By Rich Levine
All in all, it was a pretty impressive West Coast swing for the Celtics.
Sure, that loss in Phoenix was one of the ugliest since this Big Three got together. But when youre out West, 3-1 is 3-1.
Actually, with the win in L.A., 3-1 feels more like 13-1. And it couldnt have come at a better time.
When we next see the Cs, theyll be back home at the Garden (Friday night against Brian Cardinals Dallas Mavericks) and ready to kick off the defining stretch of their season.
After Dallas (which sits at 32-15 and already beat Boston earlier this season), the Celtics host the Magic on Sunday, before heading down to Charlotte (11-8 since Snazzy Silas took over) for the tail end of a back-to-back on Monday. After two days off, the Celtics welcome the Lakers on Thursday, the Heat arrive on Sunday and then, just for fun, the 96 Bulls are going to stop by for a scrimmage. Hey, why not?
Its only February, but for the next two weeks, if you ignore the eye-level snow, the hair-freezing temperatures and Herm Edwards' painful relevance, itll feel just like April, or May, or maybe even June.
And thats a good thing. Thats a lot to expect from winter basketball. And this recently completed West coast swing serves as the perfect launching point.
BUT . . .
Aside from that awful outing in Phoenix, there was one more little blemish on this otherwise uplifting trip.
Call it a black eye. Call it smacked groin. Call it a profusely bleeding head wound.
Call it Kevin Garnett, and his ever-dwindling public image.
Now, I know what youre thinking you buried the lead!
Why all the gushing about the Cs success, if youre just going to talk about the cancer comment, the bullying, the ball boy, bin Laden, the ball whacking and the undercutting?
Why make it seem like the winnings more important!?
Ah, you see what I did there?
But, perspective-inducing intros aside, we do have a bit of a problem.
The heart and soul of the Celtics has become a bonafide NBA villain. Of course, thats been the case for a while now. Its a storyline that was lurking under the surface over his last few years of persistent rookie hazing, foreigner taunting and other antagonizing behavior.
Then the surface was shattered when the Villanueva incident went viral.
After that, everyone who already hated KG, but could previously only go so far in criticizing his on-court intensity and intimidation, finally had their springboard. For a few years, KG was like Jack Nicholson in The Departed and his detractors were the feds. In their heads, he was always up to no good. They knew this villain existed. They just needed him to slip up, and then theyd have him.
Villanueva was Leonardo DiCarprio. He brought KG down from the inside.
And since then, its been mayhem.
Im not saying Garnetts been entirely victimized, because truthfully, its hard to argue with the basic tenets of anti-KG camp. Personally, I think the cancer comment was blown out of proportion, and that anyone who claims to truly be offended by the bin Laden joke needs a vacation. But still, Garnett does pick on lesser players. He does have a certain way with foreigners. He did say something to Villanueva that wont win him many fans.
Last Friday, he most definitely gave Channing Frye a little Hows your Father? On that same jumper, KG definitely closed out in a way that would make for a dangerous landing. He got under Fryes legs, and KG knew what he was doing.
On Sunday, if you believe Marc Spears and J.A. Adande (and given their track records, theres no reason not to), KG responded to an autograph request from a Lakers ball boy with, Youve got a better chance of catching bin Laden.
Basically, whether youre looking for a reason to hate the guy, or all you want to do is love him, you cant deny that theres a pattern of less-than-perfect behavior. And for the anti-KG camp its great. At this point, the only thing that can match their hatred is how much they actually love hating him. They get off on it. And thats fine. (As long as theyre tidy about it.)
But if youre a fan of the Celtics, its not that easy.
If youre a Celtics fan, youre faced with a problem:
What do you do when someone a friend, another fan, anyone tells you they hate Kevin Garnett?
Or more importantly, what do you do when that same guy or girl or Jamie Lee Curtis makes you feel like a bad person for NOT hating Kevin Garnett?
For instance, take this Twitter conversation from Sunday night (after the ball boy thing) between a well-known sports blogger and a very well-known fantasy guru.
@TheBigLead is Jason McIntyre founder of thebiglead.com who has nearly 20,000 followers. @MatthewBerryTMR is, obviously, Matthew Berry The Talented Mr. Roto from espn.com and he has nearly 300,000.
Berrys a Lakers fan. Im not sure on McIntyre. But it doesnt matter. Their brief interaction says it all. It represents the feeling across the country.
@TheBigLead I notice Boston fans have yet to chime in on KG's douchy Bin Laden quote. They're probably hoping it's not true. Either way, KG's a prck@MatthewBerryTMR @TheBigLead Read my @ responses. Some still defend him.
And there it is: What do you do?
You cant win.
If you defend him, you know youre going to have to put up with a lot of BS. If you blindly take the side of the player most responsible for bringing the Boston Celtics back to relevance and raising another banner at the Garden, then youre opening yourself up for a ton of ridicule. Theyll say youre insensitive to cancer patients or 911 victims or the plight of the long-suffering Lakers ball boys.
And OK, maybe thats a little extreme. But more realistically, it's that if youre defending him, youre defending a guy who probably doesnt entirely deserve to be defended; a guy whose game youd always respect, but who, if he played on the Lakers, Heat or Magic, you might have already grown wary of.
But then again, whats your other option?
Do you denounce him?
Because if you denounce him, then . . . well, you cant denounce him!
To denounce KG would be to denounce the Celtics. And thats not going to happen.
Youd have a better chance of catching bin Laden then you would of seeing a Celtics fan ever denounce Kevin Garnett.
If Giants fans hung with Barry Bonds while he was ruining baseball; if the Lakers fans hung with Kobe after the alleged rape; if Steelers fans will be cheering like mad for Ben Roethlisberger after the alleged RAPES, then Celtics fans can stand by a guy who made an unfortunate comment to Villanueva and refused to give an autograph after a game. They can stand by a guy who may very well act like a jerk when hes on the court, but who does so in the name of winning. You think Channing Frye wont be even a little focused on landing safely the next time he takes a jumper on KG? Dont get me wrong. What KG did was dangerous, but it will be effective. And word will spread. Plus, its hard to make a jumper when youre wearing a military-grade brass cup.
For the Garnett detractors, I know that last part was probably infuriating. Typical defense. Just a bunch of homers!
But, come one, everyones a homer.
All the time in sports, we root for guys with serious records, arrests, DUIs and domestic violence charges. There are athletes who have been directly involved in the death of another human being, and we will cheer for them. No matter what uniform Donte Stallworth is wearing next season, when he catches a touchdown, he will be celebrated. When hes out in the parking lot, or walking off the field, kids will ask him for autographs. And assuming he doesnt respond with, Youve got a better chance of getting Mubarak re-elected, hell be treated like a hero. Whether he's in New England, Baltimore, Seattle, wherever.
And in Boston, KG is a hero. Perhaps the most selfless and focused athletes we have. The model of team. Now, maybe he's not a hero in every sense of the word, which is to say hes not perfect. Its not a perfect situation. You wish he wouldnt call guys cancer patients. You maybe wish hed have taken five seconds to sign a basketball. You wish he went about his business without being deemed a dirty player. But come on, world. Lets not be nave. For Celtics fans, in the big picture of what all fans are willing to do and how far they're willing to go, its just not a huge deal.
And if KG was traded to L.A., Miami or Orlando, then it wouldnt be one there, either.
If you live outside the Boston bubble, and want to take those imperfections and villainize the man behind them, then cool. Thats your right as a fan, too.
Just dont be shocked when Boston doesnt follow suit.
Dont wonder how Garnett can stiff a ball boy for an autograph, make a reference to bin Laden, and Boston fans are still defending him. Because it will take a lot more than that to create that kind of shift in allegiance.
And dont theorize that most of Boston isnt commenting on a bin Laden reference because theyre hoping its not true, because the truth is especially when its something as stupid as that its more a matter of Boston just not caring.
It's hard to get caught up in the ball boy drama when the Mavericks, Magic, Lakers and Heat are knocking on the Garden door.
Especially when, after a great trip out West, the Celtics look more than ready to take care of the competition.
Although they better be gentle. Don't want to offend anyone.