Doc’s emotional but somewhat empty return

Doc’s emotional but somewhat empty return
December 12, 2013, 12:30 pm
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There were plenty of good seats available at the TD Garden last night for Doc Rivers’ return to Boston. In all, the arena — with its 18,624 yellow, greenish blue (if you’re fancy) and black (if you’re fancé) seats — looked to be about three quarters full. Or depending on your mood, a quarter empty. Either way, Larry Lucchino himself couldn’t have spun this one into a sell-out. And to the Celtics’ credit, they didn’t try to. But after all that Rivers accomplished in Boston, and all the drama that surrounded his departure, the fact that attendance was even an issue is more shocking than the current Atlantic Division standings.
 
It’s not like anything else was going on around town. Actually, I take that back. According to the City of Boston’s official calendar, an “intimate, dark family comedy” called not Jenny took center stage at the Calderwood Pavilion. Athan’s Café Art Gallery in Brighton held a reception for their new “Fragile Harmony” exhibition. The Actor’s Shakespeare Project presented Henry VII at Suffolk’s Modern Theatre.
 
All great events, I’m sure. But you wouldn’t expect them to interfere with this: One of the two most significant home games of the entire Celtics season, and within that, an opportunity to honor one of the most successful coaches in the history of basketball’s most historic franchise.
 
Still, shortly before tip off, as Rivers emerged from the Garden’s visitors’ tunnel for the first time since April 2003 (when he was the head coach of the Orlando Magic), and stepped on the parquet for the first time since May 2013 (when he was the head coach of the Boston Celtics), the current head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers was met with . . . well, first and foremost, applause.
 
There’s no question that the overwhelming majority of fans that made the frigid trek to the Garden did so with the intention of celebrating the nine years Rivers spent in Boston and the banner he helped raise to the rafters, as opposed to making him feel like a pile of garbage for his ugly and somewhat disingenuous exit. That was fun. Those fans applauded Rivers at every possible turn on Wednesday night. First, with that initial appearance. Then again when his name was announced at the end of introductions. Then again during and after a Jumbotron tribute that played between the first and second quarter. Each time, the applause was louder, and lasted longer. After each round, Rivers became increasingly emotional, visibly affected and overcome by the entire experience.
 
By the time the video ended, and the latest and greatest ovation had died down, the coach was on the verge of tears, if not already midstream. “I was basically useless for the first 18 minutes of the game,” Rivers admitted afterwards.
 
But underneath all the applause, there was emptiness. Not on an emotional level. This was physical. This was emptiness as in “look at all those empty seats.” A blueish green blob here. A patch of yellow there. And there. And there. And there. From the loge, to the club level, all the way up to portion of the 300s where fans literally watch the game with blood dripping from their noses.
 
That’s the biggest difference between now and then. Then, of course, being the last six years of Celtics basketball, especially those first few, when Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen resurrected Celtic Pride to levels unseen since the 80s. When they rocked the Garden every night, regardless of the opponent, and basically turned that building into a six-month, non-stop party.
 
Pierce was the humble host. Garnett was the MC. Allen was beyond smooth, the guy sipping a glass of red wine in the corner and engaging every beautiful woman he sees in some ridiculous philosophical conversation. Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins were like Evan and Seth from Superbad. They wouldn’t have been there if not for a long string of crazy and extenuating circumstances. They weren’t even old enough to party. But they fit in pretty well. And then there was Doc. Unofficial bouncer. Keeper of the peace. Perpetually toeing the line between “authority figure” and “just one of the guys.”
 
Back in 2008, Doc’s Celtics finished with a regular season home record of 35-6. In the playoffs, on their way to winning the 17th title in franchise history, the Celtics went 13-1 at the Garden. The following season, they went 35-6 again, and then won three of four home games in their first round playoff series against Chicago.
 
That’s 100 games. In this case, the first 100 home games after the summer that changed everything. (Or as it’s now called, “the other summer that changed everything.”) Either way, I had my research team add up the records and it turns out that those Celtics won 86 times over that stretch. They were 86-14.
 
86-14.
 
That’s unbelievable. If you’d asked me to make a guess before I looked it up, I wouldn’t have gone that high. Maybe 80-20? 82-18? 86-14 is another level. Excuse me, 86-14! But while I couldn’t have told you the Big 3 (vol. 2)’s exact record over those first 100 games at the Garden, I’ll never forget the experience of watching it all unfold. The buzz. The energy. The genuine, unbridled happiness that filled that arena 41 nights a year, and boiled over into annual playoff insanity. The natural (most of the time) high associated with merely walking through the turnstiles.
 
It was an atmosphere that sports fans live for. That athletes live for. That coaches lives for. It was perfect and so incredibly addictive.
 
It was the lure/obsession with that life that (among a few other things) persuaded Ray Allen to spurn the Celtics (and the entire city of Boston) for Miami. It helped Paul Pierce make peace with leaving the only team he’d ever known. It helped Kevin Garnett make peace with leaving the last team he ever wanted to know. It pushed Danny Ainge to make some hard decisions.
 
And it led Doc Rivers to his current home in Los Angeles.
 
Of course, the way Doc went about processing and eventually expressing that obsession resulted in a train wreck. But you don’t have to tell him that. While Rivers will never accept full blame for the way his time in Boston came to an end, you know that there are things he would have done differently. Things he wouldn’t have said. Promises he wouldn’t have made. We’ve all been there. We all have regrets.
 
And deep down, we understand why Doc did what he did. Why Ray did what he did. We understand because of Doc. And Ray. And Danny and Kevin and Paul and Rondo. Because of them, Celtics fans, especially those under the age of 35, get it. Older fans got it long before that. “It” being the knowledge that it’s far easier to be content on the bottom when you’ve never visited the top.
 
The top was “then.” But for the Celtics, “now” is now. It’s a throwback to those years in between Big 3s, when the dream of another championship was nothing more than a dream and even the biggest games on the schedule were only so big. When hordes of fringe fans jumped ship for hockey or literally anything other than Celtics basketball, and a legion of diehards suddenly found themselves on an island.
 
Doc Rivers lived through those times, too. On numerous occasions, it looked like he might not survive those times. He went through hell in Boston. More importantly, he went through hell with Boston. And he didn’t want to go back. Of course he didn’t. No one ever wants to go back.
 
But he was back last night, and in typical Doc fashion, he nailed his moment in the spotlight. He sat before reporters in the post-game press conference, fighting back tears (and losing that battle) while trying to express how it felt to be out on the parquet, behind enemy lines, and receive the reception that he did from the Garden crowd.
 
“I don’t know,” he started. “I tell you, boy, this is such a neat place. I tell people all the time — people don’t get Boston, they really don’t. They don’t understand. I think you have to be a part of it to get it. I really do. I don’t think you can get it from the outside. It’s just a special, different place, and people were born here and raised here and they cheer for their teams, and they love their athletes. And it’s just a great place to be. The best decision I ever made was 10 years ago, when I decided to come. That was the best decision I ever made.”
 
It would be nice to think that sometime down the road, Brad Stevens might say the same thing. But for now, the Celtics will settle for their first year coach merely continuing to say and do all the right things. Last night was no exception. For a guy who’s only been in Boston for five months, Stevens certainly has a pretty good grasp on where this franchise has been, where they are now, and what it will take to change that.
 
“I respect a good coach,” he said about Rivers, “and I’m appreciative of the opportunity that I have and I’m appreciative of the time that he spent here. I’m appreciative of the good times he had and I’m appreciative of the tough ones he had that built to those good times.”
 
These are the tough times for Brad Stevens’ Celtics. Even if the season hasn’t been quite as tough as anyone expected, Stevens is currently living the reality that Rivers was so desperate to avoid. And one that Celtics fans know all too well.
 
But he’s building. If nothing else, Stevens is building. It might be a while before the Celtics season-long party returns to TD Garden, but it sure looks like they’ve found the right guy to get them there.
 
Take it from the last guy to get them there:
 
“He’s going to be terrific. He’s going to be a terrific coach,” Rivers said about Stevens. I think he’s already doing it. He’s just solid, does his job every night and goes home. That’s what you want. Brad’s going to be a terrific coach and he’s going to be here a long time.”
 
In Doc speak, that means Stevens will be coaching the Lakers in three years.
 
Ahh. Just kidding.
 
We can kid now, right?
 
I think so. I think Boston finally got some closure. I think Doc finally got some closer. I think we can finally move on. And if we hurry, we can probably still catch an encore performance of not Jenny.