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Sportsman

My Sportsman: The Boston Celtics

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

Remember when the New England Patriots were lauded as a true team for taking the field as a group before winning the 2002 Super Bowl? The Boston Celtics did them one better.

The Celtics play in a league infamous for its individuality and selfishness. Boston's three stars entered last season with NBA incomes totaling a preposterous $368 million. They had appeared in 22 All-Star games and won all kinds of cosmetic Player of the Month awards. But neither Kevin Garnett nor Paul Pierce nor Ray Allen had ever led any of his teams so far as an NBA Finals. They were, prior to last season, endemic of the hollow stardom indulged by their league.

The 2007-08 Celtics are my Sportsmen of the Year because they embraced the least respected and most valuable quality of NBA millionaires: humility. Each sought to play not for himself but for the team. This has become such an empty cliché in pro sports that it needs repeating -- Garnett, Pierce and Allen each pursued an agenda that reduced their individual stats on the faith that it would help the team. The scoring numbers of each star plummeted with no guarantee that they would win. They had no reason to believe that their selflessness would pay off, because none of them had ever been part of anything greater than himself.

"I had a group of guys that were very willing to be coached and weren't stuck on who they were," said coach Doc Rivers, who had never won so much as a playoff series before last season. "I hear guys say they want to win it, but I think what they're really saying is, 'I want to win it as long as I can keep doing what I do.' I had three stars who said they wanted to win and they would change to do it. I don't think you get that a lot."

The Celtics broke ceilings in becoming the first team in 59 years to win the NBA championship with an overhauled roster featuring two newcomers among its top three scorers. In a league that demands its champions to steadily climb the ladder while learning how to win as a team, the Celtics' instant commitment to each other was unprecedented.

The change in values was profound. Garnett, a former league MVP, showed leadership that seemed beyond him during his years in Minnesota. Allen subverted to the No. 3 role in the offense while he and Pierce became committed defenders for the first time in their lives. That they all did so while becoming the NBA's first trio on the north side of 30 to lead a champion in scoring goes to show that it's never too late to see the light, and that teamwork is not a lost ideal, not even in a sport as self-absorbed as pro basketball.

The Celtics were old men who found new strength in one another. It was like watching the movie Rudy through a reversed lens: This time the most talented stars -- rather than the benchwarmers -- turned into the overachievers.

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