In an alternate universe, America would love this Celtics team. Even without its two biggest stars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the young, scrappy group of guys in green is putting on an incredible show. Boston escaped the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, battled it out to beat the Sixers, and is currently embarrassing LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, exactly a year after Cleveland embarrassed them.
Their performance has exceeded expectations, but it’s the spirit with which guys like Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown play that makes them so damn fun. It’s hard not to smile as Tatum sinks three after three, or as Smart throws his body around the court, or as Horford dunks the Cavs back to The Land Before LeBron Traded Everyone Away. We have Rozier to thank for some of of the best recent NBA beef, which he gave us when he called the Bucks’ Eric Bledsoe “Drew,” then wore an old Drew Bledsoe Patriots jersey before Game 1 against the Sixers. These guys are the cheeky underdogs shocking the world with absolutely delightful basketball.
The problem, though, is that we’re not in an alternate universe. We’re in this one, in which the Celtics are from Boston. And anything related to Boston sports is unlovable for most of this country.
For the past 15 years or so, Boston has been the sports equivalent of a perfect family. You know the ones I’m talking about—they send out that obnoxious holiday card printed on thick, fancy paper that’s softer than your bed sheets and costs more than your yearly cell phone bill. In the photo, everyone’s outfits are perfectly coordinated (but don’t seem overly match-y), as though they just stepped out of an Instagram ad for How To Be Attractive and Also Successful. They’re laughing and smiling at the camera because everything is perfect and winning is so much fun! The card includes a too-long letter about how well everyone’s doing (“The whole family took a trip to watch the Patriots win their fifth Super Bowl—we know, we can’t believe it either! Seems like just yesterday we were wondering if Pete Carroll would ever stop looking so sad on the sidelines. Ah, how time flies!”).
If you aren’t a fan, Boston sports makes you seriously consider putting on a Browns jersey and walking slowly out into the ocean. You probably hate all the city’s teams. The Red Sox have become somewhat villainous (three World Series in 15 years will do that, not to brag) despite Mookie Betts’ intense likability. [It’s more than "somewhat." —Ed.] The Patriots are football’s Death Star. The Bruins are out here licking people’s faces. The city’s fans just make everything worse. We (yes, sorry, I'm one of them) are entitled, and the rest of the country can unanimously agree that we are the worst. Philadelphia is the only city that can give us a run for our money.
However, since they fell from grace after being up 3-2 against the Heat in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals (and maybe even before that), the Celtics have lent some humanity to Boston’s franchises. Isaiah Thomas gave the team heart, before he was traded away to the Cavs and then traded away again. Brad Stevens—a guy who says “baloney!” at the refs instead of swearing—is one of the most amiable coaches in professional sports. For six years, the Celtics have played the part of the scrappy little brother in the corner of the holiday photo who may never get his braces off and hasn’t yet figured out what to do with the knees attached to his rapidly growing and unwieldy legs. The paragraph of the letter devoted to him is always very short. Even if you weren’t a part of the family, you had to admit there’s something endearing about him.
But this year, the little brother grew. He got rid of the mushroom cut, his voice stopped cracking when he sings “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway, and the Celtics began to seem like they might be going places. Things looked especially promising before the season started, when the team acquired Irving and Hayward and added rookie Tatum. Combined with the criminally underrated Horford, as well as Brown, Smart, Marcus Morris, Rozier and Aron Baynes, the C’s were poised to become another insufferable juggernaut.
They didn’t. Hayward crumbled to the floor with a season-ending mangled ankle in the first six minutes of the first game, and then Irving tapped out in March due to a bum knee. Boston’s hopes seemed dashed. No one expected much, let alone for Baynes and Rozier to be the guys to stop superstar Joel Embiid, or for the team to defeat LeBron two games in a row. But they delivered. And it’s been a real hoot to watch.
Look, yes, I’m from Boston. I absolutely love this team and the fact that they aren’t completely hateable outside New England. But I can also admit that we don’t deserve this. Being a Boston sports fan over the past two decades means you’re related to that perfect family. They’re your a-hole cousins, but they’re your a-hole cousins. The day I first eschewed my mother’s Orioles fandom, succumbed to the peer pressure from my Massachusetts elementary school and pulled on that Garciaparra jersey (NOMAHH!), I was handed the keys to a sports trust fund that has continually paid dividends. These Celtics are just one more incredibly good sports thing in a series of incredibly good sports things. We’re spoiled. It’s fun.
“It wasn’t always this way!” people who can remember the Patriots before Belichick, or the Sox before ‘04, will scream into the void. Sure. I remember the heartbreak. But I also realize that no one outside of the region cares. That doesn’t matter anymore. Two decades is too long to hold on to “we used to suck.” It’s like Tom Brady still playing with a chip on his shoulder from being a sixth-round pick. We get it.
Back in 2012, when they were doing battle with Miami’s Big Three, ESPN called the Celtics “lovable overachievers” and “America’s team.” That first part is once again true, but the second part isn’t. The enemy isn’t universally vilified like the Heat were, but more than that, the city has just been too blessed; it’s only a matter of time until the Celtics join the ranks of the villains. After getting this far, let alone potentially advancing to the Finals (I don't dare write “winning the Finals,” because I don’t want to jinx it, and also because the West is the West), the Celtics won’t have any claim to any level of underdog status for a while. Especially once Irving and Hayward come back. The team’s charm might remain, but their Bostonness—and the reputation of the fans who root for them—will negate it for most of the country.
When next year’s holiday card comes in the mail, the little brother will no longer be gangly and adorable. Even though he’ll wear Gronk jerseys to parties, he’ll still somehow manage to be the guy your girlfriend told you not to worry about. The Celtics will be as perfect and infuriating as the rest of the family, and if you aren’t related, you will probably hate them.
You already might.