When the deal doesn’t go down

The last of the old school Celtics.

The last of the old school Celtics.

The NBA trading deadline came and went. Residents of Celtics Nation (of whom I count myself one) were equal parts relieved and disappointed. The relief for many came when the team’s two aging superstars, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, weren’t dealt. The disappointment camp felt that both of these players, on the downside of stellar NBA careers and sure Hall-of-Fame inductees, could have brought pieces for the future. Some believe not trading one or both of them now will result in their value continuing to diminish.

Residing within the Boston market, or at least within reach of the signal of sports talk radio from WEEI and that other afternoon train wreck hosting Felger and Mazz, left us swamped with a barrage of inane analysis leading up to Thursday afternoon’s trading sunset. Rumor mongering seems to be the norm in our media and social media-saturated culture and almost every Boston sports talk personality fanned the flames of rumor and conjecture for all four days leading up to Thursday afternoon.

There was that and also, given Celtic GM Danny Ainge’s previous sleight of hand that delivered the deal that brought Boston what were then known as the Big Three and banner number 17 made many think that this kind of horse trading is the norm, not the exception. Danny didn’t pull another proverbial rabbit out of his trader’s hat, and since Thursday at 3:00 pm, it’s been blah, blah, blah from the naysayers.

It probably comes as a surprise to the intellectually-challenged and socially-stunted demographic that seems to dominant talk radio callers; running an NBA team isn’t like playing a video game. In fact, it’s not at all like sitting in your mother’s basement in your underwear playing games or surfing porn. It requires skill, knowing when to pull the trigger on a deal, and at times, when to fold, recognizing that making a deal merely to make one often is the mark of a rank amateur.

I’ve reached my saturation point on so much of what’s become predictable from Boston’s sports talk personalities. The daily need to gin up interest by turning every local sports team’s season into the equivalent of reality television has caused me to spend longer portions of my week tuned out.

I’m less interested in commenting on sports talk radio though, than I am about commenting on why I’m pleased that Boston didn’t deal Kevin Garnett, or for that matter, Paul Pierce.

Kevin Garnett is a true throwback. He plays the game of basketball with a mean streak. At times, I think he actually despises his opponents. His desire and competitiveness makes him want to destroy their will to compete. He works at gaining any advantage he can. He may be one of the last remaining NBA superstars to play the game this way. Garnett isn’t looking to joke or hug opposing players. He has no use for friendships with what he considers the enemy. This used to be the norm.

For those with short-term memories, it was Garnett, as much as it was Ray Allen, or Pierce that willed this Celtics team to its championship in 2008. His competitiveness and single minded approach to winning changed the culture of a team that had forgotten how to win.

But like almost everything in the second decade of the 21st century, life isn’t what it used to be. Men are no longer men, just glorified adolescents. So it comes as no surprise that many of them wouldn’t understand the “Garnett as warrior” narrative that a few were throwing out there for why it mattered that Ainge didn’t deal him off for a bag of basketballs, or players with ability, but without that intangible that Garnett possesses—the heart of a champion.

Garnett is no angel. It’s easy to see why opposition players and fans strongly dislike, if not downright hate him. He’ll do anything to tilt the odds in his favor. Those traits would have reigned supreme in another era; they mean little today it seems.

Back in 2011, I read Rise of a Dynasty: The ’57 Celtics, The First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America, by former Providence Journal sportswriter, Bill Reynolds. I was struck by what a rough and tumble place the NBA used to be 50+ years ago. During the 1950s and 1960s, men solved their issues with their fists, and so did the coaches, and even owners. That didn’t necessarily make brute force right, but it was the way things were often settled. Now, it’s become very passive aggressive and some might say that the American male has gone missing.

Interestingly, these same cultural traits were very evident when I was interviewing men who once graced small town baseball diamonds across Maine. I remember interviewees talking about an entirely different code concerning how disagreements were handled, as well as other significant differences among this group of older men that became the framework for my first book. I recall thinking that the men that I grew up watching as a child were remarkably different than what mostly passes for manhood in our time.

Garnett would have been right at home during the era that former Celtics player, coach, and current TV color man, Tommy Heinsohn occasionally references—back in the rough and tumble old school days of the NBA—when teams like the Celtics employed players like Jim Loscutoff to keep the “score” even, but not with jump shots, or blocked shots, but with elbows and even their fists. Even star players like Heinsohn weren’t above using their hands and elbows to leverage an advantage against a foe. I recall Tommy’s stories of the fans in Syracuse hurling flashlight batteries at the players during warm-ups. Today’s NBA seems like a Sunday School classroom in comparison.

This is all to say that what we’re witnessing with Garnett every time that he takes the floor, and I’d also include Pierce, the kind of gym rat that the league used to have in abundance, is a link back to what some remember with fondness. Some of us are too young to remember the Celtics era of Bill Russell, but we know about the group that played with him, like John Havlicek and Dave Cowen, the pre-Larry Bird era of Celtics players, a group that Heinsohn won two championships with as a coach.

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that the current brand of basketball isn’t entertaining, or even superior in some ways. It is important for some of us, however, to acknowledge the differences and respect a player like Garnett and give him his due.

I could certainly prattle on about why I respect and marvel at the careers of Garnett and Pierce, war horses that still seem to have a bit more left in the tank after nearly 2,400 games combined. Last spring’s playoff run immediately comes to mind, with my own far-flung hope for one more bolt of magic from The Green Team. Of course last year, the Celtics had Rajon Rondo running the point, but who knows? An old warrior like Garnett and his longtime friend, Pierce, might have one more playoff surprise for the doubters and second-guessers.

That would be just fine with me.