"The Things We Forget" is a chronicle of 2008 in sports. It is presented in 11 parts. This is Part 7, on the Boston Celtics. At the bottom of this piece, you can navigate to the other 10 parts.
And now, so do the Celtics.
Chances are, if you've run into Kevin Garnett—if you've even caught a glimpse of Kevin Garnett from across an airport terminal or in a steak house—you remember him. You've probably had to remind yourself that you're both the same species.
A few days before the new season began, Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce stood in the middle of a dimly lit room, above their practice gym in the Boston suburbs, in front of cameras and boom mikes. The Big Three were filming a series of spots for game broadcasts and the big scoreboard above the parquet floor. One of them was a pitch for a DVD called Return to the Rafters, a tribute to the 17th championship they won for Boston in six games over the Los Angeles Lakers in June.
"Can we get a copy of this?" Garnett asked, fake-pocketing the plastic jewel box and walking out of the room. He was told the DVDs weren't ready yet; all he had was an empty box. Then he was told he wasn't being effusive enough in his salesmanship. "You know, it would help if you gave me a copy!" he said.
It also would have helped if Paul Pierce hadn't come down with a sore throat that morning. His voice was raspy and thin. "Sweet," he croaked to open one of the takes. Just then, the boom mike appeared out of the darkness and bounced off the top of his head.
There were gasps and fear that the season was over before it had begun. Even after Pierce laughed it off, everyone stood in quiet corners of the room thinking about how much it takes to win and how little it takes to lose. "We're about to whip the boom guy's ass," Garnett announced. "Everybody clear the room but the boom guy." Suddenly, it was the boom guy who'd lost his voice. Kevin Garnett standing in front of you glaring, even in jest, has that effect.
Later, Garnett spoke about the Celtics' run and how much it meant to him. He talked about watching Ray Allen take Pau Gasol to the hole in Game 4, finishing with a reverse layup that sealed one of the greatest comebacks in Finals history. (The Celtics rallied from 24 points down to win 97-91 and take a 3–1 series lead.) "That right there is when I thought, We're going to win this," Garnett said. As he talked, he seemed to grow taller, as though the memory of triumph were enough to stretch him. It made it harder to ask the question I had to ask: "But how long will people remember?"
Allen, the team's resident philosopher king, had thought about that one before. "I think it's something you guys talk about," he said. "There's a point at which you almost try to get a player to believe he's gotta be remembered and that he's gotta do more and more so people will remember him. But really, all we can do is what we've done. People are going to decide who they want to remember and who they don't. I think everyone—every fan, every player—has his own little closet of history, and he puts whatever he wants in it. Maybe it's the Red Sox, maybe it's the Patriots, maybe it's us. Maybe it's Eddie House, maybe it's me. We have no say-so in that. It's not our closet." The man knows his metaphors. A closet is a personal, intimate thing, cluttered and cleared out every now and then in a lifelong cycle that leaves only the stuff we could never part with—just like the space in our brain where we park memories.
"Listen," Garnett interrupted, leaning in closer, eyes narrowing. I was listening. "It's the one thing that connects me to this city and these guys forever," he said. "Ain't no one can take that away. It's like knowledge." He pointed to the side of his bald, shining head. "Once it's obtained, it's obtained."
The dude is 6'11". Forget that crap about the closets.
Except there were rumors that coach Doc Rivers had forbidden his team from talking about the championship after that morning. With the official start of training camp, all any of them had accomplished was ordered into a plastic jewel box, never to be opened again, or at least not until these Celtics were a collection of very tall old men. "We've definitely discussed how long we should live with last year," Rivers said. "No one's going to move out of our way because of what we did. If anything, it's going to make everybody play us harder. We have to do something different to win again. We have to be better than we were last year."
Pierce nodded. "It's hard not to think about it—every time I left my house this summer, people all over were saying congratulations. But not the people in Boston. In Boston, they said thank you." He swallowed to find what was left of his voice. "But all the great teams have won it more than once. So now we have to do it again. We have to forget what we did last year."
Downstairs in the gym, three walls were lined with championship banners, the old silks that had clung to the top of the Garden until it was knocked down. Hanging in a row, they looked like a massive teeth-whitening scale: The older the banner, the yellower it was. Early in the row is ironclad evidence of one of sport's all-time juggernauts, world champions from 1959 through 1966. Then comes a banner from 1968, which looks bloodstained. The banners start to bleach and thin, until there are decades-long gaps, culminating in the last space on the third wall, now occupied by a pristine white flag, so clean and new it looks like sunlight.
Pierce looked up at that banner and at the rest, the way he does every time he runs the court in practice. "Always, every day," he said, his voice finally failing him. He motioned to the gym's fourth wall, bare as an empty cupboard. "Look at that," he said. "I want to fill it all up. I want to fill it all up."
Other Parts of "The Things We Forget"
Part 1: The Closing of Yankee Stadium
Part 2: Michael Phelps
Part 3: Lance Armstrong and David Tyree
Part 4: Annika Sorenstam
Part 5: Josh Hamilton
Part 6: Venus and Serena Williams
Part 8: Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods
Part 9: Sidney Crosby
Part 10: Thurman Munson's old locker at Yankee Stadium
Part 11: The 2008 World Series
Bonus: See the author's receipts from putting together this story.