I miss the old Boston sports world. No matter your age, I guarantee you remember it and maybe long for it, too.
You remember what it was like in this city way back in the day when there was no such thing as social distancing. And even if you tried to do it then, it was impossible because you kept bumping into stars.
Transcendent talent everywhere, on every team.
It was such an overflow that both the Celtics and Red Sox had one star you could love and one you could hate. The Sox’ superstar/villain helped everyone see what a true galaxy we had: He declared war on a member of the media, and even that media guy was a celebrity with a Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown.
Us and our first-world problems.
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In the golden days, every single team in this town, every one, either had a championship or was in serious pursuit of one. We high-fived and fist-bumped. We posted from the last parade and planned for the next one. We gathered for tailgates and nightcaps. We had it good, and everyone else in America knew it.
Imagine, if you can, Boston in April 2019.
It seems like another era, doesn’t it?
I’m not sure how the real world will look when we’re allowed to reenter it, but our local sports diversion will be in transition. For the first time this century, you actually have to pause when asked to name the leading man — or even his supporting actor — of Boston sports. Think about the VIP list from this time last year: Tom Brady, Mookie Betts, David Price, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford.
Champions, MVPs, game and series closers.
It’s weird; can’t you still hear the echoes of “We’re still here”?
That was a defiant Brady, just last year. He said everyone thought they sucked after a January playoff win in Foxboro. The next week was an overtime takedown in Kansas City. Then the “We’re still here” chant during a Super Bowl rally. Then a parade down Boylston that drew one million people on a gorgeous, 65-degree February day. The only floating particles in the air were from cannabis.
If the Patriots could win a title in a down year — yes, 11-5 was a down year — what could they do if they actually brought in reinforcements?
They did just that last April, drawing rave reviews for their selection of N’Keal Harry in the first round. Big receiver with 4.5 speed who catches everything thrown his way. Bill Belichick had never spent a first-rounder on a wideout. The player must be amazing. Put yet another star in the constellation.
This was just how we lived in this part of the country. On the April day that the Red Sox received their 2018 World Series rings, they were surrounded by royalty, past and present. The Patriots were at Fenway Park with their Lombardi trophies, and postseason heroes Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were there representing the titles they’d won with the Sox. Ortiz and Ramirez had wide smiles and pats on the back for their old teammate, Alex Cora, the beloved Sox manager.
It was so much shine that it eclipsed Price’s scowl. He could snipe with Dennis Eckersley and others another time. Even with the rough start to the season, and the contract uncertainty of Betts, there really wasn’t anything for the Sox and their fans to complain about.
I miss the old Boston sports world. Back then, we shook our heads at the Tampa Rays for always slashing payroll, using “openers” to cover up holes in their rotation, and trading their stars because they couldn’t afford to pay them what the market demanded.
Last April, we were in a forgiving mood with Irving, the moody diva. He’d spent the fall and winter gossiping about his teammates to LeBron James and Kevin Durant. But by the spring, he was putting up 37 in a Game 2 playoff win over the Pacers. The Celtics got a sweep in that series and beat the top-seeded Bucks by 22 in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
I used to tell people that my theory on the well-read Irving was this: He usually acted and played out some element of whatever the last thing was on his nightstand. In those five games, he was channeling “The Wisdom of (John) Wooden.” His engagement made you wonder if he’d been right all along about turning it on when the games mattered most. Could the Celtics actually knock off MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee?
The dream ended in the next four games when Irving was Dennis Rodman in “Bad As I Wanna Be.”
Shortly after, the always professional Horford left for Philadelphia while Irving and Durant were a package deal in Brooklyn. I realize that the Celtics are the rare team that got better, spiritually, with the loss of their stars. Even Irving wouldn’t debate that. But imagine what could have been if a dynamic talent, still only 28, had managed his ego as skillfully as he did a ball on the parquet.
The single file departure of stars, from iconic to infamous, leaves the region with either athletes growing into their primes or declining from them. The biggest and most reliable star in Boston right now?
You tell me.
As a confessed Tuukka Rask apologist, I can make a case for him. He’s got awards and playoff stats to match the greats. But he’s never been the main goalie on a Stanley Cup winner and, when recently asked about retirement, he didn’t convincingly erase the thought. Zdeno Chara’s 43-year-old mind can handle the demands of stardom, but his body can’t. Perfect Patrice Bergeron will be 35 in July. Brad Marchand is in his prime and will turn 32 next month. Is he more capable than 23-year-old David Pastrnak of being the Bruins’ — and Boston’s — ambassador?
Maybe Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers will carry the Sox like Betts did in 2018. Maybe Jayson Tatum becomes the Paul Pierce of his generation.
The star search is like everything else right now: We recently had an abundance, and now we wait patiently to see what’s next.