned yet somehow succeed in holding in check your moods and manners while maintaining your pride that you most deserve a round of applause. Losers in sports are often more interesting than winners and deserving of the greater respect.

Such reflections have considerable merit in other towns, usually out of necessity. Such rationalizations are the key to survival if you’ve been a Kansas City football fan, last a winner in 1970. Or a Toronto hockey fan, last a winner in 1967. Or a Cleveland baseball fan, last a winner in 1948. Once upon a time we understood all that, but not so much anymore. Fans of the Boston teams in every cranny of New England and scattered in nooks all over the Republic are spoiled rotten. In case you haven’t heard, or noticed, that uncomfortable notion is universally held. Nor is it all about envy.

So here we are again in 2014 with three loaded teams in three sports and three leagues, all either outright favorites to win championships or ranked among those certain to contend to the bitter end. Our Cup runneth over! No other city, state, region, enclave, or duchy can make a comparable claim with greater plausibility. Clearly, the Bruins, Red Sox, and Patriots could again have a date with the Duck Boats to revel in our collective and runaway sense of vast superiority. We could end up O for 3, or 3 for 3. Either way, we’ll remain spoiled rotten in the eyes of the rest of the Republic.

Odd men out these happy days are the Celtics, and in that there is much irony because historically the Celtics so long and all alone served as our gold standard.

When the Red Sox were oafish and segregated and withering under the rule of Pinky Higgins, and the Bruins were wandering in the wilderness in the years between the eras of Schmidt and Orr, and the Patriots were struggling nomads satisfied annually to have merely survived, the Celtics carried our colors with an astounding élan, nor have they ever been borne to greater heights. The Celtics can never be branded ‘losers’ – not in this town. It’s a dispensation they richly deserve.

But they’ve fallen awfully far this time; not quite for the first time, but rarely more heavily. Mercifully, they are crawling to the end of what has been pound for pound the second most miserable season in their history, bowing only to the epic 15-67 performance in 1997 that was capped by the staggering loss of Tim Duncan in the lottery after their valiant effort to get bad enough to land him. Is history about to repeat itself? Such very thoughts must be chilling Celtics management to its bloody bones these days.

Though they have won a few more games this season, they’ve been essentially as bad as that ‘97 edition. During the past weekend, when they consecutively got smacked on their own court by a ridiculous 76ers team coming off a 26-game losing streak and then squandered a 19-point lead in shamelessly capitulating to the also-bound-for-the-lottery Pistons, they reached depths little less embarrassing than the woeful ’97 gang achieved.

As of the writing, the fabled Green’s season-ending skid is featuring (with five games left) 13 defeats in their last 14 tilts, a hideous overall winning percentage of .298, and a renewal of the humiliating speculation they might be tanking games to improve their draft prospects that so enraged them in 1997.  They say every team is willing to do that when necessary. But it seems no less unworthy of the Celtics. Tanking or otherwise, they are on the verge of nailing down the league’s fourth worst mark as they prepare to submit themselves to the tender mercies of the lottery where, by the way, there are no Tim Duncan waiting to be plucked.  

So the demands of this long and messy season hardly represent new turf never before traversed by this franchise. They’ve had other difficult transitions in the past. When Bill Russell faded away, they rebounded quickly under Tommy Heinsohn. The challenge was tougher in the late ‘70’s when the sassy Havlicek-Cowens run ended and they awaited the coming of the immortal Bird. Who could forget the indignity of John Y. Brown. And between the departure of Larry and pals and the arrival of the three amigos, Brothers Pierce, Garnett & Allen, there was a sustained stretch of mediocrity highlighted by such nonsense as Red’s misguided dalliance with college boy Rick Pitino and, of course, the fiasco of ’97 that poor M.L. Carr had to endure. He never recovered. Brad Stevens has to hope that slice of history doesn’t repeat itself, too.  

No one has ever been perfect. Not even Red. Even regal houses oblige makeovers now and again. But in the past, when the Celtics faced major transitions, there always seemed to be a plan, an ace in the hole, a trick up the sleeve, some carry-over personnel, and, of course, near infinite confidence in the wisdom of the leadership. Danny Ainge, on whom the rebuilding burden falls now with all the weight of this team’s mighty history, does not enjoy all such luxuries.

“Losing well” can also be about discovery: finding and learning and drawing from the mess seeds of regeneration. Is there any of that potential in the array of eager but unready youth that got hung out to dry this season? It’s hardly clear.

Is there even the outline of a core nucleus to be formed from the likes of Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Jerryd Bayless, Brandon Bass, Jarred Sullinger et al. & etc.? If young Coach Stevens has impressed with his intelligence, patience, and sophistication, does he bring the requisite fire to the foxhole? How do you re-construct a team around such a flashy but mercurial talent as Rajon Rondo, the roster’s one and only blue chip? In fact, do you really want to do that?  Is the luxury of Kris Humphries, he of legendary clan Kardashian, any longer necessary? Have such questions even begun to be answered?

If not, then the bitter experiences of a very bad year will have been quite wasted. But that seems unlikely. The friends of Danny Ainge have a lot of faith in him. He has a fistful of draft picks, although of a value somewhat subject to the roll of the bloody dice. He also has much room on his payroll. Basketball teams are easier to turn around quickly than teams in other games. Often, all it takes is that one big go-to-guy. Ah, but they don’t grow on trees, do they. Not anymore!
As New Englanders revel in the riches of jock supremacy, lording it over all the other regions in ways they don’t quite appreciate, the ordeal of the Celtics reminds us of how the other half lives. Which, one suspects, many have forgotten.  As lessons go, it’s useful.