When the Boston Celtics imploded in game seven of the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, most of the sports world united at the joyous thought of “Boston tears.” A Celtics team that seemed too talented—and too lucky—to lose lost. Shocked after being defeated the eighth-seeded Miami Heat, ham-faced Boston fans with LA tans became memes. The sports world was relieved. Boston was denied what would’ve been another legendary win in the city’s overflowing cornucopia of magical sporting moments.
The sense that the city possesses a special sporting sparkle is grating. It’s also, at least in recent history, true. A sports fan under 25 knows Boston as the home of a dynastic, Super Bowl–laden National Football League operation built upon Spygates, tuck rules, and flukey goal-line interceptions. It was a team that was not, let’s say, ethically sound, and they weren’t warm and cuddly either. But it was also a team that could come back from being down 28-3 and scared you half to death. In other words, they were annoying. (These days, the New England Patriots are mostly just unwatchable.)
Boston, to the aforementioned under-25-year-old, is also where the Boston Red Sox, a team of regular World Series contention, plays before a packed stadium oozing with a history once described to me as “richly toxic.” This is the team with more World Series wins since 2000 than the Yankees. For my kid, the Red Sox might as well be the Yankees.
And Boston is, of course, home to the Celtics, a team whose name is baked into the cake of NBA history: the team of such regal names as Auerbach, Cousy, Russell, Bird, and Pierce, but with a notoriously pugnacious and entitled fan base.
It is hard to imagine that just a quarter-century ago, the phrase most associated with all of Boston sports was “the curse.” The Red Sox simply could never win the World Series, and Boston’s baseball-loving locals tore their guts out over it. As opposed to seeing themselves as magic, they were convinced that they were in the throes of some kind of Salem witchery. That might engender pity in some provinces, but Boston and its assorted academics and literati had to turn this curse into high art, making the Red Sox’s absence of success a Homeric epic unto itself. Annoying. Say what you will about Chicago Cubs fans, but they have the mopey dignity to keep their cursedness to themselves. With success comes arrogance, and as an outsider, it has nettled to see the Red Sox Nation go so seamlessly from cursed poets to entitled frat hounds. This mentality has seeped into other Boston fandoms. Celtics followers today complain bitterly about a team that has gotten them deep into the NBA playoffs almost every season, built around a core of exciting young talent. I root for the Washington Wizards, so you can imagine how difficult it is to hear such bellyaching about annual success.
This brings us to game seven on Monday night. The Miami Heat had been up 3-0 and, after dropping two games, they came within 0.1 seconds of beating Boston and going to the finals, before losing on Derrick White’s miracle put-back, which tied the series up at three games apiece. No NBA team had ever come back from a three-games-to-nothing series deficit. Now the Celtics were going home to Boston to make history. As if sensing a disturbance in the force, it seemed like the sports world felt the same heaviness at the same time. It arrived immediately after the White put-back in the form of constant chatter about the 2004 Red Sox, who were of course the first baseball team to come back from a 3-0 deficit, against the hated New York Yankees. Immediately, we all knew that if the Celtics could win game seven, Derrick White’s name would become folklore. It seemed unfair and inevitable. Oddsmakers had the Celtics favored by 7.5 points. Many simply did not think the Miami Heat could recover from such a devastating defeat.
Yet they pummeled the Celtics in Boston by 20 in front of a crowd that went from being a madhouse to a morgue. Yes, an ankle injury of some sort to Celtics star Jayson Tatum slowed his ability and changed the game. But injuries are a part of this. Organizations and fans tend to be hoarders in the sports world: of championships, stars, and attention. Few have been greedier than Bostonians. Their tears, their momentary melancholy marks a welcome corrective.