4 years old. A carnival. Or a fair. Is there a difference?
That part’s shady. What happened next isn’t.
Dad takes the ball. Eyes the basket. Release. Rotation. Splash.
Two buckets equals your choice. His choice. Not mine.
I wanted the Philadelphia 76ers pennant. I could already see it on my wall. Red, white and blue. I’m 4. All I know about basketball is Dr. J.
His choice, though.
He picks the dark green one. The Boston Celtics.
“Who?” I ask.
“They just got Kevin McHale,” Dad responds. “And he’ll play with Bird.”
What’s a McHale, I think. And Bird? What?
8 years old. 1984. I know now. Bird is my hero. McHale is another. Parish, too. DJ. Ainge.
My guys now. My team.
Bird’s the MVP. But Magic. Man, Magic. Showtime. It’s cool, but I hate it.
There are other things, though. Mom’s a diabetic. We’re in Atlanta. She needed eye surgery.
Patches over her eyes, drugs to dull the pain coursing through her system, she can’t see and probably can’t make out the drama unfolding on the hospital room TV.
I don’t know it yet. Don’t know how many do. But on that floor there’s Bird, McHale, Parish. There’s Magic, Worthy, Kareem, McAdoo. That’s seven Hall-of-Famers on the same court in the NBA finals.
This is the Bird calling his teammates “sissies” series. Gerald Henderson’s steal. McHale’s clothesline of Rambis. This is Game 5 in the Garden with no air conditioning, 97 degrees inside and the Lakers needing oxygen on the bench.
Mom needs oxygen, too. This is tough for a 9-year-old to see.
But the Celtics win.
Thank God the Celtics win.
9 years old. 1985. Rematch.
10 years old. 1986. Dad tells me again about Walton, about how good he was.
I see bushy red hair and huge knee pads. This guy was the best college player ever? The one waving the towel?
Another Celtics title. Everybody’s using the word, including me.
But it came against the Houston Rockets. Too bad.
10, still. 1986 still. They say Len Bias only did cocaine once. I go to bed and he is alive, ready to make the Celtics even better.
I wake up scared to death of drugs. Bias is dead.
11 years old. 1987. C’s need a win in Game 6 at the Garden to stay alive. Please don’t lose to them twice.
It’s late. Pat Riley calls for time.
I’m 11. But I know.
Magic’s getting it.
Oh God, Magic’s getting it.
He’s got it, on the left side.
He’s dribbling into the paint. Time’s running down. He’s gonna baby-hook it.
15 years old. 1991. Bird’s near the end. But I get to see him, thanks to the Charlotte Hornets.
He has a nice game, but one play stands out.
Bird’s on the left wing. My eyes never leave him. I’m 20 rows up, foul line extended. He’s right in front of me.
Dee Brown running the point. Dee Brown. Reebok pumps. He’s nothing like DJ.
Brown passes toward Bird.
He never catches it.
Instead, he redirects it. In midair. To Kevin Gamble on the left baseline.
Twenty feet from an assist, one that will leave mine and 24,000 other mouths wide open.
Gamble bricks it.
McHale woulda made it.
17 years old. 1993. Bird’s gone. McHale’s knees are shot.
It hurts, but I see the writing on the wall. Reggie Lewis is a good player, but these aren’t my Celtics.
And the Hornets are close to where I live. They wear teal. Muggsy Bogues has become my new favorite player.
Zo makes the shot from the foul line and falls back as the buzzer sounds, his arms raised toward the rafters of the state-of-the-art Charlotte Coliseum. The Hornets win their first playoff series.
They upset the C’s.
And I cheer.
32 years old. 2008. Helping clean out my Dad’s house, I go through one of my boxes from the attic.
Creased after decades stuffed in a box, I find it.
I bring the box home, the pennant inside. It’s in my attic now.
32 years old. Thursday night.
It’s late. They’ve done a brilliant job on Kobe.
It’s another Big 3. Not THE Big 3, but three pretty big ones.
Posey’s shot is too soon in the shot clock. Up six, they should’ve run it down 10 more seconds.
But Kevin Garnett is there. You know what’s about to happen even as the ball is caroming off the rim.
It’s his. Nobody else’s.
Take that, Lakers.