It’s May 2002 and I’m a lapsed NBA fan.
But, with a hefty investment, I’ve secured a pair of tickets for me and my dad — last row of the balcony at the FleetCenter, mind you — to catch the deciding Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals between the Celtics and Sixers. I have no idea how this night is going to rekindle my NBA fandom.
First, the back story: My earliest memories of the Celtics were Larry Bird sprawled on the Garden floor near the Boston bench because of the balky back that would eventually force him into early retirement.
I was too young to understand how damn good the Celtics had been throughout the 80s, or why they were so bad for most of the 90s. I grew up mesmerized by Michael Jordan's Bulls but, when he retired in 1998, so did my NBA interest. Rick Pitino didn’t help matters.
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Football stole my sports heart and, with some extra money in my pocket in 2001, thanks to a college internship in the Boston Globe sports department, I scalped tickets for dad and I to go to a Patriots-Colts game. It happened to be the first career start for a certain sixth-round quarterback.
The Forsberg boys hadn’t been much for live sporting events (not after Jordan sat out the lone Bulls-Celtics game I attended at the old Garden; not that I could have seen him with the pole in front of me). But now we were hooked. We scrambled for tickets to every home Patriots game that year — an awful lot of eBaying and shady parking lot meetups in the pre-StubHub world — culminating with the most perfect seats for the Snow Bowl. It was an exhilarating run.
But the Patriots were, essentially, why we were standing there, backs pressed up against the wall, at the top of the Garden that night in 2002. After that first Super Bowl run, we needed a new live sports fix. Paul Pierce’s All-Star emergence and Antoine Walker’s wiggles had made the Celtics interesting again. But it was the atmosphere in the Garden that night that really pulled me back into basketball.
A winner-take-all tilt always has a certain energy, an undeniable tension. The Celtics were the higher seed, but Philadelphia, one year removed from a Finals visit, had Allen Iverson.
On this night, however, it was the Truth, not The Answer, who took center stage. Pierce erupted for 46 points behind eight 3-pointers. The Celtics had a single-digit lead early in the final frame but erupted for 43 fourth-quarter points and the Garden roared in delight throughout. I mean, even Kedrick Brown got some some trash-time buckets to cap that night.
Playoff basketball is just a different beast. There’s no way you could have been in the crowd that night in 2002 and not be immediately addicted. It’s part of the reason it’s so maddening that the 2019-20 season has paused.
The Garden would have a similar energy right now as the Celtics were starting their own uncertain playoff journey.
Watching Pierce assert himself that night, you can’t help but wonder what Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown might have done on the playoff stage this season. They’ve long ago asserted themselves as ready for the biggest moments but, given the obvious progress both made this year, it would have been fascinating to see what they could accomplish.
That night in 2002 rekindled my basketball interest. I had no idea walking out of that delirious arena just how many playoff games I'd soon see there. In Boston, we’ve been spoiled by the success of all these sports teams. It’s easy to take the playoffs — and that playoff energy — for granted.
This quarantine is a harsh reminder of what we’re missing out on. We’re deprived of nights like that one in 2002, when 48 minutes of basketball can change everything — for players and fans alike.