Once I made it my goal to play on the varsity team during my senior year, my training kicked into overdrive. Nearly everything took a back seat to working out, practicing and running drills. I was so single-mindedly devoted to this process that I couldn't imagine failure.

Of course, many things are clear in retrospect. I was working out, but my routine hadn't been designed by anyone with personal training expertise. It had, in fact, been designed by me, a high school kid who one short year ago hadn't been able to run down the block or carry a 100-pound box of weights. Furthermore, I was practicing and running drills without the benefit of an actual basketball coach -- or even a coach-like father figure -- to provide guidance.

The point is, I was working hard, but the results weren't nearly as effective as I imagined.

But I was training in a bubble of my own creation. I often practiced alone, or I played in the intramural league (which, as noted, was crappy crap basketball), or I went to outdoor courts where I was unconsciously or semi-consciously choosing competition that didn't intimidate me. That's not to say I didn't occasionally play -- and play well -- against solid competition. But I wasn't exactly being forged in the fires of adversity.

Frankly, I was winning too often against inferior competition. It inflated my sense of where I was as a basketball player.

Now, I said "nearly everything" came second to my obsession with playing basketball. There were a few things that managed to sneak in and wrestle away some of my spare time. One of those things was watching basketball. The Celtics had been struggling all season, due mostly to a) age and b) injuries to Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. But as the season was coming to a close, Bird and McHale seemed relatively healthy, and the Celtics went on a tear. They had won seven games in a row and were hot on the heels of Pat Riley's Knicks, who were leading the Atlantic Division.

On April 3, my mom took me and my buddy Greg to a Celtics-Pacers game at Market Square Arena, which was a great place to experience a live game. Honestly, I'm not a big fan of these new luxury arenas. They make the game feel like a sideshow. Market Square Arena, the old Chicago Stadium, the Boston Garden (although I never made it to the old Gah-den for a game)...those places were basketball Meccas. You went there to live a basketball game. The new arenas were built to attract as many people as possible, to make basketball seem like a family outing, or a place to take your date, or a venue to entertain clients. In short, they were built to make money, not enhance the basketball viewing experience.

Anyway, it was a great game. The previous season, the Pacers had pushed the Celtics to the limit in a very heated first round series. In the fifth and final game -- this was back when the first round series were best-of-five -- Bird, who already had a bad back, knocked himself out diving for a loose ball. He came back in dramatic fashion, scored 32 points (to go along with 9 rebounds and 7 assists in only 33 minutes), and finished off the Pacers in his last truly legendary playoff performance. Here are some highlights:



With that playoff series as a backdrop, every game against these teams seemed to have greater meaning. The crowd was electric.

Boston fell behind by 17 points early in the fourth before stating a late rally. The crowd was giving the Celtics absolute hell. That, in itself, was quite a turnaround, because Bird was from Indiana and therefore the Celtics usually got a lot of support in Indiana. (Former Pacers guard Vern Fleming once joked after a home win over the C's that "It was nice to come away with a win at the Garden.") Anyway, during a fourth quarter timeout, with everybody around us cussing and damning the Celts, Greg turned to my mom and said, "Thanks for taking us to the game, Mrs. McHale."

Remember: Kevin McHale was on the Celtics back then, and was still a major star in the league. The people around us went dead silent. They must have thought we were related to McHale. Hell, they may have thought my mom was Kevin's wife. Whatever they thought, the cussing and damning got a little muted in our section for the remainder of the game.

The Celtics almost stole the game. Near the end, Boston was down a couple points when Bird badly missed a three-pointer that might have won it. The C's were forced to foul, the Pacers hit their free throws, and Boston lost 101-97.

During the game, Bird had received a brutal shot in the back from wanna-be rival Chuck Person. Person -- who struggles that night, scoring only 8 points on 3-for-15 shooting -- had apparently decided the best way to make a name for himself in the league was to stoke this supposed rivalry with Bird, so he was always trying to go one-on-one against Larry, and occasionally that meant getting physical or taking cheap shots. Well, this particular cheap shot sent Bird to the floor.

Bird got up slowly and left the game, which was part of why the Pacers built that 17-point lead. But Bird came back and finished the game -- he had 16 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists but shot only 8-for-20 -- so I figured everything was okay.

It wasn't. Either the blow or the fall (or both) had aggravated his back injury. Bird missed the rest of the regular season. He returned for four playoff games, struggled through the Olympics -- that was the year of the Dream Team -- and then retired. So, although I didn't know it at the time, I had been there for Larry's last regular season game.

Bird's absence didn't hurt the Celtics. They finished the season with eight straight wins -- including a 97-86 home win over the Bulls, who were on pace for 70 wins at the time -- and stole the division title from the Knicks.

Another thing I had time for was my hopeless crush on my friend Cindy. Amazingly, I'd had a crush on her for over two years without making anything near what you'd call a "move." I didn't even have her phone number yet. This changed near the end of the school year. It went down like this. Most of the juniors in my school were set to take the SAT on Saturday, May 2. My entire class was on pins and needles.

I was extra nervous. Firstly because the Celtics -- who had swept the Pacers in the first round despite Bird's continuing absence -- were opening their second round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers that day, which meant I was going to miss the game. This really pissed me off. I couldn't believe my academic future was coming between me and a Celtics playoff game. Sure, I was going to record the game, but I felt like my inability to watch the game live could actually affect the outcome. No, really. I kind of believed it.

I had a second reason to be nervous. On Friday, I had been talking to Cindy about the SAT -- she was freaking out too -- and, for reasons unknown, I blurted out, "Heyyouwannagivemeacallsometime?"

"What?" she asked, apparently unable to decipher my word mush.

Haltingly, I repeated, "Do you want to...give me...a call...sometime?"

She gave me what I remember was a huge smile and said, "I'd love to!" I'm pretty sure something inside me either melted or exploded. Maybe both things happen. I don't really understand human anatomy.

So I went into the SAT thinking about everything but taking the most important test of my life to date. Would the Celtics win? Would Cindy call me? Could Cindy call me? Would the Celtics win? I knew I should be focusing, preparing myself for test taking. But those two things seemed more important than anything else could possibly be. Until the test administrator set the ScanTron form and question booklet in front of me. It hit me then, for the very first that, that "Oh fuck! I have to take the SAT!"

Sweat started to gush from my pores.

I don't remember anything about that test. Not a single thing. I blanked it from my mind. I walked out in a haze, just like everybody else who had taken it. Seriously, the image of stunned test takers shuffling out of my school looked like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie.

My buddy Dave D. and I shambled across the street to his house to find out the result of the Celts-Cavs game. During his early childhood, his family had lived in a little town just outside of Cleveland, so Dave was (and is) a huge fan of the Browns and the Cavaliers, two of history's most depressing teams. So whenever those squads were any good -- and the Cavs had tied the Trail Blazers for the second-best record in the league that season, so they were pretty good -- Dave got extra worked up.

As it turned out, the game was just ending. Well, technically speaking. It had apparently ended a long time ago, but even back then David Stern was forcing teams to play the full 48 minutes even in the case of a blowout. Which is exactly what this was. The Celtics lost 101-76.

I felt so incredibly low. The SAT had fried my brain and I was pretty certain I had bombed it. Then I walked in on the end of an ass kicking, where my team was the ass getting kicked. I drove home and my mom reminded me that I had to mow the lawn. Back then, because we had a dog, "mowing the lawn" meant more than just cutting the grass. Before firing up the lawn mower, I had to pull out the pooper scooper and clean up the care packages my dog, Pookie, had left throughout our giant back yard. (For the record, Pookie was named after the teddy bear owned by Garfield.)

That was my day: Eff up the SAT, see the Celtics get humiliated, scoop up shit and mow the lawn. Cue the confetti.

My mom brought me a glass of water when I was finished cutting the grass. We were talking about SAT when I heard the phone ring. I literally threw my cup aside and went running helter-skelter into the house.

"Hello," I said into the receiver, slightly out of breath.

"Hey, is this Matt?" It was Cindy.

"Yeah!" I said, sounding way too excited.

"I told you I'd call," she said, explaining why she had, in fact, called me.

"I know!" I said, still too excited. No, really, I was waaaaay too excited. You'd think I'd just seen a double complete rainbow or something.

I managed to not scare her off by being a complete and total spaz, and we had one of those stupid, teenage first phone calls. It was short, but felt totally sweet. For me, it redeemed what had been a pretty crappy day.

When my mom asked how the call went, I said something totally lame like, "It was a really nice call." I probably sighed in happiness, presumably with cartoon hearts circling my head. Did I mention I was a huge dork back then? (Some people who know me now would argue I should use a strikethrough on the "back then" part.)

With the SAT out of the way, I resumed my basketball über alles lifestyle, save for a) the occasional phone calls to or from Cindy, b) nights out with my buddies, or c) shifts at the Ponderosa.

I should also point out that I had to watch the Celtics get eliminated by the Cavaliers. The C's actually recovered from their Game 1 blowout by winning Game 2 in Cleveland 104-98 behind Robert Parish's game-high 27 points. Mind you, the Cavs had lost only six home games all season. Boston then won Game 3 too. Reggie Lewis was on fire. Team chemistry was great. It looked like the Celtics were on a collision course for an Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Bulls.

Then Bird came back.

Here's the thing. The Celtics had been forced to play long stretches without Bird. They had found a rotation that worked. Everything was clicking. And, frankly, the team was feeding off Reggie Lewis, who had taken over as the team leader. But when Bird came back, things changed. On paper, Larry's return should have pushed Boston to the next level. Instead, Bird disrupted the flow that had been established while he was rehabbing.

The Celtics brought Larry back for Game 4, probably hoping to fire up the crowd and the team, and therefore take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Credit the Cavaliers -- who really were a very good team -- for weathering the storm. Bird didn't play well (4 points, 1-for-5, 2 rebounds, 3 assists), but Reggie Lewis was on fire (42 points, 16-for-28). The game was close all the way. It was tied at the end of regulation. The final play was drawn up for Lewis, who inexplicably dumped it off the Bird at the last second. Bird missed the shot and the game went to OT. At the end of OT, the Celts had the ball down two. Lewis again deferred to Bird...who again missed a buzzer-beater.

Boston lost 114-112.

The teams traded home blowouts over the next three games. The Cavaliers finished the Celtics off in Game 7 in Cleveland as Bird ended his NBA career by scoring 12 points in a 122-104 loss. And at the end of that series, I was (rather painfully) forced to admit (if only to myself) that the Celtics had -- in this particular instance -- been better without Larry Bird. It was one of the saddest days of my young life.

But life always goes on. And I had training to take my mind off of Larry's last game.

Labels: , ,

38 Comments:
Anonymous Anonymous said...
The start of this post has already been posted?

Blogger Dan B. said...
Bird's last regular season game. Wow. That's awesome yet sad. As a bit of a tie-in to the idea of Larry Legend coming back to the team sounding like a good idea, here's a great Sportspickle piece (surprisingly not written by DJ Gallo, but by one of their other contributers): "Miami Heat make request to play entire season on paper."

BTW, you ought to watch this fantastic parody of the double rainbow guy.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
The start of this post has already been posted?

Yes, this is an ongoing series. If you click the tag "The Pickup Diaries," the other installments should come up.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
BTW, you ought to watch this fantastic parody of the double rainbow guy.

Fan-TAS-tic.

Blogger Will said...
"(For the record, Pookie was named after the teddy bear owned by Garfield.)"
Damn, I thought you foresaw the coming of Dwyane Wade.

Blogger elstob said...
You know how in great TV shows they always have an episode or two in the middle which just feels like padding?

I think this article might be the series equivalent of that. No offence because I love it so far, same as living large, but it doesn't have the meat of the the others - but it's a necessity bridge for the story I'm sure so I'll just hold on for the next one on anticipation. Keep up the good work please, and thanks!

Blogger Japes said...
Wow I remember that series. I remember thinking: "No one can guard Reggie!" Damn shame we couldn't see more of him. RIP Reggie Lewis. :(

Blogger Dan B. said...
"but it's a necessity bridge for the story I'm sure so I'll just hold on for the next one on anticipation"

Exactly. Not everything can be action. You have to establish things such as tone and mood, give backstory on why a person thinks and behaves the way they do, etc. Sometimes things are filler just to add length, but other times things like this are necessary to place the reader in the author's world and better understand the writing.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
You know how in great TV shows they always have an episode or two in the middle which just feels like padding?

I think this article might be the series equivalent of that. No offence because I love it so far, same as living large, but it doesn't have the meat of the the others - but it's a necessity bridge for the story I'm sure so I'll just hold on for the next one on anticipation. Keep up the good work please, and thanks!


Sorry you feel that way.

The thing about writing these posts is that I don't always know where they're going. This one kind of wandered off track because, honestly, at that point in my life, what was happening with Bird really affected me.

Then, suddenly, I'm at 2,500 words and I haven't gotten to the pickup stuff yet...and I'm kind of out of time.

So it ended up being padding, I guess, but unintentionally so.

Blogger elstob said...
Aww man now I feel bad. I started out writing that comment as a light hearted observation and realised halfway through it sounded harsher than I intended, I tried to take the edge off but maybe I failed.

As I said I really enjoy, like, 99% of your posts and I don't particularly dislike this one. I just crave the pickup action I guess.

Blogger Will said...
"The thing about writing these posts is that I don't always know where they're going."
So is this like free-association blogging?

Blogger chris said...
"The thing about writing these posts is that I don't always know where they're going."


Sounds like everyone other than World Wide Wes in the month before THE INDIGESTION.

Anonymous Fundefined said...
Surely you didn't do that bad on the SAT if you got into Perdue.

Blogger BadDave said...
Purdue. Perdue is chicken. Purdue is awesome. :) Everyone is so awesome at Purdue, we all talk like double-rainbow guy.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
Surely you didn't do that bad on the SAT if you got into Purdue.

Yeah, I ended up doing okay.

Blogger Sid said...
About this line: I blurted out, "Heyyouwannagivemeacallsometime?"
In one of the Harry Potter books, Harry asks a girl out in the exact same manner. Only she turns him down.

Talking of first experiences, the first time I asked a girl out was through the mushiest letter of the century. So mushy that after sending it, I couldn't muster up the courage to talk to her, even after being assured by mutual friends that she was interested. After a month of creeping her out by avoiding her gaze and not approaching her I got the word, again through mutual friends, that she wants to be just friends. Crap.

At least I had my training to fall back on.

Anonymous JJ said...
Although I, too, crave more pick up action, I love side stories like this as well. Also, all this high school stuff really makes me nostalgic. I'm really jealous you had such dedication and goals in basketball at that age even without guidance. When I was a teenager, I thought keep chucking up shots (different form each time, of course) and keep trying to jump and grab the rim would somehow make me a better basketball player. It's kind of sad that I'd been playing basketball since 11 and learned how to shoot after 30. Anyway, thanks for another great post and will look forward to the next one.

Anonymous AK Dave said...
I can't believe the Cavs blew out your C's and Craig "ShotonEhloGOOOOOOOOOOOD" Ehlo only went 0-9 for 0 points.

Craig Ehlo is also the absolute WORST color commentator on this or any other planet. He was calling Sonics games alongside Calabrow for a season or so and I think KC wanted to throw up in his mouth every time Ehlo stuttered out some nonsense that added absolutely zero value to the coverage of the game.

Blogger BadDave said...
The old Cavs were and are an underrated team. I'm a huge Mark Price fan, largely because he was the shizzle on the old SNES NBA game. Cadillac Williams, Brad Dougherty - that team could have actually been a long term threat with the Celtics, Knicks, Bulls, and Pacers in the East if they could have stayed healthy.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
BadDave -- Don't forget Larry Nance. Also, it was Hot Rod Williams, not Cadillac.

Blogger BadDave said...
AAAAHHHH. FAILURE.

Sorry. I can't brain today. I have the dumb. Either that, or I must have fantasy football on the mind. I'm just sayin'.

Blogger Will said...
BadDave- it could be worse. you could be this guy.
http://deadspin.com/5593697/a-fantasy-football-screwjob-we-can-all-enjoy

Blogger Japes said...
Nance was sick. I remember him stuffing Jordan really badly on a layup once (incredibly rare back then). Dude can jump.

Blogger Dan B. said...
Will -- Pretty sure that article was satire. But still kinda funny.

Blogger chris said...
About this line: I blurted out, "Heyyouwannagivemeacallsometime?"
In one of the Harry Potter books, Harry asks a girl out in the exact same manner. Only she turns him down.


Thus...

Matt McHale: Technical Writer > Harry Potter.

:D

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I love this website.

During the NBA season.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
I love this website.

During the NBA season.


Oh. Snap.

Blogger Dan B. said...
Okay, this settles it. NBA 2K11 will be awesome.

(And because I'm sure someone will ask, yes, my NBA 2K10 My Player diary thing WILL continue at some point soon. I've got a big entry for it about halfway done, but I just haven't had any opportunity in over a week to work on it more)

Anonymous Giannis_Ice said...
I had a goldfish named Pookie, after Garfield's teddybear.
Right, a goldfish.

Also, a nice performance from Craig that night.

:-P

Anonymous Geert said...
Dab B.: Okay, this settles it. NBA 2K11 will be awesome.

From that link: "The Jordan Challenge, in which users can play through 10 different games from Jordan's career, (...) Our goal is to recreate things exactly as they happened," Argent said. "We're not stopping until we do that."

What button wil unveil the Russel-push?

Blogger chris said...
Geert: Maybe they'll include one of his 1994 appearances in Birmingham?

Or how about a round of baccarat at the Palms?

Or seven-card stud with Antoine Walker on the Wizards' team bus?

They didn't specify WHICH kind of game, right? ;)

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Watching those highlights, Reggie Lewis was very good. Imagine how good the Celtics would have been if his tragedy didn't happen.

Bird in his last year only had that over the shoulder post up shot and hussle. Still put up great numbers!

Blogger chris said...
AND...the 10 games in the NBA 2K11 Jordan Challenge have now been identified!!!

Blogger chris said...
Great comment from the Kotaku post on the Jordan Challenge:


AngryChiefsFan
07:40 PM

They should have included the 1985 All-Star game. However, instead of playing as Jordan, you play as Isiah Thomas and the only goal is to never pass the ball to Jordan. No matter what.


Owen Good
09:22 PM

@AngryChiefsFan: +1

Anonymous Anonymous said...
So pickup basketball question. What's a good way to find the worst pickup league in the area? Like the "most of these people have never played basketball before and are in their 60s" league? I'm really wanting to learn to play basketball, but right now I'd be a double handicap in any kind of real league, so inexperienced centenarians would be an ideal player-base for me.

Anonymous Grammar Police said...
Where did you learn how to write "über" ?

That's quite the unamerican style.

Anonymous Cetti said...
With the SAT out of the way, I resumed my basketball über alles lifestyle

You really use a german term to describe that in english? I'm from Germany and it sounds and looks....funny.

Anonymous MdT said...
über is the german original. so the term über alles is gramatically correct german.

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