My first Celtics game.
I remember the game quite fondly. It was back in 1994 and I was in 6th grade when my friend Mike invited me to a Celtics game. His birthday was on March 2nd, mine on March 12th. The game was on March 14th.
It was a birthday present, of sorts.
Growing up in Maine, there weren’t any professional sports teams in the state. Growing up in a very blue-collar family, there weren’t many opportunities to purchase tickets to games even if there were teams nearby. So when Mike invited me to the Charlotte Hornets game, I remember truly hoping that my parents would say yes. They said yes, and I am even more thankful to this day that they helped make that happen.
During the days prior to the game, I couldn’t quite grasp the fact that I was about to see the Celtics play, along with one of my favorite players in the league: Grandmama. Larry Johnson enthralled me: he was well built, fast, and versatile: he had a powerful inside game that was complimented with a soft touch from the outside. Remember that I’m not talking about the LJ of the Knicks years; I’m talking about LJ in the midst of his great run with the Hornets. How much did I like LJ? I got the dude’s shoes despite my young allegiance to Nike. The combination of the Celts and LJ together was enough to send a sports-crazed little kid to a good, good place.
I remember the drive taking forever. Although it was only probably 2-3 hours with traffic, the drive felt like it took twice as long. When we pulled up in front of the Garden, there was an overwhelming feeling that came over me: picture a 6th grader that was only about 4’-7” tall, standing in front of the (original) Boston Garden and seeing a professional arena for the first time. It was that big and then some.
In the efforts to navigate toward out seats, I kept having to re-focus because I was slowly increasing the space between the gracious company that had invited me to the game and myself. Mike and John, his mother’s boyfriend, were leading the charge, and I was bringing up the rear wide-eyed and practically drooling. The place was big, old, and smelled funny. The Garden was unlike any other place I had ever been. The dingy lighting and rickety seats gave the place such character: something that I wouldn’t know until many years later. During warm-ups, Mike and I scanned around the floor to name all of the players we could on both rosters. We chirped about how much bigger they really were, and then how much smaller Muggsy Bogues was. Although most 12 year olds would get caught up in the rush of concessions and souvenirs, Mike and I were different. Flat out, different. We were engrossed in the game. Ooohing, ahhhing, cheering, and booing with the rest of the hostile crowed. We didn’t sport any Celtics gear; I remember actually wearing my black Chicago Bulls hat to the game: it was the only piece of basketball paraphernalia I had owned.
John exemplified his mature genius at the right time: he suggested we move down a few rows from our balcony seats to get closer because they had been empty for the entire first quarter. I remember feeling so nervous about getting caught, but the exhilaration only added to the numbing sensation of attending my first major sporting event in my young, adolescent boyhood. We moved a few times and luckily were never caught or interrogated by any ushers, and were fortunate enough to repeatedly get self-directed seat upgrades. They players got bigger with every seat change.
To be honest, I can’t recall specifics from the game. I don’t remember any individual play. Looking at the box score now, I do remember Dino Radja playing big. 16 years later, I can’t even believe that those 6 words have been strung together in the written form: Dinao Radja having a big game. But I do remember, quite vividly, the ebb and flow of the game. Even then, I was asking questions about why certain things weren’t happening. Not to say I knew what I was talking about (much like now!), but I kept asking Mike why Dee Brown and Kevin Gamble weren’t getting more shots. This was a good indication of my developing incessant line of questioning during games that would follow me into my adult life. Just like then, the audience probably wonders half the time what on earth I am saying.
While Charlotte maintained a small lead for the entire game, the Celtics closed the quarter to take the game into overtime.
Mike has always been more calm and controlled than me, so I am sure he was consistently inhaling and exhaling to a proper cadence. I, on the other hand, had forgotten how to exercise my cardio-vascular capabilities. When the buzzer sounded in regulation, I was sure that I was the luckiest kid in the world seeing an OT game.
I still laugh when thinking about how the crowed picked up its schtick toward the end of the game, both in the 4th quarter and OT. If you know Zo, then you remember his egregiously long free throw routine: receive the ball, spin it once, dribble, left wrist band to the mouth then forehead, dribble, breath, shoot. In that game, Zo was at the stripe more than any other player in the game. There was a strong correlation between the clutch-itivity of his FT and time: the more important his free throw, the longer he took. Each time he stepped to the line, the crowed started counting, “One… Two… Three… Four… Five… Six… Seven… Eight… Nine… Ten!… Eleven!… Twelve!…” Apparently, the 10-second rule at the line did not apply to Zo, and the crowed wanted to simply help the refs with their fundamental counting. At one point, the crowed counted up to 14, which was accompanied with plenty of laughter.
The Celts were stung that night: 107-101. Despite the loss, I remember feeling hungry for more. I made all of these elaborate plans to make it to another Celtics game. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t make it to another game at the original Boston Garden. My next game would be 11 years later with my brother at game 2 of the Pacers series in 2005.
The excitement I felt that day still rears its energized head at the new Garden. To all of the people that have invited me to a game over the years, I thank you. Next game? OKC on 3/31.