One early evening one Monday past, this kid from Queens was exactly where he wanted to be. Still thought of myself as kid, too. Forever young, heh. Oh, I had been reminded from friends and family. I’d allowed myself this license much longer than I was entitled. The day before that Monday, Mother’s Day, was a hard reminder. We went to the cemetery for my dad’s unveiling. Of course, he’s next to my mom. My wife Carol and my two twenty-something year- old daughters heard Rabbi Rothberger officiate and honor my dad. Rabbi Rothberger was Ricky to me when he was a youngster growing up in the neighborhood I had lived in for the past twenty-nine years.
That Monday evening was different. I was a kid in my favorite candy store. Eating it all up was I. It did not get much better than this for me. Standing in the second row, fifteen feet from the court. My seats were a little higher up, but I love to go down near the court before a game. If not for a security guard who asked me to keep the aisle clear, I would have been a foot away from the court.
Hard to believe, but I was standing at half-court - before Game 4 of the 2011 playoffs between the Celtics and the LeBron James’s led Miami Heat at Boston Garden. The proper name is the TD Garden. The old Boston Garden no longer stood. But I cannot help calling its replacement next door by its predecessor’s name.
A beautiful arena. The shining light wood parquet floor was like a beautiful checkerboard. A giant scoreboard hung from the ceiling, constantly showing happy faces in the crowd. People of all ages were mugging it up for the camera. Another scoreboard ringed the arena, illuminating it with flashing announcements. Unlike the old Garden, the seats are cushy, but still yellow.
The players from both teams came out to the court and were warming up before the game. The Celtics came out to the music of “Rocky”. Some of the best players in NBA history were before my eyes. The “Truth” - Paul Pierce. LeBron. “The Big Ticket” – Kevin Garnett. “D- Wade” – Dwyane Wade.. Former Celtic-greats, now announcers, were within distance – the then still youthful looking and spry octogenarian Tommy Heinsohn, his dirty blond hair still visible, and Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, more filled-out than his playing days, but still looking sharp in a suit and tie. White-haired Bob Ryan, the famous Boston Globe reporter was on the court listening to some announcers.
I was periodically holding up a sign that paid tribute to former Celtic player Larry Siegfried, who passed away that year, by linking him to current Celtic guard Rajon Rondo who had played the previous game with a dislocated elbow. There was no doubt he would play this night. That became clear as he took the court for warm-ups. The roar of the crowd was heartfelt as he took the court.
Both Ryan and Heinsohn saw my sign. Each gave me an approving nod of the head in acknowledgment of my tribute to Siegfried. I even made the big screen. I missed seeing myself, but was told so by the couple next to me. Their laughing half-hearted disapproval came when they suggested I move down a few steps. The husband was supposed to be a meeting, but he skipped it to go to the game. He did not want to be seen at the game.
It was Game 4 in the playoffs between the Celtics and the Heat. My beloved Celtics. My spouse Carol will occasionally play the jealous wife. After she accuses me of loving the Celtics more than her, my honest response of “ but I know them longer than you” goes nowhere.
Celtic Basketball. The way the game is supposed to be played. The unselfish play, the movement of the ball, the fast-breaking, the hard-nosed defense, the diving on the floor, the hustle, the playing injured, the intelligent play, all rolled up into the concept of playing as a team. The role players who complemented the superstars and played like stars themselves. I have always dug it. When the game is played as a team, it is beautiful. And, maybe for me, it also transcends sports and shows the possibilities of teamwork in life.
Like your grandmother’s wedding ring, the proud tradition of Celtic Basketball gets passed down from generation to generation and has withstood the test of time from the 1950s. Each Celtic championship team pays homage to its predecessors by the way they play.
Down 2-1 in this playoff series against the Heat, it was a pivotal game for the Celts. A “must” game. A loss would put them down 3-1 facing elimination with one more loss. Not many teams in any sport have come from behind 3-1 to win a series.
Standing near the court, I was taking it all in. Fans wer filing in. There were seats actually right next to the court, next to the announcers and the team benches. Celebrities often sit there. A young guy next to me was talking to the rapper, Trey Songz, seated with a girl maybe 20 feet away. A nice looking young lady girl in a somewhat short and form fitting beige dress was walking around with a serious look on her face. Turned out to be the singer Jordin Sparks who would sing the National Anthem in a few minutes. Looking slightly to my right I saw a tallish, lean, and head-shaven guy start to walk towards my direction in the aisle between the court and the stands. His powder blue suit and light colored tie looked a little too summery for this spring evening. A nice looking young lady, sharply dressed, followed him.
A smile would have come to my face had it already not been etched in my face for the previous thirty minutes. Just before this guy passes in front of me, he happens to turn to his left, looks into the stands and sees me. Had he not stopped, I would have called out to him as soon as he passed. But he does stop. He looks at me carefully and then says, “Your face looks familiar.”
Without hesitation, I shook his hand and said “Island Lake Camp. 1972. Andy Lipton.” As he looked at me I added, “golf counselor.” He nodded his head in agreement. He was the head counselor at Island Lake Camp that summer. Island Lake Camp in the Poconos. Starrucca, Pennsylvania. I had not seen him in person since that summer, thirty-nine years ago. We chatted for about five minutes.
Dave Falk was about 6’2” with a very full head of curly light black hair back in 1972. Despite the shaved-head, I instantly recognized him. Sometime in the 1990s I had seen his picture in the papers and read about him in Sports Illustrated. David Falk was a famous sports agent who in his career represented over a hundred NBA players. The most famous was Michael Jordan.
David Falk had branded the Nike shoes endorsed by Jordan. He came up with the phrase “Air Jordan”. Falk about been famous since the mid-1980s; but, I did not make the connection that Dave Falk was that David Falk until years later.
Three players in the game were his clients: Mike Bibby and Juwann Howard for the Heat and Jeff Green for the Celtics. When I asked him whom he was rooting for, he said was not going to be rooting for any team. Understandably so, having clients on both teams. Given my passion for the Celtics, I was a little sad that Dave could not root at the game.
Dave was a terrific head counselor. He was friendly with everybody, warm, created a fun atmosphere, was very responsible, exuded a feel-good attitude about others, and contributed to the feel-good attitude that the campers, waiters, and counselors, and owners had about each other.
One night at the camp, close to 9:00 p.m., about four of the waiters were gathered outside the canteen and they called me over. One of them had a large radio in his hand. The radio had a tape player in it. Back then, that was high-tech. The waiters had gone to the local radio station in Binghamton, New York that day. They were on a camp trip that many of us had made that day. Most of us spent our time in the local sporting good store getting sweatshirts, reversibles, and sweatpants with names and numbers ironed on. Wore that short-sleeved light green sweatshirt for over 20 years until it became cheesecloth. I still have the blue and yellow reversible with “Celtics” ironed on the front and “18” on the back.
The waiters, who were going to be high school seniors that September, waited with excited anticipation for the song they had asked the deejay earlier in the day to dedicate, to come on the air. Would it come on? Sure enough at 9 pm sharp the song came on. As the song played, the tape recorder ran, taping the song. It was the first time I had heard “ Stairway to Heaven.” When the song was over, the deejay said, “That was dedicated to the campers at Island Lake.” The waiters whooped it up. We were all excited. To get a song dedicated on the radio was a big deal. By the way, that radio station was cool. Wish I could remember the station. We used to listen to it in the bunk. They often played the theme song from Route 66.
The next morning, instead of waking up to revelry, we woke up to Stairway to Heaven and the dedication. Dave Falk, our head counselor played it over the loudspeaker. He knew what camp was all about.
And then there was the game.
A loud, electrified packed house watched the Celtics take the lead from the beginning and hold it until about two minutes left in the game. The aging Celtics furiously would not back down to the upstart Heat. There was too much at stake. This very well could have been the Celts’ last chance for a championship with that current crop of veterans, including three future Hall-of- Famers.
With about two minutes left to go, the Heat tied the game. In the last two minutes the lead changed hands a few times. With thirty seconds to go, the Celtics tied the game on a drive by Paul Pierce. Pierce dribbled though a screen set for him and past the defender, laying the ball up with his left hand extended, palm up as if inviting the hoop to take the ball, as he dribbled from right to left up the middle of the lane. The hoop obliged. Tie score. The Heat then had a chance to go ahead, but LeBron James lost the ball. With fifteen seconds to go, the Celts had a chance to win.
Had he been alive, the late Celtic announcer Johnny Most would have said, “This place is going nuts.” The Celts in-bounded at half-court and the ball went to Pierce. The captain waited for a pick, but it never came. With the clock down to five seconds, Pierce dribbled a few steps to his left on the left side of the key, and took a fall-away shot from twenty-two feet away. As 20,000 fans stood, and collectively held their breath, the shot hit off the rim. The game went into overtime.
As I walked out of Boston Garden that night, I knew I had experienced a classic and important Celtics game. In person - up close and personal - for crying out loud. How many times had I watched a great Celtics game on TV? Juliet, I cannot even count thy ways. I had seen the Celtics win ten championships dating back to 1965. The Celtics had won many a big game in its storied history.
ICYMI: The Yankees’ Mariano Rivera and the Celtics’ Sam Jones: Talented and Graceful Champions with Timeless Humility https://t.co/bvg1l2BRLv Guest post by Andy Lipton
But alas, for that night, it was not to be. And maybe, it was not to be for many future nights I thought as I left the arena. The team was not getting older, they were old. Who knows how long it would take for the Celtics to challenge for the championship again? Hey, you know, I was not a kid anymore.
Disappointment. I had experienced it before. The heartbreaking disappointment in 1987 seemed like yesterday. The Celtics were down 2-1 to the Lakers. In game 4 of that series, they squandered a lead in the fourth quarter and lost on the baby sky-hook shot by Magic Johnson
with three seconds left. I still see that shot just clearing the fingertips of Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. It seemed like the worst loss in Celtics history. The Celts lost that series. And as
it turned out, it was the last year that the Celtics would be a legitimate championship contender until twenty-one years later.
To wait another twenty-years would be heartbreaking. But this time around, the disappointment did not reach heartbreaking proportions. Why not, I asked myself?
Well, the disappointment was heavily coated with a happy and warm feeling. Seeing and talking to Dave Falk brought back a lot of memories of a great summer back in 1972. Being in sleep-away camp really is, to use today’s parlance, a 24/7 experience. You get to know people better than your best friends back home. July and August used to last forever. And I guess July and August 1972 still do.