DOES WINNING matter anymore? When sports are considered more entertainment than competition; when seasons and playoffs stretch for so long in so naked a grab for revenue that the off-season feels like a week; when players make so much money that one game lost, one or two or three seasons lost, can't affect the way they live ... can winning a championship possibly have the same power? ¶ It's impossible to avoid thinking like this whenever you walk into a sports palace like Boston's TD Banknorth Garden. With plush carpets and a spread fit for Nero in the locker room, 104 luxury suites with whispering waiters and state-of-the-art, high-def scoreboards, it's not like the old Garden, smelling as it did like piss, smoke or your grandfather's shoes. Each detail declares its high-tech worth; you find yourself constantly thinking, That must've cost a ton. It all smells like money.
Especially tonight, opening night 2008. In minutes they'll be handing out the championship rings and hoisting the 17th championship banner for the Boston Celtics, but ...
I've paid my dues ...
(No, please. Not We Are the Champions.)
Time after time ...
...much has changed since the 16th went up in 1986. The league, remember, was the hot young thing then. The commissioner, the dynamic stars, the young-turk execs, all were riding a phenomenon, a game that could displace baseball and threaten football in the national conversation. Then came the pop-culture breakout: Michael Jordan won his first title in 1991 with the Chicago Bulls, wept uncontrollably—charisma finding greatness finding humanity—and pro basketball had its unstoppable Elvis.
...I've done my sentence
But committed no crime.
As ticket prices climbed, though, so did the need for distraction, a sleight of hand to cover up how few players like Jordan there really were. NBA arenas became an even greater bombardment of spectacle after he quit: dancers, endless noise, pyrotechnics. Confirmation that the hoopla had consumed the hoops came in 2006, when the defending champion Miami Heat staged an over-the-top opening night celebration and lost to Chicago by 42 points. Now it looks as though even the venerable Celtics, one of the greatest franchises in sports history, will launch their own bit of wretched excess with Queen's schlock anthem.
But then something odd occurs. As Freddie Mercury starts his shriek, old Celtics faces—calm, composed as if they hear no music at all—march in, single file. There's John Havlicek holding the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy, trailed by Bob Cousy, JoJo White, Tom Heinsohn, M.L. Carr, Satch Sanders and Cedric Maxwell. "Like the ghosts of Celtics past had been summoned," guard Ray Allen says later. And it's true: Each championship era is represented, and the representatives beam as they close in on the 31-year-old man at center court.