C's set winning course in September

June, 18, 2008

BOSTON -- OK, this is getting a little freaky.

In 2005, ESPN.com sent me to Miami for the first day of training camp. The Heat had just made a huge offseason trade to get Antoine Walker and Jason Williams, came into media singing "Kumbaya" against the doubts of the vast majority of the media, and ending up winning the title.

In 2006, I caught the Spurs training camp in Lyon, France, in the middle of a European vacation. They were unworried about Tim Duncan's foot problems the year before, or Manu Ginobili's summer spent playing in the World Championship, or the hubbub over Tony Parker's celebrity wedding. They were right, of course, as they won the title, too.

Nonetheless, when I got my assignment last fall I figured the streak would end at two. The first team I saw in training camp was Boston, at their media day on Sept. 28. The Celtics had a nice team, certainly, after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but few pundits thought the supporting cast was championship-worthy -- myself included.

What we couldn't have anticipated was the same thing that carried Miami and San Antonio the previous two seasons -- an unusually strong esprit de corps that made the Celtics vastly more than the sum of their parts.

That spirit was evident right from media day, when Boston's three stars took the podium together -- there would be no energy wasted fighting over alpha dog status here. Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce had all been that guy, but they were here for something much bigger this time.

So the big three spent that whole press conference complimenting each other, and their excitement at playing with each other was so over the top that Garnett even mentioned how pleasant Boston's weather was. Seriously.

That excitement, ultimately, was what won this title for Boston. We can talk X's and O's and numbers all day, and certainly the Celtics had some impressive ones. But it all that goes back to the example that the three stars set for this team back in late September.

The Celtics would defend because their stars defended -- Garnett was the Defensive Player of the Year and Allen and Pierce took turns frustrating Kobe Bryant throughout the Finals. The Celtics would hustle because their stars hustled. And ultimately, the Celtics would win the title even though other teams appeared to have more talent.

Their excitement spilled over into the fan base, too. Walking to the arena Tuesday, lines outside bars stretched more than 100 people deep -- every last one of them clad in green. The crowd tonight was the loudest I've heard in these playoffs; one-tenth of them would have been noisier than the L.A. crowd.

As a result, I've got a rare three-peat. And come autumn, we'll see if the Hollinger training camp magic can carry over for another year.


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